What Does Tillerson’s ‘Rooney Rule’ Mean for the State Department?

Modeled on NFL program, secretary of state to require minorities to be considered for all ambassadorships

by Brendan Kirby | Updated 18 Aug 2017 at 1:56 PM

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Friday announced a diversity initiative for the State Department that requires the consideration of at least one minority candidate every time an ambassador position becomes available.

Tillerson did not mention it by name, but the program closely resembles a 2003 diversity initiative in the NFL that came to be known as the “Rooney Rule,” after the man who proposed it, former Pittsburgh Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney.

Rooney, who died earlier this year, persuaded his fellow owners to adopt a rule requiring that minority candidates be interviewed for every head coaching job. The league later extended the rule in 2009 to general manager positions, and adopted a similar rule requiring a woman to be interviewed for every front-office opening.

Tillerson lamented to reporters that only 12 percent of senior foreign service officers and senior executive services officers are non-white. While blacks make up about a quarter of civil service positions, only 9 percent are foreign service specialists, and 5 percent of foreign service generalists are.

"We have a great diversity gap in the State Department," he said. "We need a State Department that reflects the American people, reflects who we are. The State Department must redouble our efforts to increased diversity at the highest ranks of the department, including at the ambassador level."

Tillerson said the initiative will include more robust outreach and recruitment efforts and that the department will cast a wider net during searches for employees. He said he will instruct the department to identify promising candidates within the department five to 10 years before they are prepared to be leaders, and nurture and mentor their careers.

"We must have a more deliberate process to cultivate the abundance of minority talent we already have in the State Department," he said. "All of this is a leadership issue. It's the role of leadership, from the secretary of state to the assistant secretaries and directors of bureaus, and everyone in between. We have to own this process."

Tillerson added: "America's best and brightest are not just from the Ivy League, but they're from a lot of other places in the country."

"Diversity is going to destroy this nation — not the result of it, but this quest for it. This is dangerous."

Ward Connerly, founder and president of the American Civil Rights Institute, greeted Tilleson's initiative with skepticism. He said it is appropriate to recruit as widely and broadly as possible, but he added that it should be race-neutral.

"Diversity is going to destroy this nation — not the result of it, but this quest for it," he said. "This is dangerous."

Connerly said America should reward the best and the brightest and not be concerned about physical characteristics such as race and gender. The Constitution, he said, mentions equality but not diversity.

"That's going down the wrong path," he said. "And that's why things are so poisonous now."

The Rooney Rule led to an immediate surge in black coaches in the NFL. Since 2007, there have been 10 Super Bowl teams with either a minority head coach or general manager.

John Wooten, a former NFL player and scout who now serves as chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance Foundation, told LifeZette that the rule has been a fantastic success, leading not just to more black coaches but more minorities in all jobs throughout the league.

"Go check it out," he said. "The commissioner will tell you, the NFL is a better league than it was 20 years ago."

Facebook, Pinterest, Intel, Xerox, Amazon and other companies have adopted their own versions of the Rooney Rule. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) urged his colleagues earlier this year to adopt the Rooney Rule for congressional staffs.

Wooten said there is no reason it could not work for the State Department as well.

"The people who are in positions to make [hiring] decisions have to take it upon themselves to have a diverse slate of candidates, and that should include minorities," he said. "There's nothing complicated about it."

Some critics have noted that a large percentage of the black head coaches hired since the Rooney Rule came from the "coaching tree" of one head coach — Tony Dungy — and that the increase in minority hiring has leveled off in recent years.

Wooten strongly pushed back against such criticism. Anyone who believes the rule has been ineffective "doesn't watch football," he said. He added that it requires the will of leaders to carry it out and good-faith efforts at recruitment.

"It has to have commitment," he said. "There are plenty of black folks and minorities who are qualified to do any job in this country if you're willing to go look for them."

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