Kentucky voices

Ky. voices: Eli Capilouto on challenges of diversifying UK

Candor, constructive criticism essential

March 31, 2013 

University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto

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I welcome the Herald-Leader raising the important subject of diversity in higher education leadership in its front-page article of March 17 and editorial of March 24.

The issues discussed represent some of the most enduring struggles within both the academy and our broader society.

We will advance only through candid dialogue and constructive action. The Herald-Leader's focus reminds us that our entire university is responsible for this effort.

But while diversity and inclusion are areas where a university president must lead, it's a shared responsibility. Constructive criticism, too, plays a role. But the cudgel of critique is only half the equation. The Herald-Leader also has a responsibility to illuminate and educate.

And in this regard, the Herald-Leader's coverage should be more sensitive to UK's efforts that have yielded undeniable results. Such coverage also should reflect the complexity of diversity in its many dimensions and what research is uncovering as stubborn obstacles to progress.

What are the facts? What are the questions that must be addressed? What is UK's commitment to moving forward?

We have experienced consistent growth among diverse populations of students, including African-American, Latino and Asian students. And, as is the case nationally, women are in the majority on our campus.

Similarly, the number of women and African-American faculty members at UK in the last 10 years has increased by 45 percent and 22 percent, respectively. At administrative levels, the numbers of women have increased by more than 47 percent and African-American administrators by more than 100 percent.

But a recent study from the American Council on Education regarding the "presidential pipeline" reported only slight increases in gender diversity — and no change in racial and ethnic minorities — in the roles of president and provost in recent years.

Over the past two decades, women in the United States have earned nearly half the doctorates in fields in which they were traditionally underrepresented. Yet, women are often found at junior-level positions.

Given the decade-plus it takes to progress to full professor, our success growing a talent pool of future administrative leaders is too far deferred. We need new solutions to long festering challenges.

Extensive research reveals multiple barriers to progress, including: implicit and explicit bias, organizational constraints, stereotype threat, societal impacts, differential effect of work and family demands and a lack of availability in the national labor market of women and minorities in academic leadership. All these factors — complex and often intertwined — are major contributors to why women and minorities remain under-represented in leadership.

No silver bullet exists. And sustainable solutions don't happen at once. Many levers must be turned to overcome the pernicious effects of these forces. But they need to happen, which requires our focused, unrelenting commitment.

As importantly, we strongly affirm that answers do not simply rest in policies and programs. They also must be found in our institutional culture and our collective and individual souls.

Finally, our responsibility is not simply to appear diverse, but to actually be inclusive. Indeed, when one is truly inclusive, the definition of diversity is broadened to recognize a multitude of lived experiences such as ethnic or racial identity, religious affiliation, sexual orientation and identity, nationality, political identity and the varied experiences that shape everyone's unique perspective.

These issues can create discomfort, but a campus must be a rich mosaic of thought where all, regardless of identity, can find comfort and safety.

A major factor in my attraction to the University of Kentucky was the sense of inclusivity revealed to me throughout our broader community. Corporate and elected leaders embody diversity and the community embraces it.

As a member of a religious minority raised in the cradle of the civil rights movement, I was humbled to be chosen as the first Jew to serve as a university president in the history of the Southeastern Conference.

I carry with me daily my experiences and hold close the responsibility to continue to work to ensure that this university embraces greater diversity and inclusion everywhere.

The ultimate goal is that every leader in the UK community shares this philosophy of respect.

One sentence of the Birmingham Pledge, inspired by a tragic period of injustice in my previous hometown, gets to the core of the matter for me: "I believe every thought and every act of racial prejudice is harmful; if it is my thought or act, then it is harmful to me as well as to others."

The research supports the essentiality of this statement, pointing to implicit or subconscious bias that can manifest itself in ways that hold us back on an individual and collective level.

All of us are susceptible to these biases. All of us must lead to overcome them.

The truth is that as long as these divisions are not addressed, our promise to make life better for those we serve today and those who will follow us remains hollow.

I am confident that with a deep sense of commitment we will succeed in building a university community that values, respects and nurtures the contributions of everyone.

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