A recent discussion about higher education’s obscene fixed and semi-fixed costs had me considering some ways of reducing expenses without needlessly harming the education product. The University of Michigan employs nearly 100 diversity officers, a quarter of whom are paid over $100,000 a year. The diversity office collectively costs the school — by which I mean the tuition-paying students — upwards of $12 million a year. What if instead of keeping this financially burdensome staff, Michigan cut the entire department except for one individual? Then, the university could subscribe to an online hub of diversity officers who can be reached via phone and Zoom from the privacy of a student’s dorm room. This “diversity call center” would be staffed by just as many people as currently work at U of M, but the call center would offer its services to dozens of universities, defraying the expenses for any single institution. Businesses and the general public do this with various professionals: accountants, lawyers, and air-conditioning repairmen; why not apply the same cost-sharing to diversity officers?
Having worked at NR over the last several weeks using Zoom, I’ve found it to be a brilliant platform for scheduling communication. You can go into someone’s calendar, see their next availability, and reserve a slot, allowing time to mentally prepare. Compare this to tentatively knocking on the door of an alien office only to be informed the desired individual isn’t there today or can’t speak right now and the value of painlessly scheduled video meetings is an obvious and superior option.
Some might recoil in horror at the thought of such a tactic, but this reaction is visceral, not intellectual. If students have an issue on campus where they feel the need to connect with a diversity officer, would they be more comfortable making the trek across campus to a building they’ve never been in, to talk with someone they’ve never interacted with? No, more likely they’d prefer to speak with someone in the quiet of their rooms, where the surroundings are familiar and the pressure reduced. I suggest keeping one diversity officer in case students need a more personal touch, someone to sit with them as they call the officer over Zoom.
Originally intended to provide for students who might face racial animus or hostility, such officers have increased their ranks while the number of complaints has failed to match this dramatic increase, thankfully. Diversity officers are often employees without a job, creating a perverse incentive to create controversy and friction, thus “proving” the necessity of their position and salary.
At the University of Wisconsin, home to over 40,000 students, the “Bias Incident Reporting process, which handles discrimination complaints that students can submit online, received 92 reports for 74 incidents between Jan. 1 and May 31, according to a summary of the filings.” A fair number of these complaints were sophomoric in nature, and certainly not requiring a staff the size of a college football team.
With falling rolls and increasing tuitions, schools should take a clear-eyed look at where money is being spent not for the student body’s actual good, but instead for the purposes of vacuous signaling. Schools can offer the same level of consideration for delicate matters via a medium that doesn’t take hundreds of dollars per student to accomplish satisfactorily.