Does Student Success start with Diversity in Higher Ed Administration?

Twitter has finally begun to add tools to mitigate harassment.

Harassment on Twitter has been a huge problem in recent years, and the amount of poor citizenship on the platform has only increased post-election. Why has it taken so long to respond? On the one hand, it is a very hard technical problem: how can users benefit from radical openness at the same time as they are protected from personal harm? In certain respects, this is a problem with free speech in general, but the problem is even greater for Twitter as it looks to grow its user base and prepare for sale. On the other hand, Twitter insiders have said that dealing with harassment has simply not been a priority for the mostly white male leadership team. Diversity is famously bad at Twitter. A lack of diversity within an organization leads to a lack of empathy for the concerns of ‘others.’ It leads to gaps in an organization’s field of vision, since we as people naturally pursue goals that are important to us, and what is important to us is naturally a product of our own experience. Values create culture. And culture determines what is included and excluded (both people and perspectives).

This recent announcement from Twitter prompted me to consider how diversity among employees (and particularly at the leadership-level) informs sensitivities, priorities, and student success initiatives. As Jerlando Jackson recently observed, “There’s a great similarity between administrative and faculty diversity. Unfortunately, many institutions tend to focus [on students] and, in some cases, faculty, but very few [pay attention to the administration].” Just as we see in the tech sector, a lack of diversity in higher education administration cannot help but inform priorities and shape initiatives. It guides how institutions view students, and the ways in which they view student success. It informs the extent to which the driving force behind student success initiatives are ROI, paternalism, or truly empathetic. It is telling that Georgia State University, which in recent years has eliminated all achievement gaps on the basis of race and ethnicity and tops the list of African American Baccalaureate producers in the US, also has among the most diverse staff.

What drives me as a member of the management team for Blackboard Analytics is a passion for student success. I believe that analytics have the power to shape higher education by surfacing important information to those who are in a position to act on it. In the six months since I joined the company, my own interests have clearly shaped my own priorities. The tools that have excited me the most as I talk to folks and speak at conferences have been Blackboard Predict, Analytics for Learn, and the Student Management module for Blackboard Intelligence. But there are other Blackboard Analytics products, including an HR module for Blackboard Intelligence. I know about as much about human resources as I do about Turkish drummers. But the recent Twitter announcement really hit home, and underlined the importance of this kind of solution.

Is a lack of diversity within the higher education workforce a function of information? Do institutional leaders have access to workforce diversity data? Is this data presented in such a way as to highlight systematic inequalities? Is this information presented at all? By making workforce data available, and highlighting specific features though well-designed dashboards, institutions can become aware of systematic inequalities. In becoming aware of these inequalities and understanding that they represent cultural blind spots that have a huge effect on the shape and impact of student success initiatives, institutions can work to address workforce diversity issues as central to their core mission to serve students.

How diverse is the workforce at your institution? How has that diversity — or lack thereof — shaped your student success initiatives?

Also published on Medium.