How one college president is diversifying campus leadership

In an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Arcadia University President Ajay Nair recently recounted his experience in academe as a person of color and highlighted several ways that Arcadia might serve as a model for diversifying campus leadership. According to data from the American Council on Education, only 17 percent of college presidents identify as a racial minority. A mere two percent identify as Asian or Asian American.

Nair, who is Indian American, was the only person of color in Arcadia’s executive cabinet when he took office last year. Since then, he has worked to build a leadership team with “diversity of thought and style,” an approach that Nair says produces “great diversity across the board in terms of identity.” While Nair hasn’t approached this work aiming for “certain percentages of race of gender,” he has assembled a leadership team where 40 percent of members identify as people of color, and 60 percent are women. He has overseen a 20 percent increase in his governing board’s racial diversity, according to The Chronicle.

Bringing more diverse thought leadership to campus

Pennsylvania-based Arcadia, where most students receive need-based financial aid and one-third of undergraduates are first-generation students, benefits from “having leaders who better reflect the backgrounds and points of view of the student body,” Nair says. To achieve this, Nair—who is also a scholar of race and ethnicity—says he made sure to welcome a diverse applicant pool “who could all win the job” to avoid “tokenizing candidates.” In addition, he encouraged his hiring committees to search for candidates who would be “a wonderful university citizen” and “have a lasting impact,” rather than someone who fits in. “That’s so loaded,” he says. “We don’t want the person to fit in, actually.”

Having diverse thought leadership can transform a campus, Nair says. “Once you have that kind of thought leadership for the institution, they will begin to dismantle the kinds of oppressive systems that may exist.” Nair points, for instance, to the “JEDI” (justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion) values prioritized by his leadership team. Those aren’t just aspirational, he says. “We’re going to live these values.”

Nair hopes that Arcadia can serve as a model for other institutions looking to create more inclusive campuses. If colleges and universities don’t diversify their leadership teams, he says, higher education “will miss out on opportunities for innovation and creativity, and for really enhancing our efforts to improve student success through mentorship.”

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