What my father taught me about DEI
It was the 1960’s and 70’s, when race and gender lines were still being tested
My father taught me a lot about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) almost fifty years ago, though I certainly didn’t realize it at the time.
He was the chairman of the economics department at Northern Illinois University, a 20,000 student campus an hour away from Chicago. In the 1960’s and 1970’s it was his job to build a legit PhD program despite being surrounded by top-flight econ programs at far-more prestgious schools like the University of Chicago, Northwestern, University of Wisconsin-Madison and several others.
He succeeded in getting the PhD program accredited — which required that he find great talent and also that they publish great work — by taking advantage of in-group, out-group bias. Really good candidates were available if you weren’t trying to hire US-born white males. The best schools were bad at choosing, skipping over candidates that were otherwise awesome.
The team that he built was like the United Nations, and even had several women, an historic rarity in econ departments. The diversity of the staff was something that he was really proud of. The annual Econ Department picnic, its tables laden with dishes strange to a small midwest farming community, like kimchee, massaman curry, and strange round flatbreads stuffed with meat, to name a few, is clearly to blame for my lifelong addiction to strange and spicy foods. Many of those professors were great talents and moved on within five years, but they got their first shot at greatness because of his willingness, even desire, to be inclusive.
He taught me that you can only assess people by what they do, not what they look like, what they identify with, or how they speak. That’s because we are hopelessly bad at predicting that from appearance or presentment. In reality, all of us humans are actually ridiculously capable and motivated when given the chance to succeed…but that can be hard to see.
My dad would pay as much as he could for the talent he hired. And I’m pretty sure he never paid less than he could. That is, just because someone had been passed over by a more-prestigious employer, or didn’t have the best interviews, he didn’t try to hire them for less. It was principle on his part, but it turns out, a pretty smart one.
My dad also set up a scoring system for promotions, largely quantitative, it relied upon measureable stuff like ratings from students and the strength of the professors publications (this is measured by the number of citations and the quality of the journals.) When people delivered, they got paid. The long-tenured white gentry in the department, men that had been there long before he opened the door to minorities of all sorts, compained mightily when an Afghani got the next full professorship instead of they who had been waiting longer. Equity must be earned in a measureable way.
He never spoke of any of this directly, and maybe that’s why it has always seemed natural to me, the ideas that we teach of everyone getting to take a turn and play.
Jack Skeels is a former management sciences analyst at the think tank, RAND, and the founder and CEO of AgencyAgile, a productivity training and coaching firm that helps agencies, marketers, and other complex service organizations transform using empowered processes. His most recent project is a podcast, The Art of Management.