Harper College President Ken Ender remembers being struck by the revelatory conversations of discontent and disenfranchisement he had last year with leaders of a mentoring project for minority employees.
He and the board had recently established key indicators known as Institutional Effectiveness Measures to determine the community college's quality and performance. Targets were established for seven of those indicators, but officials at the Palatine school struggled to reach consensus on measuring the eighth: employee diversity.
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Ender sought input wherever he could.
"I heard a lot of raw emotion around perception on the lack of inclusion if you're from a historically not represented group," Ender said. "These were people I knew and had a relationship with, and I was sort of amazed that because of our own relationship, they had never said anything to me.
"I thought, 'There's got to be something to this.'"
One year and one thorough report later, several initiatives are being launched that officials hope move Harper to a place where it's recognized as an institution that truly values diversity among employees.
"Our goal is to be sure our workforce and student body reflect the demographics of our district," Harper spokesman Phil Burdick said.
Among the most notable is a new leadership position to help oversee the entire effort. Beginning in January, Michele Robinson, the current dean of business and social science, will serve as special assistant to the president for diversity and inclusion.
The position will be filled by a tenured faculty member on a rotating basis, so Robinson will be free to return to teaching or go for another administrative role after a certain period of time.
"Keeping some fresh energy in that role will be important," Ender said.
Harper also is developing a teaching fellowship program to recruit Master's degree recipients who are Hispanic, African American or from other underrepresented groups. Fellows will work with a senior faculty member, observe classes, teach and take part in professional development.
Fellows likely would be at Harper for two years. If a faculty position opens up, they'll be encouraged to apply or given a recommendation as they seek a job elsewhere.
Ender is working specifically with a couple of universities to develop the program but declined to say which ones until the partnerships are finalized. He hopes the first fellows will start next fall.
Harper currently lacks an adequate pipeline of underrepresented candidates. Diversity in the classroom is vital, Ender said, because it adds to the strength of the institution and the student experience.
"We believe diversity among students in race, ethnicity, culture and preferences is important to help them think and debate and dream," Ender said. "We need to have that among our faculty and staff too."
Harper's initiatives are largely the result of a 12-person task force made up of faculty and staff that Ender assembled to determine how to make matters of diversity and inclusion among employees an institutional priority.
In addition to surveys, a cultural values assessment and an examination of best practices and human resources data, the task force submitted a report to Ender with a set of recommendations over the next five years.
According to the report, the college did make some progress between 2002 and 2012. Diversity among employees rose from 14.4 percent of full-time workers to 20.1 percent, including a 3.5 percent hike in faculty. Within administrative ranks, however, the number fell from a total of eight to six employees.
The task force also described the situation as a "revolving door," with resignation rates for diverse employees disproportionately higher than overall rates in all but two years. The report noted that the percentages of diverse employees in most employee groups lagged behind demographics of the district's residents.
In 2010, for example, Hispanics/Latinos accounted for 15.2 percent of Harper's district but 9.2 percent of Harper's workforce. Asian/Pacific Islanders comprised 12.1 percent of the district but only 6.4 percent of Harper workers. Those disparities were even more marked at the executive level.
Ender said Harper will form employee support groups for various underrepresented groups similar to those for students. The board of trustees noted that 34 percent of credit students are diverse, compared to 30 percent of district residents.
Other initiatives include implementing an internal marketing and communications plan, issuing diversity "score cards" at the department level and hiring a firm to conduct exit interviews to determine whether feelings of exclusiveness played a role in an employee resigning.