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Q&A -- Holt explores strategies for fostering diversity at U.Va.

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Holt explores strategies for fostering diversity at U.Va.

By Nancy Hurrelbrinck

Karen E. Holt brings to her job as Equal Opportunity Programs director the zeal of a crusader and the toughness of a cop, tempered by an open mind and graciousness. Besides trying to create a welcoming climate at U.Va. for anyone who might apply, study or work here, she strives to spread the message throughout the University community that discrimination in any form won’t be tolerated.

Profile of Karen E. Holt
Karen E. Holt
Rebecca Arrington

Having taken the reins at an organization that had seen three interim directors in the three years prior to her appointment in 1997, Holt has transformed the EOP into a vital player at the University. To ensure that U.Va. does not discriminate in any of its procedures, Holt’s office develops and implements training programs; addresses discrimination complaints; creates affirmative action plans; monitors admissions and faculty recruitment and retention; and produces a variety of materials to educate the University community about equal opportunity policies.

In a recent interview, Holt described strategies for fostering diversity at U.Va.

Q: How would you define your office’s mission?

A: Our mission is to help develop and implement the University’s non-discrimination and affirmative action policies, ensuring that each person — student, faculty, staff or member of the public — interacting with any part of the University is given the same opportunities as any other person.

Q: How have you communicated that mission to employees throughout the University and engaged their support?

A: We do a lot of outreach. We talk to employee communication councils, to committees, to orientation programs, try to get out to all the constituent groups. We try to tie what we do into the University’s mission, [talking about] what its values have been historically.

We try to keep the door open. I’m reminded of two managers who supervised different components of a group of employees. Both said they had an open-door policy. But one never walked out of the door. He would talk to anybody who wanted to come talk to him, but what emerged over a period of time is that the same employees would talk to him and he was seen as having favorites.

The other person would walk out, and he knew all of the employees, knew what their demeanor was like, knew if somebody looked like they were having problems, if they were angry or sad. He would say, “Let’s go for a walk or a cup of coffee,” and he was seen by the employees as much more receptive if they had problems.

Q: What areas of the University have been most successful in supporting your office’s mission, and how so?

A: I hesitate to even list places, because it would be much harder to say who has not been supportive. A lot of areas call on us for feedback and for review.

The EOP’s Web site offers 10 ways to make U.Va. look particularly attractive to women and minority applicants at http://www.virginia.edu/

For example, in Facilities Management, when they have vacancies, early on they will send a draft of a position description, even for classified positions, asking for input on how it is phrased, what qualities are included and where the recruiting efforts should be directed. We’re also called over on a regular basis to help in their supervisory training, because they want to make sure their employees see us and know us.

Dr. [Robert W.] Cantrell [vice president and provost] in the Medical Center has engaged me in discussions since I started here. If I sent a proclamation or policy change and he had an issue with it, he’d call me and we’d have a good discussion about it.

A lot of people have invited us to talk to their supervisory staff. Leonard [W. Sandridge, executive vice president and chief operating officer] has been very open in doing that.

Arts & Sciences also has worked closely with us.

Q: How do you go about convincing people who don’t see the point of making the University a more diverse place to change their attitudes? How do you begin to change a culture?

A: I think first of all by asking myself why I am doing what I’m doing. I can’t convince somebody else unless I’ve convinced myself, and I think you have to do a lot of reflection before you go out and start to be judgmental about other people. I know that I come from a humanities bias, [thinking] that this is the right thing to do, but I also recognize that not everyone has the same priorities.

I think you have to look at people’s [work] priorities. I don’t want to change those, because these people are the experts in their fields, so I have to think about how what I do affects their priorities. How do the interests of diversity relate to their goals — to have the most stellar research in a particular area, the most outstanding student body or the best patient care?

People here are responsive to comparisons with other places we respect. For example, we know we probably have work to do in our hard sciences in terms of national rankings. When we read that nine top research institutions are devoting the next year to looking at issues of gender equity in the sciences, that’s a compelling argument that diversity is important.

Corporations have been a driving force in recognizing diversity as a value, looking at barriers they might have set up in employment and looking for family-friendly approaches. They’re doing that because they have an obligation to the shareholders to maximize their productivity. Darden is attuned to these developments and is one of the leaders [at U.Va.] in talking about diversity issues.
There are certain things about U.Va.’s culture that don’t serve us as the world changes around us, so we need to ask, “What should we do differently?”

