Implementing Meaningful Measures to Hire, Retain, and Cultivate Diverse Talent in Higher Education

November 15, 2021 | By Diana Mendez

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TAGS: career development, diversity and inclusion, journal, mentoring, operations,

NACE Journal, November 2021

Now more than ever, there is a need for higher education institutions to adopt diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as a core pillar of business operations, as there is wide evidence that diversity is inherent to successful business models in all industries.

Unfortunately, there is a lack of diversity in college and universities’ senior leadership ranks; this this could be linked to a failure to achieve a critical mass of diverse entry-level workers and supporting their upward mobility.

There needs to be a collective audit on what colleges and universities are doing and not doing to attract, retain, and cultivate diverse talent. Integrating DEI as a core business pillar will positively affect the industry’s academic, intellectual, and financial growth. There are three areas of opportunity that could be feasible and scalable to implement and foster an inclusive climate in higher education. These are:

  1. Creating a culture of belonging and focusing on inclusive leadership.
  2. Implementing a concerted effort to attract diverse talent in higher education for entry-level roles. The focus should be on inclusivity—of race, ethnicity, age, gender identity and expression, ability, and diversity of thought, just to name a few.
  3. Creating intentional pathways for retention, career grooming, and upward mobility for marginalized identities through meaningful mentorship channels.

Area of Opportunity 1: Culture of Belonging and Inclusive Leadership

Belonging has become a key factor in business success, and it’s an important determinant for staff productivity and engagement.1

Baumeister and Leary define belonging as “the feeling of security and support when there is a sense of acceptance, inclusion, and identity for a member of a certain group or place, as the basic fundamental drive to form and maintain lasting, positive, and significant relationships with others.”2

Therefore, higher education institutions’ initial focus should be on ensuring that they have taken the necessary steps to create inclusive work spaces that allow all identities to thrive and feel included.

However, diversity does not always mean inclusion or belonging: As Sherbin and Rashid explain, “In the context of the workplace, diversity equals representation. Without inclusion, however, the crucial connections that attract diverse talent, encourage their participation, foster innovation, and lead to business growth won’t happen. Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.3

Marginalized identities want to bring their whole authentic selves to the workplace, but “37% of African Americans and Hispanics, and 45% of Asians say they ‘need to compromise their authenticity to conform to their company’s standards of demeanor and style.’”4  If institutions of higher education fail to create an inclusive workplace climate for marginalized identities, turnover among these communities could increase, resulting in added expense associated with continually having to source, recruit, hire, and train new staff. This is one reason why adopting an inclusive leadership business model is important.

Meaningful progress in institutions of higher education has to start with strong leadership and their sponsorship of radical and timely change. In “6 Signature Traits of Inclusive Leadership,” the author highlights how cultural intelligence (CQ) has become an important skill to have as a leader, enabling the leader to combat implicit bias and groupthink. The author also discusses the importance of strategic alignment—the practice of making “inclusive leadership a core pillar of the organization’s diversity and inclusion strategy.”5 Other signature traits of the inclusive leader are cognizance, curiosity, courage, commitment, and collaboration.6 A way to use this concept effectively would be to use these traits as the basis for interview questions for leadership roles and performance reviews (director level and higher). Such questions would set accountability expectations and serve as a marker for demonstrating inclusive leadership practices.

In addition, newly hired leaders should receive extensive training on CQ, which “focuses on a leader’s ability to function effectively with people and in situations involving different cultural backgrounds. When we interact with people from our own culture, we intuitively use a set of social cues to engage effectively. We have a wealth of information, most of which is subconscious, that helps know how to relate and lead. In contrast, when we experience a new culture, cues and information that have worked in the past are largely absent or misleading.”7

In an increasingly global world and with the continued influx of international students into U.S. colleges and universities, it is imperative that leaders are able to effectively understand cultural cues and differences from diverse student populations. Equally important for the effective running of an institution is the ability of its leaders to learn how to work with staff from different backgrounds, points of view, and identities. There needs to be greater accountability regarding DEI gaps for middle management and senior leadership with supervisory functions. A basic and doable measure would be to train these individuals on implicit bias and how to have difficult conversations in an effort to mitigate and resolve instances of microaggressions. Moreover, including CQ and implicit bias concepts as markers of success during performance reviews of senior leadership would tangibly demonstrate institutions’ commitment to inclusive leadership.

