Diversity in Higher Ed IT

min read

At the end of October 2011 the tech industry was abuzz. The issue: inequality and racism. The reason: CNN with Soledad O'Brien released a video clip of their upcoming special "Black in America 4: The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley," in which venture capitalist Michael Arrington had a difficult time trying to name one African American entrepreneur.

It became even more worrisome when Arrington said the first African American who was the sole founder of a start-up "could have launched a clown show on stage." From this clip a war of words quickly ensued on Twitter and the blogosphere. Had CNN and Soledad O'Brien set up Arrington? Was Arrington a racist? Do Silicon Valley and the tech industry really have a race problem, or are they a meritocracy? As expected, the back and forth continued.

I was particularly struck how all this happened on the heels of EDUCAUSE 2011. The EDUCAUSE Annual Conference is the largest gathering of higher education IT professionals in the United States. More than 4,550 attendees descended on Philadelphia for the 2011 event. Some of the high-tech companies exhibiting their products were Google, Jenzabar, Microsoft, Cengage, and Lenovo. There was even an area of the exhibit hall reserved for start-ups dubbed "Start-up Alley." The annual conference is an opportunity for higher ed members to demonstrate some of their latest and greatest innovations, discuss best practices, and plan and strategize for the future.

At EDUCAUSE 2011, for me the highlight of the program was when EDUCAUSE awarded their highest honor, the 2011 EDUCAUSE Leadership Award, to Robyn M. Render, Former Vice Chancellor for Information Technology and iNtegrate Project Director, Nevada System of Higher Education, and announced that Keith McIntosh, Acting Assistant Vice Chancellor for Information Technology at Pima Community College, was the first Rising Star Award winner — two African Americans.

At the conference Ke'Anna Skipwith, from Drexel University, and I co-facilitated a session on "Diversity in IT," during which we began the exploration of diversity within higher ed IT departments and institutions. The objective of the session was to form a constituency group within the larger EDUCAUSE organization with the hope of providing a platform for open dialogue and to create networks for collaboration to support group members, provide mentors, and advocate for diversity issues as they relate to higher education. We see this as key to having a successful organization.

We believe that as institutions become increasingly more diverse, any organization that takes the cause of diversity seriously can become much better able to provide different perspectives on service, and how services are delivered. We set out with the goal of heading off the issue of diversity in higher ed IT before it becomes a real sticking point. With the CNN special, however, we realize that diversity in IT may have been an issue for some time already.

The Level Playing Field Institute (LPFI) has done research into areas of diversity in nonprofit workplaces. LPFI recently issued its findings in "The Tilted Playing Field: Hidden Bias in Information Technology Workplaces," a report that examines workplace employee experiences, looks at hidden biases, and explores what companies are doing to address bias. Higher ed IT departments can have a significant impact on the IT industry by how they view diversity and whether they make diversity a priority.

Many organizations, programs, and research look at higher education with respect to classroom preparedness and entry into STEM programs; we think what's more significant is how an institution's IT department values diversity. Often it is the first IT organization students encounter in their studies. Aside from its academic departments and student groups, a school's IT department can contribute mightily to "leveling the playing field" on campus.

If your institution mirrors Silicon Valley, here are some things you can do to address bias on your campus:

  • Seek collaboration with diverse students and student groups. Many projects that our IT departments engage in invariably revolve around some type of service that will benefit students. Therefore, involving students in the process can yield perspectives on a project's direction and reach. Further, engagement encourages students to actively participate on their campuses.
  • Actively discuss with your team their own backgrounds as they relate to diversity and experience. It may be that someone on your team is not "homegrown" and might in fact have another take on a project or department goal because of their background. In my experience, IT leadership often believe they have an accurate reading on things; however, reaching out to the entire organization and seeking the perspective of all staff members encourages more innovative thinking and creative problem solving.
  • Participate in the diversity of your department or institution by actively being visible in campus celebrations. Nearly every campus has one or two events within the academic year that celebrate the diversity of its students and the campus. If your institution believes that celebrating diversity is good for its image, why would your department be any different?
  • Lastly, when recruiting, expand the search to draw in a more diverse candidate pool. We know that we tend to rely on recommendations from current staff or others in the field — who are mostly like us. By expanding the candidate pool to include more diversity, you ensure that you make fairer choices, ones based on a candidate's merit and experience.

Learn More and Become Involved

To find more resources on diversity in IT and to join the EDUCAUSE constituency group, sign up at http://www.educause.edu/cg/itdiversity. Contact me, Richard Bazile, or Ke'Anna Skipwith by e-mail with your questions and suggestions.