Hired following a tumultuous period of protests and racial tensions, Kevin McDonald reflects on his first year as the inaugural Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer for the University of Missouri System.
During 2015, the flagship Columbia campus of the University of Missouri (Mizzou) endured months of protests and controversy over racial tensions and other issues. Fueled by an explosion of emotions among students, faculty, and staff as well as alumni, state and local residents, and elected officials, the turmoil led to the resignations of both the university's chancellor and the president of the University of Missouri System. In November of that year, the system's Board of Curators announced a series of initiatives to be implemented within 90 days. One of those initiatives was to hire the system's first-ever Chief Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity Officer.
Isaacson, Miller brought to this assignment significant experience in the recruitment of diversity, equity, and inclusion officers for public and private universities, research institutions, and liberal arts colleges across the country. This experience provided Vice President Monroe "Bud" Moseley and the Isaacson, Miller team with both a deep understanding of the requirements for such a position and a wide network of potential leaders to tap into-a critical element given the charge to fill the university system's position within the 90-day deadline.
"We knew we had to identify a content expert; someone who was intimately involved with the current realities of research and best practices in the area of diversity, equity, and inclusion," says Moseley. "We also knew that the successful candidate would be someone who knew how to advance an institution around these particular areas, how to partner-because you can't do it yourself- and how to help provide insight to institutional leaders when controversy emerged between campus stakeholders or among external constituencies."
As Moseley notes, Kevin McDonald fit this description to a T. McDonald had begun his career out of law school investigating complaints of discrimination for the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section. This inspired his desire to help right wrongs and identify cracks in the system that were having negative effects on individuals and groups. Later in his career, McDonald moved into higher education; first at the University of Maryland, investigating discrimination and harassment; as the associate director for compliance and conflict resolution at Johns Hopkins University; next as vice president for equity and inclusion at Virginia Tech; and most recently, as vice president and associate provost for diversity and inclusion at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
The latter two positions provided McDonald with the opportunity to focus on more proactive diversity work. "I was not just reacting to and investigating complaints, but also looking for ways to prevent them," he observes, "I realized the value of being able to chart a path forward for diversity and inclusion, and at the same time, to help my institutions think more strategically about these matters."
This passion informed McDonald's work at the University of Missouri from the start. He officially took on the role of Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer for the entire University of Missouri system on June 1, 2016; two weeks into his tenure, he was also asked to become the interim Chief Diversity Officer at the Mizzou campus.
One of McDonald's first tasks was to create a framework that would function as a road map to help the campuses move beyond the notion of 'access' as the be-all/end-all for diversity and inclusion. "My initial framework was steeped in research," he recalls, "It gave the campuses and the leadership the idea that I was coming to the table with some vision, yet also left space for it to be organically developed and infused with their input."
McDonald began by asking some key questions: If the objective is to graduate students who can operate as effective citizens in the global marketplace, how can the university best support that in its curricular and co-curricular efforts? How does the institution support the faculty, staff, and students in that regard? How do the policies, processes, practices, and people provide help or hindrance? What role does diversity and inclusion play in all this? How can we come to recognize access and success as the supportive pillars of that?
"I knew from experience not to take a cookie cutter approach," McDonald relates. "I also knew that if I could take the insights and input from the community members and infuse them into the document, there was a greater chance it would be accepted on the campuses. So that's what I did, and it was a relatively smooth process. We finished it this spring, and we're going to be rolling it out for the first time this fall."
McDonald is also excited about two other initiatives he has launched at the school.
The first involves increasing the number of faculty of color on the Mizzou campus in four years, from 6.7% to 13.4%, through a Preparing Future Faculty Postdoctoral Fellowship program. This initiative, which looks to bring in three to four post-doctoral candidates a year for two-year stints, is designed to provide a jumpstart on a tenure track program. In its first year, the program attracted 130 applicants.
The other initiative builds on a program that McDonald developed at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) called MOCHA, Men of Color, Honor, and Ambition. MOCHA is open to undergraduate students in their second through fifth years, regardless of race or ethnicity. The goal is to help participants achieve academic excellence, graduate from college, and be empowered to become successful leaders and role models in their respective careers and communities . At RIT, 20 students took part in the program in the 2016-2017 school year, and this fall, the program will be expanded to Missouri to include undergraduate students within the University of Missouri System, and high school students within the Columbia Missouri Public School System.
How has McDonald accomplished so much in so little time? He believes the key is his commitment to building relationships with all constituents-from alumni and the local communities, to the administration, students, faculty, and staff. "I take the time to cultivate and nurture those relationships as real partners in this work," he says. "This enables us to focus not just on the identification of issues, but also in the identification of solutions."
Today, both Moseley and McDonald see diversity moving beyond its original emphasis on race and gender, access and opportunity. As Moseley puts it, "It's all about belonging. Regardless of ethnicity, religion, culture, socio-economic status, ability, people want to feel that they belong at their institution, that they can succeed there."
McDonald sees another important change: "Gone are the days of trying to say, from a diversity standpoint, that we're appealing to the hearts and minds of people as a moral imperative," he observes. "I think we need a metric-driven approach that's steeped in data; one that allows us to look at the data in aggregation and see what the story is telling us. Then we can use that story to drive our strategic approach."
McDonald concludes: "Regardless of the political situation, I think many in higher education are seeing the value in diversity and inclusion-seeing the changing demographics and the benefit for their bottom line. Business and industry are asking for graduates with stronger multi-cultural competencies, and they're looking for institutional partners that are committed to that. So there's an imperative for institutions to think more strategically and shift the lens through which they looked at diversity and inclusion in the past. Those that are astute enough to realize that and do that will flourish and thrive; those who don't, won't."