Since DEI is not an abstract concept that institutions can ignore, it needs to be looked at as the core pillar of business operations. It is no longer enough to think of DEI as a performative act. Senior leaders in higher education institutions must set the example at the top by adopting inclusive practices, training existing leaders on them, incorporating explicit DEI questions into job interviews for new leadership hires, and implementing DEI success measures into performance reviews for existing managers.

Area of Opportunity 2: Attracting diverse talent

Before determining how they can be better at attracting diverse candidates, colleges and universities first need to establish guidelines that outline how they are committed to DEI and how they define it.

Although many colleges and universities have departments dedicated to multicultural and DEI work, they would also benefit from a network of administrators around campus whose chief purpose is to promote and drive DEI practices consistent with the mission and vision of the institution. This network would include representatives from all departments, position levels, and external stakeholders—parents and alumni, for example—so as to be inclusive of all the populations that make up the institution’s community.

A great example of this model at work is New York University’s (NYU) own Global Inclusion Officers Council, which is composed of hired or appointed deans or administrators across the university’s degree-granting sites (New York, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai) who are in charge of  making sure that inclusion, diversity, belonging, and equity (IDBE) are implemented in their respective areas. These appointed DEI leaders support the NYU Office of Global Inclusion, Diversity, and Strategic Innovation’s chief credo: “Institutional change and transformation is only possible when there is a commitment to inclusion, diversity, belonging, and equity at every level, in every school and in every department across NYU’s campuses and global academic centers.”8

Groups like these allow staff members to feel included in the institution’s decisions that directly affect marginalized communities. It also fosters a sense of belonging in all staff, as they are able to play an active role in the change they want to create as members of the campus community.

After creating a network of employees committed to DEI, the next step is to attract diverse candidates. University departments would benefit from working closely with their HR counterparts to create guidelines and procedures around belonging and inclusion for staff. Ideally, such partnerships would work to:

1. Revise current job descriptions to filter out exclusive language, and to ensure that they are descriptive of the work that new staff members will be conducting. Instead of recycling old postings, new positions should be written with intention and accuracy.

2. Create guidelines for search committees scalable to all departments of the institution so their composition is truly inclusive. The Higher Education Recruitment Consortium (HERC) recommends that all search committees ask themselves the following questions when writing or revising job descriptions:9

  • What is the meaning of a “diverse pool of candidates”?
  • Are the competencies included important to the job?
  • Are diversity markers beyond the standard EEO/AA statements included?
  • What percentage of the work includes DEI functions?

3. Create consistent rubrics for resume, interview, and selection processes. For instance, search committees can eliminate names on resumes to focus solely on the professional skills of the candidates. Research has demonstrated that the “whitening” of resumes by changing an ethnic sounding name to a western, Americanized, or “white sounding” one allows minoritized candidates to be called for more job interviews; companies are more than twice as likely to call minority applicants for interviews if they submit whitened resumes than candidates who reveal their race—and this discriminatory practice is just as strong for businesses that claim to value diversity as those that don’t.10

4. Carefully select search committees so that they include gender, racial, ethnic, and thought diversity, as well as diversity of teams. According to HERC, “a committee that lacks diversity is less likely to recognize unconscious bias.”11 The search committee composition should revolve. If the same people are consistently tapped for committees, the same kind of candidates should be expected each time. Search committees would also benefit from “diversity advocates.” These are administrators who are vocal about their DEI commitment and center their practice through this lens. As search committees collect applications, they should not rely on word-of-mouth recommendations, as this sometimes aids in increasing implicit bias. Although it is natural to want to work with people who are similar to us, this practice can sometimes cloud people’s judgement and ability to be objective. Moreover, “implicit biases around culture fit often lead to homogeneity. Too often it comes down to shared backgrounds and interests that out-groups, especially first-generation professionals, won’t have. That’s why it’s important to clarify objective criteria for any open role and to rate all applicants using the same rubric.”12

5. Make positions visible in forums where candidates from marginalized identities, and those who are not widely represented in a team or department, look for opportunities. Placing job descriptions in the same forums every time and passively waiting for a broad selection of candidates to apply is not effective.13 Some forums where jobs could be posted include mailing lists of affinity groups on campus, external and relevant professional associations, and diversity and inclusion postings, to name a few.