I think we need to be a little bit more open when we’ve made decisions that cause problems, acknowledging them and explaining why, because when you’re dealing with discrimination, silence is the thing that convinces people the most that what was going on was discriminatory. We’re very stoic about things and maybe we feel that if we talk about it, it’s going to show weakness, but I think we need to communicate more openly about tough things.

I personally have gotten some criticism for investigations we’ve conducted or decisions we’ve approved where people had a problem with how we went about doing it. It gives me another perspective, reminding me that my view is not the only view, and that even if I might do the same thing over again, it either tests my commitment to what I did, or it gives me some perspective on how to communicate it better, or what else could have been done to have made the decision better received.

Q: When people are uncomfortable discussing diversity issues, how do you go about breaking the ice?

A: One of the things somebody in this job has to acknowledge is that their own characteristics play a tremendous role in how they’re perceived. What groups they have credibility with and what groups they don’t. What’s seen as their soap box or issues. Being a white woman, I think, plays a big part in how I’m perceived. If I’m asked to talk about race, one of the things that has to be said up front is that I’m white.

This gets back to being more open, discussing [our identities]. I think one of the hardest challenges right now is engaging white men in this discussion. Diversity is something we all have — white men have a race and a gender that affects how we see them.

Q: What prepared you for this job?

A: The biggest lessons I’ve learned in my career were through my first job after law school, with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, particularly the section that enforced conditions in prisons, mental retardation facilities, mental institutions and jails.

I came in as the replacement attorney in the midst of complex, multi-year civil rights legislation. A case may have been going on for five years and I’d be plopped down in an unfamiliar courtroom to argue a portion of the case, dealing with complex matters in front of hostile federal judges. If you walk out of there and you’re still breathing and you’re upright — basically, no matter what group I have to face here or how badly I think the message is going to be received, it can’t be worse than that.

I think having the J.D. and the Ph.D. helps. I have an appreciation for what’s involved in conducting an academic search, as well as for legal concerns.

Q: What has been your greatest accomplishment since you arrived?

A: I think this office has transformed itself into being a place that has as much information coming out as it does going into it. I would hope our greatest accomplishment is our willingness to be visible and participate even before there’s a problem.

We now use e-forms for our faculty recruitment process, making it easier for people, and compliance has gone way up. I think we’ve become more rigorous and consistent in ensuring policies are followed, particularly recruitment policies.

I think our oversight is more accurate and more thorough. We have all these brochures and a wonderful Web site. We’re doing training. We’ve reviewed and altered every policy. We’ve put out a [93-page] EO plan that is available on the Web site.

Q: What area needs to be tackled next?

A: I think there’s a lot that still could be done for classified staff. We’re working on [diversity] climate issues with Brad Holland [the University ombudsman]. The President’s Office has agreed we should pursue seeking proposals for a consultant to conduct a climate study across the University for faculty and staff.

I would like to see more cohesiveness among all the multi-cultural and diversity efforts at the University.

I think it was awful this year that the University didn’t do anything for Martin Luther King [Jr.’s birthday.]

I feel like we’re not doing programmatic things that we could do. I look at other institutions that are sponsoring more speakers and having more events and I think it would be wonderful if we could do more.

I don’t know that, despite all of our efforts, we’re really addressing the need to increase minority and women faculty.

Why does
diversity matter?

Like any institution or entity, we’re in a complex and changing environment, and we need to position ourselves to deal with that as effectively as possible.

The census figures reveal that our traditional ways of looking at needs and issues are being challenged by an influx of people from different backgrounds with different perspectives. We need to be aware of the value of diversity of attribute and perspective.

We want to bring people to the realization that there are multiple ways of looking at things and they can be informed and their decisions made better by listening to others.

In our discriminatory harassment training, we have something called the platinum rule. Whereas the golden rule says to treat others the way you want to be treated, the platinum rule says to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Rather than saying, “This is how I’d see it if I were in their shoes,” ask them, “What is it like to walk in your shoes?”

There’s a lot of outstanding social science work being done in this area. The educational experience of students and faculty is more positive when they’re in a diverse classroom. It’s been shown that people exposed to more diverse educational settings tend to do more volunteer work in their communities after graduation.

Any policy decision is more sound the more different perspectives you consider in reaching it. If you’re surrounded by people just like you, the limits of what you can do are your limits.



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