What Are You Waiting For? Let JDE&I Transform Your College

By David Rowe November 9, 2021 Blog Post

Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.

Andia Augustin-Billy, PhD, just became the first black faculty member to achieve tenure at Centenary College of Louisiana as that institution nears the celebration of its bicentennial. When we hired her as an assistant professor of French in 2015, I had little doubt this day would come. While the college and its hometown celebrate and rightly reward her accomplishments of teaching, research, and service, I am confident that my former colleagues are also using this as a time for deep reflection on our past and the ways it still infects our current practices. We should all join them.  

It is heartbreaking that any institution would wait 200 years to mark this moment. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon in private higher education. And this search almost didn’t happen. We were rebounding from the Great Recession after having reduced the number of majors – the languages, in fact, were particularly hard hit. We had eliminated filled and unfilled tenure lines and reduced staffing significantly.  

At that moment, it seemed like all advances into the future were put on hold or reversed, including the strides made by a long-standing diversity committee of faculty, staff, and students. Their efforts had already paid off, though. Centenary was recognized by US News and World Report as one of the Top 10 most diverse national liberal arts colleges. But one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome was growing a faculty as diverse as our student body.  

Diversifying small faculties with long tenures, focused academic offerings, and small budgets is difficult anywhere. National searches, tenure, and promotion are among the time-honored academic processes that can be part of the solution but which, for so long, have been part of the problem.  

This is where the diversity committee focused its work. After a core group secured external training for themselves, they, in turn, trained a cadre of committed faculty, staff, and students to serve as diversity advocates. Dwell on just that step for a minute. Educating community members to understand and identify systemic barriers to equity and inclusion was, alone, a transformative step.  

But they didn’t stop there. Each faculty and administrative search committee included a trained diversity advocate to advise on everything from language in the job postings, to questions during the interviews to unearthing hidden assumptions during deliberations. In other words, they worked to reform the process itself. Expecting processes born in a different era to yield different results today condemns us to a future that looks so much like our past.  

It must have been frustrating for the dedicated advocates to participate in search after search, slowly changing the ways we did things, that is to say slowly changing culture. They simultaneously expressed that frustration to me – and sometimes with me – to hold me accountable for the symbolic and practical leadership required to complement their unwavering efforts. 

It is not possible to draw a line directly from the work of the diversity committee to the results of any one search. And that’s the point. Process re-engineering, by its very nature, affects not one but all future searches. When I played my small role of interviewing finalists before making appointments, I could tell over time that the culture was changing by the compliments our top candidates would pay me on behalf of those who had done the hard work of embedding our values in our processes. 

It is, however, possible to draw a direct line from this group’s work to a brighter future for the college. The reformed processes made it increasingly possible to attract teachers and scholars like Augustin-Billy who, even in my short time as her colleague, became a vital player in Centenary’s emerging identity as IIE’s number one college for global study among undergraduates. 

Along with her charismatic colleague and then department chair, Dana Kress, PhD, she immediately contributed to the college’s signature Centenary in Paris experience for all first-year students. She strengthened relationships with the French Consulate in New Orleans, fortified our partnership with the State of Louisiana to educate teachers for French immersion schools, provided safe and transformative service-learning opportunities for students in Haiti, and advised me on establishing exchange agreements with francophone universities in the Caribbean.  

It is hard to imagine where Centenary would be if that search had gone wrong, if Kress had not been able to recruit such a community-minded scholar-teacher, if the search committee had defaulted to past patterns, if the administration had retreated from hiring in hard times, and if the diversity committee had not done the laborious and thankless work of reforming our process-laden culture one search at a time.  

We know that it takes a long time to change culture. In this instance, the painstaking work of culture change reversed patterns that otherwise would be 196 years old by now. It is chilling to think about how easy it would have been to put off that search, given the financial circumstances of the time, just as it would be easy for most schools to put a search off now. If we had, though, it would have impeded the emergence of Centenary’s well-deserved distinctiveness in French language and culture as well as in global study – two key components of the college’s value position to this day.  

What’s more distressing, however, is to realize that if we had delayed that search six years ago – even for as little as four more years – a small private liberal arts college might have passed its 200th anniversary without granting tenure to a black professor. What are you waiting for? 

Congratulations, Dr A-B! 

David Rowe, PhD, is the immediate past president of Centenary College of Louisiana and AGB Consulting’s practice leader for private higher education and foundations. He is the president of The Windermere Group and principal at The Development President. Previously, he served as the interim president of Lancaster Theological Seminary as well as the president of Lake Highland Preparatory School. 

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