Also important to think about is what diverse candidates see once they decide to apply for vacant higher education positions. As they scroll through the pictures and bios of the department, are they going to see themselves reflected in leadership? In the overall composition of staff? What roles are people from marginalized communities holding? Representation matters. Therefore, it would be helpful to include staff bios on the department’s website that include information about gender pronouns, zone trainings, diversity committees and affiliations, or solidarity work. This is especially significant in predominantly white institutions (PWIs), where marginalized identities may feel out of place and tokenized by being the only ones from diverse identities in their departments.

6. Develop diversity and inclusion metrics to assess whether the steps taken during the interview and onboarding process have yielded results. Things to evaluate may include:

  • Percentage of people from underrepresented communities who apply for jobs at the department. Has it decreased, increased, or stayed the same?
  • Percentage of people from underrepresented communities who are offered jobs, and beyond that, leadership jobs.
  • Percentage of these candidates who accept the offer.
  • Percentage of staff from marginalized identities who are on a path to success after a year on the job. This could be assessed by inclusion in visible projects, performance reviews, and promotions, or increased responsibilities within roles.

The NYU Wasserman Center for Career Development has started to implement many of these steps to enhance equity practices in hiring and promotions. In 2020, there were internal IDBE and cross-functional groups formed with the goal of revising existing hiring models, implementing new strategies for building a sense of belonging in the office, equalizing the onboarding experience for new hires, and creating new equitable and consistent hiring practices. With more than 50 full-time employees across three different locations, the Wasserman Center leadership saw it as a need to streamline and introduce consistency across all teams. So far, these committees’ accomplishments include the creation of a hiring checklist that delineates consistent and fair hiring practices pre-, during, and post-interviews; the introduction of resume, cover letter, and interview rubrics; and collaborations with the HR department and the Office of Equal Opportunity to offer training on conducting inclusive searches to all staff, since most team members will be asked to be part of search committees at some point.

These steps may appear to be cumbersome, but when dissected one by one, they represent feasible and scalable interventions to combating implicit bias, discrimination, and groupthink in the hiring process in colleges and universities. If institutions of higher education want to get serious about the diversification of their talent pool, these are the minimal steps that they can take to truly commit to this goal.

Area of Opportunity 3: Creating Intentional Pathways

When it comes to upward mobility in higher education, there is no linear path, and it does not look the same for everybody. This is markedly apparent in PWIs, where staff of color tend to embody whiteness and inhibit their true selves in an effort to “fit” into a culture that constantly presents barriers to upward mobility if they do not assimilate to the status quo of their departments.

According to Nguyen and Duran, “As a survival mechanism, professionals of color wear a white mask at work, metaphorically bleaching themselves through their behaviors at work to conform to professional standards. The white mask is invisible, plastic, and heavy. The white mask helps them meet professional standards in higher education, yet leaves a chalky residue on their faces that makes them question who they really are at the end of each day.”14

Staff from marginalized identities at PWIs may encounter microaggressions by managers and colleagues, often with no consequences, which results in a demoralized and despondent attitude toward their work. It is imperative for colleges and universities to assess the climate around belonging, especially from lower-level employees from marginalized identities. This could be accomplished by implementing anonymous climate surveys and, based on these results, creating concrete action plans to address staff’s concerns.

Let us again look at NYU as an example of such steps in action. After a listening session devoted to NYU students from New York, Shanghai, and Abu Dhabi in 2015, the university took important steps to address gaps in IDBE practices.

One of the first steps was to create a DEI advisory task force, which recommended that the university hire its first-ever chief diversity officer (CDO), and create a university-wide climate survey. One of the first priorities of the new senior vice president for global inclusion and strategic innovation was to promote the “Being@NYU” climate survey to the whole NYU community. The survey, with a response rate of 31.1%, demonstrated overall high levels of comfort with the climate at NYU.

