New chief diversity officer talks about inaugural role at NIU

Vernese Edghill-Walden
Vernese Edghill-Walden

It’s been a little over a month since Vernese Edghill-Walden joined Northern Illinois University as the first chief diversity officer and senior associate vice president for academic diversity.

As the former provost and chief academic officer of the City Colleges of Chicago, Edghill-Walden has a wealth of higher education experience and is a recognized leader in diversity education and research in race and gender.

Edghill-Walden sat down with NIU Today to share some insight on her new role as a member of the Huskie team.

What does a chief diversity officer do?
One of the things I really think is important about a chief diversity officer is being able provide vision, to coordinate and to oversee university-wide diversity activities and inclusive initiatives for the university. Many times the diversity activities tend to be more decentralized, so this role allows for there to be a hub of centralized goals, activities and initiatives around campus.

How do you define diversity?
I would rather not create my own definition of diversity, because the university has drafted a definition for diversity and that’s the perspective we should use.

  • NIU’s definition of diversity (from the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force report)
    “At NIU, diversity means recognizing and respecting differences, acknowledging similarities, broadening our horizons, engaging with others, and embracing and enhancing cultural competency. By incorporating many voices and perspectives, diversity enhances our ability to achieve the university’s mission of engagement and excellence.”

Why is it important for NIU to have a chief diversity officer?
It’s safe to say even though it is 2015, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in higher education around how we educate and prepare students for global society. We are living in a world that is not the same as it was 20 to 30 years ago, and it is imperative that students leave NIU being able to work with people that might be different from them, work in different countries, and interact with people from different backgrounds. When we talk about what kind of student we want to prepare for the workforce, we cannot do it without ensuring that we prepare them to be global citizens.

Why are you passionate about this position?
I have been committed to this for over 25 years. I was really involved in inclusion and equity work as an undergraduate student, in my graduate work and as a professional. I went to a small liberal arts college and did not see a lot of people that looked like me in leadership roles, and I really thought it was important to dedicate my career to improving that reality for college students from diverse groups.

Block PartyWhy are you excited about being part of NIU?
What is exciting about this position at NIU is that it has institutional support, resources and personnel committed to improving the university commitment to diversity and inclusion. It is exciting to join NIU because it allows me to strengthen our historical commitment to diversity and improve program and services to be more inclusive, efficient and effective.

What does NIU do well when it comes to diversity?
We have a lot of programs that help improve access, but we need to also focus on strategies that improve retention and completion of all students. In addition, we need better program collaboration to ensure all students, faculty and staff are aware and engaged in the programs offered that improve diversity and inclusion.

What do you think we could improve upon?
I think we can do a lot more when it comes to retention and completion of racially diverse groups in particular. I think we can do a lot more when it comes to students, faculty and staff with disabilities, and actually making others aware of what accommodations are needed to improve living, learning and working environments. We could do a lot more for and with our international student population as well as with all of the academic and resource centers available at NIU.

I hear quite often from NIU faculty, staff and students that they are very proud of the many programs at NIU, but we are in desperate need for better coordination of these activities and initiatives. I see this coordination and collaboration as a part of my role, working with a community committed to diversity and inclusion is what attracted me to this position.

by Jane Donahue

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