Hey, Texplainer: I heard that the Texas A&M University System has a vice chancellor for diversity. What is that?
One year ago, freshly minted Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp began reshaping the system to suit his vision. Among his moves was to give Frank Ashley, then the system’s vice chancellor for academic affairs, a new job: vice chancellor for recruitment and diversity.
It wasn't immediately clear, even to Ashley, what the position would entail. Ashley couldn't find anyone else in an equivalent job at the state’s other university systems. “I’m the first,” he said, when he spoke with The Texas Tribune, after settling into the post.
“I’m excited about the position, but it’s a huge thing,” he said. “Right now, I’m just trying to figure out how I get my hands around all of this.”
In a transition report prepared for Sharp, a group of advisers called for the creation of the post. The advisers observed that the system included a historically black university and three majority Hispanic universities, but that it lacked “a commitment to System-wide coordination of efforts” with regard to diversity to help institutions “achieve and maintain a critical mass of diverse students, faculty and staff.”
The notion of a “critical mass” when it comes to diversity has been a hot topic in higher education. It was debated recently in the U.S. Supreme Court during oral arguments in the lawsuit over the University of Texas at Austin’s use of race as a factor in some admissions decisions.
UT's lawyers argued the school had not yet reached critical mass. In 2011, UT's student body was 51 percent, 18 percent Hispanic, 16 percent Asian and 4 percent black. That's more diverse, at least ethnically, than Texas A&M University in College Station, which was 66 percent white, 15 percent Hispanic, 4.5 percent Asian and 3 percent black. But both are much less diverse than the University of Houston's main campus, probably the most diverse flagship institution in a Texas public university system. In 2011, the UH student body was 33 percent white, 23.5 percent Hispanic, 19 percent Asian and 12 percent black.
Ashley said the biggest challenge of his new job is broadly addressing diversity issues using strategies beyond student admissions.
“Everyone is very concerned about student diversity right now,” he said, “But I want to know: Are we working to recruit a diverse faculty and how hard we are working to retain them?”
Ashley was the only minority student in his undergraduate dorm at Louisiana College, but he said many students want to live in a place where other students and faculty on campus look like them. He is particularly interested in the diversity of faculty, staff and administrators, who play a key role in campus culture.
He said he is still gathering data before he recommends any actions to Sharp. “It’s easy to get student data,” he said. “Nothing is harder to get than faculty data.”
The university environment includes more than just people, Ashley said, and improving diversity may require increasing collaboration with surrounding communities. Sometimes the seemingly little things make a big difference, he said.
Ashley offered an example from Texas A&M University-Commerce, where he served as a dean and vice president. African-American students there said they would would have to commute more than an hour to Dallas to find a barbershop that could adequately serve them. “An Anglo person probably wouldn’t think of that,” Ashley said. “There are so many things that affect a student’s decision.”
For some institutions, like Texas A&M University, which has seen growth in Hispanic enrollment in recent years but not in African-American enrollment, one of the biggest hurdles is overcoming a perception problem. Ashley worries that many high-performing students who could thrive at the flagship institution may be leaving the state.
“People still think we are a campus full of a bunch of cowboys, and everyone goes around with a military haircut,” Ashley said, “but there are all kinds of students.”
This fall, Ashley held community events around the state to raise the visibility of A&M institutions among different communities, and he said he will continue.
“Diversity is important, because we learn a lot about each other and we learn a lot from each other,” he said, adding that it was particularly important to wrestle with diversity issues in the rapidly changing Lone Star State. “As Texas goes, the rest of the U.S. is going to go.”
Bottom line: Ashley's job is one of a kind in Texas, and he is still learning what it will require to ensure diversity at A&M institutions as the state grows and its demographics continue to change.