However, one of its findings related to areas of improvement: 17% of respondents indicated that they personally had experienced exclusionary, intimidating, offensive, and/or hostile conduct; of these, 28% noted that the conduct was based on their gender/gender identity and ethnicity, 20% on their racial identity, and 16% on their position and political views.15

Based on these findings, the university created four core committees to address DEI gaps: 1) Global Inclusion Student Advancement Committee, 2) Global Staff and Administrative Inclusive Excellence Committee, 3) Global Inclusion Academic Affairs, Faculty, and Pedagogy Committee, and 4) Inclusion Officers Committee.

Two of the main themes derived from these committees’ recommendations were mentorship and pipeline programs for staff, and internal mobility, leadership, and promotions.16  

These thoughtful, meaningful steps demonstrate a true commitment to DEI that stems from senior leadership, and spreads across a vast and complex institution like NYU. These kinds of initiatives might be scalable to smaller institutions, where the lesser density and volume of staff to survey would allow for less time and resources being devoted to finding meaningful results.

In the vein of creating meaningful change that starts at the senior leadership level, another important way in which upper management can foster a sense of belonging and connection for new and existing hires is the creation of staff mentorship programs.

Workplace mentorship programs can take the form of frequent informal meetings between senior and junior staff about what makes a successful employee at the department, how to navigate the office’s culture, and how to identify high-profile projects that are aligned with the employee’s background, skills, and interests. More formal and structured mentorship programs usually last six months to a year.

Stevenson offered an important viewpoint regarding why mentorship is particularly important for people of color in the workplace, noting that “mentorship is essential for communities of color—having access to career growth opportunities makes a huge difference in individual lives as well as company culture.”17

For many marginalized identities in the workplace, the key to mobility is sponsorship and visibility. As Sherbin and Rashid explained, “For those who feel marginalized by their gender, ethnicity, age, sexual identity, or educational and economic background, sponsorship is particularly crucial in invigorating ambition and driving engagement. Having a sponsor increases the likelihood of being satisfied with the rate of career advancement. Conversely, a lack of sponsorship increases someone’s likelihood of quitting within a year.”18

Therefore, it is important for staff from marginalized identities to be part of both formal and informal channels of mentorship and sponsorship. These tend to be highly successful ways for them to increase upward mobility and career success. For example, the NYU Administrative Management Council (AMC) offers and runs a very successful university-wide mentorship program. The AMC represents full-time administrators in university governance and priorities as part of the NYU Senate. This mentorship program was created after surveying 3,600 administrators to better understand professional development needs and support. The survey was completed by approximately 30% of the population, of which 90% expressed interest in a formalized mentoring program. The AMC mentorship program is open to all full-time staff (administrators and union staff), and it includes “reverse mentoring,” where junior staff can be paired with senior level staff based on the mentees’ career goals.

This program has allowed NYU staff, across a variety of schools and departments, to find channels of sponsorship to help with career mobility, skillset development, networking, and belonging. Equally, the Wasserman Center implemented a new mentorship program called “Wasser-Buddies.”

The purpose of this pilot program was for new staff members to receive an informal and easy way to acclimate to the office as well as to foster a strong sense of belonging and connection during the first six months of employment. This was achieved through the pairing of new staff with an established staff member in the office (at least one year of employment). The pilot ran for six months in 2020, was mentee-led, and offered an opportunity for engagement and connection among employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.

More importantly, a main focus was to run this program through a DEI lens, paying close attention to the “equity” and “inclusion” parts, so all staff have equal access to opportunities for upward mobility regardless of their backgrounds, teams, or identities. In particular, this was exemplified in the pre-program interest forms and by the matching process, including how mentors and mentees were asked about what groups they belong to at NYU, i.e., Pride@Work, and some of their identity descriptors. In doing so, the matching process not only took into consideration staff members’ professional affiliations, but also their personal affiliations through a DEI lens.

The Wasser-Buddies program is now part of the formal onboarding process of the office, which means that every new hire now has their very own Wasser-Buddy to help them navigate their first six months at the office. The main goals of the program are to equalize the onboarding process for all hires in a large office, contribute to a higher sense of belonging, and increase the retention efforts of diverse identities in the office. Some outcomes of the pilot program that ran in 2020 include:

  • 85.7% of mentees felt highly acclimated to the office and that they understood the culture of the Wasserman Center after the program concluded;
  • 71.4% of mentees felt satisfied with their mentorship relationship;
  • 66.7% of mentors felt that their leadership and interpersonal skills were stronger after being part of the program;
  • 100% of the mentees and mentors were very satisfied with the outcomes of the program; and
  • 90% of the mentors expressed interest in being mentors again.

