In the middle years of the last decade Carolyn Bratt, a law professor at the University of Kentucky, was the head of her college's recruitment committee. Bratt, who had long advocated for women and minorities at UK, knew that search committees could find qualified minority candidates but usually they didn't wind up at UK.
At that time, the College of Law had only one black professor so when minority candidates came to visit, Bratt said, "they didn't see anybody who looked like them in the room."
Bratt decided to change the scene. She invited a diverse group from other parts of the university to social events for candidates.
That way, a female or minority considering a move to UK could talk to others who had already followed that path. "It made all the difference in the world," Bratt said. The College of Law quickly increased the number of minorities on its faculty.
Eli Capilouto inherited a university with longstanding challenges when he came here as president in 2011. The physical plant was dilapidated, there weren't enough dorm rooms and most were considered antiquated, and women and minorities had long been underrepresented in positions of power on campus.
Capilouto's laser-like focus has produced remarkable results in a short time on the building front. Students will move into a new dorm this fall that wasn't even on the drawing boards when Capilouto arrived. We take Capilouto at his word that he's committed to increasing diversity in UK's executive offices but it will require the same determined leadership to overcome history, culture and perception to make large strides in diversity.
The challenge was evident in the photos of white men in the highest ranks of UK's administration that accompanied a report by Linda Blackford last Sunday.
Blackford's story focused on the history of Capilouto's hires among his top advisors as he approaches his biggest hire, a new provost, in the next couple of months. Since he came to UK in 2011 the president has made two new hires and one promotion — all white men— into the group that reports directly to him.
Blackford's story contained responses that are common when these issues are raised: The primary goal of hiring is to get the best qualified person; the best minority and/or female candidates are so sought after that it's hard to match the offers they get elsewhere.
But those answers avoid the real question: Are UK's top decision makers truly committed to advancing women and minorities into positions of real power, and does everyone understand that?
Capilouto developed a bold plan to expand and update student housing at a pace that had seemed impossible before he arrived four months earlier.
UK also scored a coup in the legislature this spring, getting permission to sell bonds to build or upgrade other facilities on the campus.
And the university has quickly raised $34 million in private donations for a $65 million renovation of its business school.
Capilouto's focus on building — even in a down economy with flagging support from state coffers — is a clear demonstration of what happens when a leader defines and relentlessly pursues clear priorities. Things happen, things change.
What would happen if the university trained that same no-excuses attention on assuring that women and minorities attain positions of power at something like the same rate they attend UK?
It is true that UK's diversity numbers aren't all that bad compared to both its own past and the institutions it typically compares itself to. And many say the legacy of Adolph Rupp still discourages minorities from coming here.
No one can change history, but Capilouto can use his impressive leadership skills to change the perception of what life is like for minorities and women at UK by being better than its past and its peers.
It's time to invite more people into the room.