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Parker 'an agent of change' in Stanford community

STANFORD -- The revised job description Sharon Parker read in 1990 made it clear that Stanford University was looking for something more than an affirmative action officer.

Shortly after assuming the position in September of that year, Parker changed the title to "Director, Office for Multicultural Development."

Changing the nomenclature was relatively simple, if not without some controversy. Now, after slightly more than one year at Stanford, Parker is working more aggressively as a catalyst, with the goal of changing the fundamental makeup of the community.

It is no easy task, particularly at this time.

The Annual Review Panel of the University Committee on Minority Issues is scheduled to make its annual visit to Stanford in November. The committee, formed in the late 1980s in response to criticisms of Stanford's record in affirmative action and cultural diversity, will be putting the university under the sociological microscope during a difficult juncture.

The campus then will be at the midpoint between the setting of budget reduction targets (expected to be announced in late October) and the formulation of ways administrative units plan to meet those targets (expected in early 1992). Painful decisions are a certainty, layoffs a distinct probability.

In addition, the university recently was accused, by Office of Naval Research Resident Representative Paul Biddle, of not doing enough to help minority businesses win outside contracts. (See Campus Report, Sept. 25.)

Is it the worst of times or the best of times for such scrutiny? Parker leans toward the latter.

"When you're going through a period of change, that's a good time to introduce more change," Parker said in a recent interview.

Resistance to change

Parker is familiar with resistance to change, starting with the new title for her office. In a section of the comprehensive Affirmative Action Plan for Stanford University (published as an insert in this issue), she explains:

"One of the most persistent manifestations of resistance to change is the struggle over terminology. Definitions have been called for and given; however, definitions are not the problem per se, resistance lies with fear of loss of gains or privileges. For example, individuals and community groups have spent (and still spend) inordinate amounts of time arguing for/against 'affirmative action' and rallying against the change of the name from the Office of Affirmative Action to the Office for Multicultural Development. The fact is, as has been explained many times, affirmative action and multiculturalism are two different phenomena but dependent upon each other for success."

An 'agent of change'

Parker describes herself as an "agent of change." That challenge brought her to Stanford. After the search for an affirmative action officer came up short, the job description was rewritten. It was then that Parker pursued the position.

While monitoring affirmative action remains a vital function of her office, Parker said she is more concerned with "community building," attempting to ensure that every member of the Stanford community -- faculty, staff, students, residents, visitors -- is "made to feel not only welcome, but comfortable" in the environment.

Parker, who came to Stanford from the National Institute for Women of Color in Washington, D.C., attempts to facilitate that change from an office in Building 10, the president's office. The location is significant because many institutions place people responsible for affirmative action within the human resources department. Parker says being part of the Office of the President demonstrates the institutional commitment necessary for fundamental change.

While she works very closely with human resources specialists, Parker's mission involves going beyond keeping track of the gender and ethnicity of people in staff positions.

Through Provost James N. Rosse, she is working to diversify the makeup of the faculty; through residential education and other programs, she tries to keep diversity issues on the collective mind of the student body; and through complicated webs of internal and external networks, she is hoping to forward Kennedy's much-publicized goal of making Stanford a model multicultural community.

Parker hopes whoever is named to succeed Kennedy when he steps down next year will continue on the same path.

"The new president must not only be supportive," Parker says of the next president. "He or she must be visibly outspoken, a real leader" in issues of multiculturalism.

And, "the new president will have to act quite quickly; the responsibility is on us now to do it. We can't wait 20 or 25 years."

The plan

Parker has just finished compiling the university's affirmative action plan, which will be followed shortly by a statement on faculty recruitment and retention, and in the near future by a strategic plan for building a "pluralistic" community at Stanford.

The first plan is a lengthy document that includes the president's reaffirmation of Stanford's affirmative action policy, followed by detailed passages on dissemination of policy, responsibility for implementation, the work of the Office for Multicultural Development, staff program analyses, and objectives for each of the vice presidential areas, among other things.

"Publication of the Affirmative Action Report and Plan," Parker said, "might help show people in the departments and schools how Stanford is still committed to affirmative action. And it should send a strong signal to those folks (who doubt that commitment).

"We expect quite a lot of reaction to this."

The conclusion of the Activities Report of the Office for Multicultural Development, which forms part of the report, is in many ways the fulcrum of the plan:

"We are now in the midst of a social transformation driven by demographic changes. This transformation will result in a very different society in the future. The entrenchment, rise in overt prejudicial actions, racial violence and other backlash manifestations are evidence of the threat felt by many people (not simply white males) to the status quo. What is at stake is the ways in which political, legal, financial, social and educational institutions are shaped by the perspective of present and past leadership. . . . What is occurring nationwide is occurring in microcosm at Stanford.

"The transformation we are presently undergoing, both locally and nationwide, can be directed and shaped to ensure that as new institutional structures are developed they are wholly inclusive and equitable in the benefits they confer. Inclusiveness does not mean simply more clever ways to add growing numbers of racially and ethnically diverse peoples, but a fundamental acceptance of the centrality of diverse racial and ethnic populations to the survival and future success of our nation and its institutions. Widespread acceptance of this concept is basic to the development of common purpose and true community."

Tough times ahead

When the budget cuts come, Parker will be looking not only at numbers but at overall impact. Just as professors on committees are trying to ensure that the budget cuts do not erode Stanford's basic missions of education and research, Parker will be trying to keep the budget cuts from undermining Stanford's commitment to building a multicultural community.

As the cuts take shape, she said, people can expect a great deal of "contentiousness, and lots of confrontation." Much of that, she said, results from "the way we are trained to think; we're opposed to the view that we are all in this together."

Once people accept that view, she believes, they can accept "an equitable balance of opportunities."

"Diverse people engaging in intellectual pursuit -- that's what we're all here for," Parker said. "All kinds of diversity."

Most troubling to her is the prospect that budget cuts could delay or cancel the development of employees who are achingly close to breaking the "glass ceiling" of advancement.

"There are, here, so many people that are this close," Parker said. "To see them derailed at this time would truly be a tragedy for Stanford."



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