WASHINGTON SPIRIT—Fall 2007
   

 
Leah Merrifield, Special Assistant to the Chancellor for Diversity Initiatives.

Building a Better Balance by Expanding the Gender and Ethnic Makeup of the Faculty and Staff

By Susan C.Thomson

A new assignment was the furthest thing from Leah Merrifield’s mind 2½ years ago when Chancellor Mark Wrighton dropped by her office unannounced and sat down to chat. She was content, she says, as director of community relations, a diplomatic go-between for the University on the one hand and community, civic, and governmental organizations on the other.

Yet here came Wrighton proposing that she take on something new, different, and even more challenging. His surprise visit led, she says, to “a series of conversations” that led to her appointment in mid-2005 as his special assistant for diversity initiatives, a new job not just for her.

Her appointment also signaled a new, coordinated, and university-wide approach to a mission previously the charge of the University’s seven separate schools—improving the gender and ethnic diversity of the faculty and administrative staff. The schools had been pursuing this “with great resolve” and making gains, but not as many or as fast as the University had made in student admissions, says Wrighton. “My objective was to quicken the pace of progress.”

He describes Merrifield as a natural for the job—“a person who is energetic and dedicated, has good ideas, and works well with people.”

A casual, welcoming woman, she gestures as she speaks and leans into a conversation with a visitor to her office. This job, she confides, is all about “relationship building, partnering with other people, and recognizing no one person can do it all or should do it all.” For shouldering a major share of the effort, she credits the Coordinating Council for Diversity Initiatives, also new.

Merrifield organized it, recruiting its 20 members—respected leaders, committed to diversity and willing to engage in candid discussion, she says—from across the University, at least one from each school.

Among them is Luis H. Zayas, the Shanti K. Khinduka Distinguished Professor of Social Work and director of the Center for Latino Family Research in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work.

He knew from Wrighton’s oft-spoken commitment to diversity that this new undertaking was serious, he says. “I wanted to be part of it.”

One of the council’s first orders of business was amassing data, comparing Washington University with similar universities in their percentages of female and under-represented minorities in the faculty and administrative ranks. The results revealed Washington University to be “in the middle of the pack,” Merrifield says. “For us, though, that was not satisfactory.”

She and council members interviewed deans about their diversity efforts. “We asked them what they were doing, what they would like to do, what they had tried, what worked, what didn’t work,” she says.

Merrifield was also outstanding at soliciting from council members themselves “bold ideas” for what might work, Zayas says. “She’s been very good at making people feel comfortable and bringing everyone into the fold.”

“The more diverse the population of people studying, teaching, and doing research here, the better the University becomes.”

Several ideas the council gathered and generated already have become action items. Search committees are being trained in ways to make applicant pools more diverse. Special social events have been held for minority faculty members so that they can come to know one another better. Contacts are being made across the country with organizations that might be sources of outstanding female and minority job candidates. In the works is a “recruiting consortium” through which Washington University and other colleges, universities, and cultural institutions in the region would share information on job possibilities for the spouses or partners of people they are seeking to hire.

“I can see already interesting and important things happening,” says Wrighton, pleased with results so far. “Still,” he cautions, “this is a long-term project and one that will require an enduring commitment.” Merrifield also takes a long and patient view, declining to get distracted by small changes. “We periodically look at the numbers, but we don’t fixate on them on a year-to-year basis,” she says. “Numbers aren’t what this is all about.”

What this is all about is evolving the University’s faculty and administration “to better reflect the students we serve,” she says. “The more diverse the population of people studying, teaching, and doing research here, the better the University becomes.”

Merrifield says she keeps her schedule flexible, allowing for early mornings and late nights when she’s needed. “One of the things I’ve learned in this job is people want your ear,” she says. “I think it’s important to hear from everybody.” “She’ll meet with anyone, anytime,” says her assistant Jill Edwards, who also marvels at Merrifield’s ability to “keep a lot of things going at one time” and still always seem perfectly relaxed.

Merrifield’s job also requires some out-of-town travel to keep up with diversity developments in industry and at other universities. For all of those professional demands, she also finds time to read four to five newspapers a day either online or in hard copy, belong to two book clubs, and travel for pleasure.

A Chicagoan by birth, Merrifield holds a bachelor’s degree in business from Illinois Wesleyan University and a master’s degree in higher education administration from the University of Texas. Her first job out of college was in the insurance industry. Her second—after she married Lloyd Winston, who became Washington University’s assistant basketball coach—was at the University, as an academic advisor to undergraduate business students.

She left after a couple of years to become, for a decade, “an accompanying spouse,” working at Georgia State University in Atlanta and then Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, while her husband coached at colleges in those areas. His career change from coaching to teaching brought them back to St. Louis in 1996 and her back to the business school, advising graduate students this time. She did that for four years before moving on to the community relations job.

Winston is now a reading specialist at Ladue High School in suburban St. Louis. He and Merrifield have one child—a daughter, Rachel Winston, 19, who is a sophomore at Davidson College.

Susan C. Thomson is a free-lance writer based in St. Louis.