How I Built a Diverse Leadership Team at a Predominantly White College

Full vitae collado

Eric Petersen for The Chronicle

By Shirley M. Collado

The killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests have catalyzed broader and necessary national conversations about race. Everywhere, people are struggling to unpack the injustice, pain, and exponential impact of firmly rooted systems of oppression and white supremacy.

This is a familiar space for the institution I lead, Ithaca College, a predominantly white college with about 23 percent of our undergraduate population identifying as students of color. In 2015, we were among several institutions torn by racial conflict ignited by incidents on and off campus. The college navigated student-led demands for change around issues of racism, bias, and a deep lack of inclusion. Those issues were still in the foreground when I began my presidency in 2017.

Stepping into this role, I was intentional about building a diverse senior-leadership team, with the understanding that not only are students tired of attending institutions that do not affirm who they are — they are also exhausted from navigating systems that do not understand or support them. We must make a real commitment to equity and to better serving students from all walks of life.

Modeling that commitment starts at the top. I am proud that my eight-member leadership team comprises largely first-generation college graduates, women, and people of color, with a rich array of life experience and professional strength — myself included. It is an unusual combination in a sector where the leadership demographics consistently skew white and male.

Building diverse leadership takes effort, but even more it takes a flat refusal to accept the pat excuses about why it’s just not possible. An institution’s location, a shallow recruitment pool, or the inability to shake up our approaches to how we conduct searches are not legitimate reasons for maintaining the status quo.

So how can a president prioritize and affirm the goals of equity and inclusion in building her or his own leadership team?

1. Champion the cause. Approach team-building opportunistically and enthusiastically, so that the process energizes the campus. The search for senior leadership can be a rallying point, a chance to build consensus and trust and reinforce shared governance.

Start by tailoring your search process to the position, rallying as many stakeholders as possible, even if it’s a completely confidential search with no open meetings. My search for a provost was both inclusive and confidential, and I was transparent from the beginning about the need to recruit the most skilled, talented, and diverse pool while allowing important space for the sensitivities around publicly identifying candidates.

Contrast this with the college’s search for the vice president for finance and administration, a fully open search that allowed for campus meetings and broad input. Open or closed, your search can reflect a mix of constituents on the search committee, selected in a way that brings complementary, necessary perspectives and generates enthusiasm. Our searches have included trustees, alumni, and community members.

Importantly, you must make the hiring of an exceptional team — not just impressive individuals — a stated priority. Have a vision for what your team will ultimately look like. Our priorities for team members included skills and qualities that complemented those of the president; diversity that reflected the lived experiences of students and stakeholders; a deep commitment to equity and inclusion; a collaborative ethic and spirit; and experience across sectors (public and private) inside and outside of higher education. These prerequisites focused on the whole as much as the individual and were communicated early and often over the course of two years.

2. Seize the opportunity. Have a sense of urgency in getting a strong team in place to carry out your agenda. Within my first three months on the job, I made the decision to recruit and appoint a vice president for student affairs and campus life — a position that had previously been absorbed by the provost’s office. This was a way for me to signal, from the start of my presidency, the depth to which I prioritize the student experience. It also indicated my seriousness about investing in our faculty by allowing me to create a provost position that was solely focused on academics. While the leadership searches were staggered over two years, several key searches were conducted concurrently to maintain momentum and build the team quickly.

3. Be personally accountable. Make yourself ultimately responsible for each hire. At the beginning of the search, state clearly what you are looking for and why, and explain why the search is being shaped the way it is. If your institution has a strategic plan in place, make it clear how this position and the kind of leader you’re looking for will contribute to the advancement of that plan.

While search committees are formed and search consultants are hired to support the recruitments, it is the president who must engage throughout the entire process. It is the president who must ensure that the right candidates are moving through and that leaders are hired who embrace the president’s mission and are embraced by the institution.

4. Vary the process. Approach each search creatively and uniquely, and vary your process to find talent that best suits your institutional needs and vision. For instance, your search for a vice president for student affairs should look very different than your search for a vice president for philanthropy and engagement. It is critical to know where you need to look to find the depth of skills and capacities that fulfill the goals of your search.

Whatever route you take for each search, shared governance and consensus-building is critical — and understand that this may look different, too. In some cases, the consensus comes later in the process, after finalists have been selected. But if communicated properly, such a process can be viewed as essential to getting the right hires.

As president, keep things moving forward. For the eight leaders we recruited, my role altered between being the primary driver of the process to one of many engaged participants. The unifying factor was my vision for what the team would ultimately look like.

5. Get the board on board, and involved. Any successful senior-leadership search needs board buy-in. At Ithaca, board members held key roles during the search process, ensuring that the board’s voice was heard and that nonparticipating members trusted the process. Open communication and trust between the president and board made our experience work.

A critical point of consideration is the composition of the board itself. Presidents and board leadership must be willing to collaborate on moving the needle toward a robust, strong board that includes people from varied backgrounds and a wide array of expertise from different industries. At Ithaca, our board includes a local superintendent of schools, a vice president from a neighboring university, and the president of a local community college.

6. Affirm your vision with candidates. Lobby them based on a clear picture of what you want the team to be. Candidates for each position must buy in to the larger vision for the team and institution. If they do, the recruiting process becomes easier. Candidates will think, “I want to be part of something special.” Our passionate lobbying enabled a small, private institution in upstate New York to recruit top-notch administrators from across the U.S.

7. Find trusted search partners. It is crucial that you work with a search consultant who shares your serious commitment to diversity and have proof that they are walking the walk. It is the search consultants who connect with most candidates and must convey the excitement around the institution and its leadership team.

Students will increasingly be looking for colleges that make diversity, equity, and inclusion priorities in all facets of their leadership and operations. But real institutional change doesn’t happen by accident. It requires presidents to intentionally commit to transforming their institutions — not just in words but in actions. Never has that approach been more critical than it is right now.

Shirley M. Collado is president of Ithaca College.

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