Trickle-down effect: What Biden’s diverse cabinet means for higher ed

biden harris diverse team

President Biden’s proposed cabinet would be the most diverse in U.S. history, comprising more women and people of color than any former president’s cabinet. If the Senate confirms Biden’s picks, more than half of his 25-member cabinet will be nonwhite – including his pick for secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra. The California attorney general would become the nation’s first Latino to hold the position.

The historical significance of this level of diversity in the U.S. administration is clear. But what could this mean for higher education, and more specifically, for the School of Health and Human Sciences (HHS) at UNC Greensboro?

“I fundamentally believe that leadership in positions of power in our country validates what is acceptable in our society,” said Crystal Dixon, AP Assistant Professor in Public Health Education and faculty representative for the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusive Excellence. “After President Obama, and most recently Vice President Kamala Harris assumed office, the media began to normalize diversity, specifically black women, as an acceptable new trend for mainstream society.”

For example, there has been an increase in the number of black women who have been promoted to the c-suite in broadcast television and serve in lead anchor roles within the past year, Dixon said. This shift in diversity has challenged white supremacy and patriarchy. In response, corporations and organizations have decidedly bought into the idea of hiring black women for administrative roles.

“With this is a new trend in media and corporate America, I believe this will trickle down to higher education by creating space for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), particularly black women, to serve in leadership roles,” Dixon said.

HHS has already begun to illustrate the impact of mainstream societal norms by selecting self-identified black women to serve in leadership roles at the School and University levels: Dixon additionally serves as the HHS Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee Chair and a member of the HHS Racial Equity Taskforce; Chancellor Franklin D. Gilliam, Jr., recently named Dr. Andrea Hunter, Professor of Human Development and Family Studies, the Chancellor’s Fellow for Campus Climate; Dr. Tanya Coakley, Professor of Social Work, is Faculty Fellow in the Office of the Provost for 2021; Dr. Erica Payton Foh, Assistant Professor of PHE, is the Center for Housing and Community Studies’ inaugural Faculty Research Fellow; Dr. Joi Bulls, AP Associate Professor of HDFS, was appointed the inaugural Minerva Academic Curriculum Faculty Fellow and tapped as HHS Associate Dean of Undergraduate Affairs; and Regina McCoy, AP Professor of PHE, was appointed Chair-Elect of the HHS Faculty Senate.

“It is important to note that opportunities for black women to serve in administrative roles is a progressive step toward parity, as we are often given leadership roles in service – rather than administrative roles with an equitable salary,” Dixon said. “Black women often have an inequitable service load compared to their white counterparts in higher education. This can impact mental and physical health.”

When it comes to public health, Dixon said, systemic change is crucial to one’s life expectancy.

Racism is a public health crisis and has resurfaced during the COVID-19 endemic. Inequitable medical practices and systemically racist policies have created disparate health outcomes, particularly for women of color, Dixon said.

“For example, if we use infant mortality as a key indicator for population health, black women with doctorate degrees have a higher infant mortality rate than white women who do not have a high school diploma.”

“Although respectability politics may say otherwise, you simply cannot educate or assimilate your way out of systemic oppression. There is another confounding variable at work that is impacting highly educated and qualified black women – racism,” Dixon said.

Lack of access to opportunities for career advancement and wealth-building opportunities have a debilitating impact on health outcomes of black women, Dixon said. Specifically, in higher education, microaggressions, inequitable workloads, and systemic stressors increase stress levels, and create disparate health outcomes.

The Biden-Harris administration has undoubtedly affirmed the longstanding competency of black women in leadership, which could have positive rippling effects on the health outcomes and the economic wealth gap of black women, Dixon said.

“While most public health inequities are attributed to the broken healthcare system, environmental racism, and systemic-induced poverty impacting BIPOC communities, among other factors, simply affording opportunities of leadership with equitable compensation has a significant impact on the wealth-building capacity and life expectancy of black women, and their future offspring.”

But checking the diversity box is one thing. It is quite another to give these diverse candidates a true voice and an opportunity to shape policies. Biden’s administration will be expected to enact policies that lead to real change for communities of color.

How can this administration – and UNCG HHS – affirm that they are not just checking off the diversity boxes and ensure there is substantive change for communities of color? According to Dixon, a few ways that this administration can create accountability:

  • Collaborate with local community and grassroots organizations who are experts in their respective fields to provide consultation on the most pressing issues impacting communities of color.
  • Reinstate previous policies that were rolled back under the previous administration that disproportionately harmed communities of color (e.g., EPA policies)
  • Create policies that address the root causes of inequities that are disproportionately impacting communities of color (e.g., student loan forgiveness, redlining, medical waste in BIPOC communities)

“Accountability and transparency are important when integrating and sustaining diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts,” Dixon said. “The Biden-Harris administration boldly instituted systemic changes in our nation’s highest office, which will set a new standard for equity in leadership in higher education.”

Story by Elizabeth L. Harrison with Crystal Dixon, UNCG School of Health & Human Sciences
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