As of last year, Babson College in Newton, Massachusetts, had two diversity managers, an assistant dean charged with increasing campus-wide inclusion, and a few HR professionals focused on diversity. But the college’s senior leaders decided that wasn’t enough. In March, they appointed Elizabeth Thornton to be Babson’s first chief diversity officer (CDO).
“The senior leadership felt that the college needed one person to be part of the president’s cabinet to develop an overarching comprehensive and fully integrated strategy to help Babson be in the forefront of this issue of preparing students to be effective transcultural leaders in a global marketplace,” Thornton explains.
Having support at the highest level of the organization is the only way for diversity to really be given a chance, Thornton says. “I have learned that the success of all diversity initiatives is directly related to the level of commitment by the president of the organization,” she says. “It can no longer be just a HR function; it has to be ‘led from’ the very top of the organization so that the community takes it seriously as a strategic priority. Some of these issues are quite difficult. It requires open-mindedness and a willingness to let go of some old notions or ways of viewing the world.”
Thornton, who was a lecturer in entrepreneurship at Babson College for two years before being appointed to the CDO position, was engaged already in many activities around the campus. She says those activities allowed her to “gain a perspective about the needs of the students and the institution regarding creating a culture that has at its core the value of inclusiveness.”
Plus, Thornton adds, “I have been confronted with issues of diversity most of my life. Often being the first and only African-American woman lends a perspective and passion for dealing with issues of inclusion for all people.”
Creating a plan
For the past few months, Thornton has focused on conducting a situational analysis of the state of diversity on campus. She started with the basics: What do the numbers say? How many students, faculty, and staff members do we have from underrepresented groups?
The second step, Thornton says, was gaining perspective about the environment by conducting focus groups and in-depth interviews with student groups and other key stakeholders. Her third step was doing the homework: studying the material that has already been written on the subject of diversity in higher education, learning about best practices, and talking to as many people as possible who are doing this work.
The result of this preparation is a three-pronged plan for Babson that stresses the following:
- Attract, recruit, and retain diverse students, faculty, and staff.
- Create an inclusive environment on campus where awareness and understanding is cultivated and effective communication and collaboration takes place.
- Develop minority and global content for the classroom that reflects the global and multicultural marketplace.
“We are currently working on building a resource of minority and international content to integrate into the classroom as an integral component of our overall diversity strategy,” says Thornton, who will maintain her role as a lecturer in both the graduate school and the undergraduate school so she can stay connected to the students and the faculty.
Elevate the discussion!
Her advice for other diversity professionals? “Elevate the discussion! The concept of diversity cannot be limited to the issues of affirmative action, social justice, and equity,” she says. “While these are important for sure, to bring real change, the concept of diversity must be focused on the business case and the realities of the global marketplace. In my view, economic growth in this country is in part driven by our ability to engage people from different cultures, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, religion, and physical ability.”
In fact, that perspective gives her much broader hopes for Babson’s diversity efforts than traditional goals of evening out the numbers of various groups represented in the organization. “The number one thing that I hope to accomplish is for every student that graduates from Babson to be equipped with the mindset and skill set to value and effectively collaborate with people from all over the world and from all walks of life regardless of race, socioeconomics, sexual orientation, religion, and physical ability,” she says.
Indeed, being able to effectively engage a global and multicultural society is as much a fundamental requirement for student’s success as accounting, strategy, and entrepreneurial thinking, she adds. “Our view is that diversity in higher education is no longer just the right thing to do, it is something we must do well in order to prepare our future leaders.”