In evaluating additional effective practices for staff retention, one in particular that can make a real difference for staff from marginalized identities is conducting “stay interviews” to better understand what motivates and keeps staff engaged so that more of those opportunities can be offered.

Many times, even the most engaged staff leave and leadership do not learn of the reason until an exit interview is conducted. “Stay interviews” allow managers to understand their direct reports, what motivates them and makes them happy, and what keeps them engaged.19 This practice could be embedded in the creation of goals, mid-year and end-of-year performance reviews, and supervisory meetings, especially if a staff member has indicated disengagement or is not on a path for success.

Most importantly, senior leadership in colleges and universities also must take exit interviews seriously and strive to implement meaningful change based on comments and recommendations from departing staff. If an employee is not thriving, it might be because of poor leadership, lack of transparency, implicit bias, or lack of clear instructions or expectations from their supervisor.

The immediate manager is usually the No. 1 predictor of staff turnover across all industries. One way to discern managers’ leadership effectiveness could be to include a question in performance reviews conversations about what they are doing to proactively advance a sense of belonging and inclusion with their direct reports or around the office. Questions such as “Who are you mentoring?,” “Why are those people being selected for informal mentoring?,” and “What are you doing to self-evaluate and mitigate your own implicit biases?” would help to make the success of direct reports a quantifiable goal in the performance review process for managers and supervisors.

Finally, it is imperative to foster an environment where respectful dissent and different points of views that may not be in line with the office’s status quo are welcomed and given consideration. This would allow for greater transparency in the supervisor-supervisee conversations throughout the year and promote a commitment to diversity of thought.

Higher Ed in an Ever-Evolving Society

Beyond hiring and retention, college and university departments must increase transparency by including the voices of all staff members in decisions that directly affect them. The intended outcome of implementing or reinforcing the aforementioned opportunity areas is to create more inclusive work spaces in higher education, where everyone feels like they belong, as well as being more intentional in embedding diversity and inclusion as core pillars of business practices. All staff members in colleges and universities should feel like they are able to succeed in their careers, regardless of their backgrounds, identities, positionality, and perspectives. Being intentional about adopting these actions would allow marginalized identities to increase their visibility and create pathways to career growth.

Equally important, it is imperative for students of color and other underrepresented communities to see representation in leadership ranks to increase their sense of belonging within these institutions. Since colleges and universities’ outcomes are visible to alumni, parents, employers, and other stakeholders in student affairs, there is a business need for diversity and inclusion to be a core pillar of operations moving forward. Ignoring the importance of DEI in the way that colleges and universities hire, retain, and cultivate diverse talent would be detrimental to attracting diverse students, and securing buy-in from alumni and other monetary sponsors.

If institutions of higher education want to thrive in an ever-evolving society focused on social justice and equity as a key driver of innovation and success, they must start with the composition of their teams and the culture they create to advance diverse talent as a successful business model.


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Diana Mendez (she/her) is a senior assistant director at New York University’s (NYU) Wasserman Center for Career Development and a proud immigrant Latina, first-generation college student. She has more than 10 years of experience in higher education. In her current role, she offers comprehensive career coaching to undergraduate and graduate students from all concentrations; oversees student employment hiring, training, and development functions as well as DEI initiatives for STEM students; and manages relationships with employers interested in hiring diverse talent in tech.

Mendez has expertise in working with diverse student populations, including Black, Latinx, Indigenous, immigrant, LGBTQ+, international, and first-generation populations, in all areas of career development. Throughout her career, she has successfully managed experiential learning programs, diversity initiatives for staff and students, and early college engagement efforts; in addition, she has contributed to enhancing equity practices around hiring, onboarding, and retaining diverse talent. Mendez currently serves in the NACE People of Color Affinity Impact Team, is the NACE Women in STEM Affinity Group co-lead, and serves as NASPA's Region II Latinx Knowledge Community representative. She has contributed her expertise in student employment and DEI topics to various regional and national conferences and has written for NACE. She holds a bachelor's degree in social work from Rutgers University, a master's degree in mental health counseling from NYU, and is currently completing a master’s in HR management, also from NYU.