Princeton Introduces 'Diversity' Search Filter for University Vendors

Looking for a gay, Asian-American pencil-seller? Princeton has you covered.

Princeton University / Getty Images
August 9, 2022

Princeton University has created a "supplier diversity" tool that allows staff to search for vendors with "diverse attributes," part of a multiyear plan to inject diversity quotas into the school’s procurement process.

The tool, a screenshot of which was circulated on social media, lets users exclude suppliers outside a boutique cross-section of identities. A department buying office supplies, for example, could restrict its search to businesses owned by LGBT African Americans, Native American veterans, or "Asian Pacific American" women, among other combinations.

The tool is available to all Princeton faculty and staff, the university’s Office of Finance and Treasury said in a November newsletter. It came online after Princeton pledged in April 2021 to direct 10.5 percent of its expenditures to "certified diverse firms," according to a procurement plan posted on the school’s website.

Princeton University declined to comment for this story.

Supplier diversity has become something of a cause célèbre throughout higher education. Yale, for example, announced in October 2021 that it had launched a "Supplier Diversity Program" that would "identify and encourage" minority-owned businesses to bid for contracts. Harvard, Dartmouth, Swarthmore, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania have adopted similar programs.

The trend is part of a broader move toward race-conscious procurement schemes in the business world, where "supplier diversity" has become an ESG (environmental, social, and governance) buzzword—and a boon to consultancies. Several marquee consulting groups, including Deloitte and McKinsey, now offer resources to firms seeking to diversify their suppliers; Boston Consulting Group has an entire team that develops "inclusive strategies for advancing supplier diversity."

At Princeton, these trends have fueled the growth of an already massive bureaucracy, creating new jobs for diversity apparatchiks on the Ivy League campus. The school announced in May that it had hired Michelle Thomas—formerly a contract officer at the Federal Bureau of Prisons—to be its "associate director for supplier diversity." Thomas oversees the implementation of the procurement plan, which calls for Princeton to "engage a diversity advisory firm to assess program effectiveness." Success will be gauged, according to the plan, by the "proportion of total purchases that are made from certified diverse businesses," meaning businesses "at least 51 percent owned and operated by minorities, women, veterans, or members of the LGBTQ community."

The plan also creates incentives for firms that contract with Princeton to hire diversity consultants. Firms "that are not certified as diverse" can still demonstrate their "commitment to diversity"—and thus increase their odds of a contract—by adopting "diversity best practices," the plan suggests. Many diversity consultancies market themselves as the experts on such practices: Crossroads, for example, explicitly tells organizations that they are powerless to solve racism without the help of outside consultants.

Princeton’s supplier diversity efforts have had mixed results. Between 2015 and 2020, the university’s "expenditures to diverse suppliers" rose nearly 10-fold, putting it within striking distance of its 10.5 percent target.

But, the procurement plan concedes, "Black-owned businesses have been largely absent from those gains." Though 2.4 percent of U.S. businesses are black-owned, according to a LendingTree study from this year, black-owned businesses represent less than 1 percent of the university’s total expenditures.

"Equity for Black-owned businesses presents an opportunity for greater engagement," the plan says. But "even under optimal circumstances, firms that are not certified diverse will continue to comprise the majority of University suppliers."