This week’s events surrounding the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have made a profound impact on me.
In honoring Dr. King, our senior leadership team is simultaneously working to create an environment that celebrates diversity and ensures inclusion of all races, ethnicities, nationalities, disabilities, socioeconomic statuses, religions, genders and sexual orientations.
The events honoring Dr. King are vitally important to remind us not only how far we have come in race relations in this country but also how far we need to go. They remind us that the need to celebrate diversity and ensure an inclusive, welcoming campus is not regarded as an event or series of events – it must be intertwined into the fabric of who we are and how we interact with each other each and every day.
This is why the work of the Diversity Task Force is so important.
The Task Force, led by Professor Laura Vasquez and Athletics Director Sean Frazier and staffed by 16 additional staff and faculty members representing a cross section of the campus, delivered an outstanding report with a number of substantive and actionable recommendations. At the heart of the task force’s work were two fundamental tenets: first, that diversity be integrated into our campus mission and is a key value for the university, and, second, there is a critical need to bring focus, definition and leadership to our many diversity efforts.
I should add that diversity extends to our growing cadre of international students who are far from home, and face unique challenges in integrating into daily campus life. We need to understand and respect their unique cultural backgrounds to provide them with the support they need to have rewarding experiences at NIU.
The task force recommendations cover the following areas:
STAFFING AND LEADERSHIP – The key recommendation already has been adopted and acted upon. NIU is beginning recruitment of a chief diversity officer and senior associate vice president for Academic Diversity, who will become the focal point for NIU’s diversity and inclusion programs. This cabinet-level officer will report to Executive Vice President and Provost Lisa Freeman. The chief diversity officer will be empowered to provide vision, leadership and counsel on matters of diversity and inclusion, and will work closely with me on building a stronger community. He or she will engage all campus units to create a welcoming and respectful academic environment that embraces diversity as a dimension of excellence. The task force found that responsibility for diversity has been highly decentralized around campus, and we are in need of better coordinating and integrating these efforts. Accordingly, this officer will be provided with resources needed to support the colleges and divisions as these units develop discrete diversity strategic action plans. To help us with the search, we have retained the services of Witt/Kiefer, an executive search firm that has demonstrated thought leadership about the evolving role of the chief diversity officer in higher education. Jennifer Rosato Perea, dean of our College of Law, has agreed to chair the search committee, which is now forming.
HIRING – The task force reviewed how we go about recruiting diverse candidates for faculty and staff positions, and believe there is substantial room for improvement. This will be a key area of focus for the new chief diversity officer, but it also is a responsibility across the organization. We will look at establishing a robust staff and faculty mentoring program that will truly attract and support diverse faculty and staff members.
TEACHING & LEARNING – The task force has recommended that cultural diversity be infused throughout the curriculum. In response to this recommendation, the Office of the Provost will lead a shared governance effort to determine how to best reach this desired outcome. Our NIU Plus program, which represents a reformation of our general education curriculum, gives us a good platform for looking at this effort.
STUDENT ORIENTATION & EVENTS – The task force has recommended that diversity issues be integrated into our student orientation program, and we will work with Student Affairs to make this happen. The task force also believes that events provide an opportunity for inclusion and understanding across races, genders, ethnicities and beyond, and recommends the development of ongoing programming to achieve this objective.
MARKETING & COMMUNICATIONS – The task force notes that diversity should be integrated into the value proposition we are communicating to prospective students and we will look at ways of doing this. We also will look at our communications assets, including our website, to integrate additional diversity messaging in these channels.
My thanks to members of the task force for their diligence and seriousness of purpose in addressing this critical issue. Working together, we can live by the high ideals of Dr. King and his appeal to our better natures, thereby honoring his legacy every day of the year.
You will see more in the coming weeks of the individual initiatives being launched in each of these areas of NIU, and we look forward to seeing substantial progress in as we further integrate diversity and inclusion into our university operations.