For the past five years, Vernese Edghill-Walden has led the strategic efforts to make the NIU campus and community a more diverse and inclusive place for all to live, learn and work.
In recognition of her success, the NIU Board of Trustees voted June 18 to reappoint Edghill-Walden with a new title of vice president for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and chief diversity officer. Currently, she holds the positions of senior associate vice president and chief diversity officer.
The change will take effect July 1 and comes on the heels of Edghill-Walden’s appointment as the interim chief human resource officer for the next year.
NIU President Dr. Lisa C. Freeman credits Edghill-Walden for “a transformative effect on the climate and culture of the university.”
“With her leadership, our university has made substantial progress towards cultivating equity; building an inclusive community; and promoting education, awareness and action,” Freeman said. “In fact, her portfolio of responsibilities has expanded significantly over time as a direct result of her success at driving change and her ability to inspire collaboration among students, faculty, staff and alumni.”
Edghill-Walden’s accomplishments on campus include creating the Office of Academic Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, which merged existing offices focused on diversity initiatives, equal opportunity and outreach into a more cohesive and synergistic force for supporting students of color, the LGBTQIA and undocumented students and for increasing social justice education for faculty, staff and students.
She also raised the visibility of cultural centers, instituted implicit bias training for hiring committees and expanded social justice education from about 500 individuals four years ago to more than 3,000 faculty staff and students this past year. Under her leadership, a new Human Diversity requirement for all students also was created.
Her collaboration with other universities and nonprofits around the state to address academic equity and equity gaps has also elevated NIU’s profile as an institution committed to closing equity gaps. “Not because we have found all of the solutions, but because we have been willing to ask hard questions and address the issue,” Edghill-Walden said.
Those accomplishments and others have created a solid foundation to build upon, she said, but the most important work lies ahead.
“If we are going to move forward as an institution, we need to be able to continue to answer difficult questions and address inequities and not shy aware from addressing race, gender, gender identity, immigration status or disabilities.” she said. “We have developed ally educational programs that support undocumented students and LGBTQ awareness, but we need to develop additional training on race.
Other goals include addressing issues that were brought into sharp relief by the COVID-19 pandemic, including food insecurity, health insecurity and disparity, and technology disparities among students of color. “The pandemic has been a huge lens into poverty. Now we need to translate that awareness into ways that we can better serve those students,” she said.
Edghill-Walden hopes that her leadership of Human Resources Services will allow her to extend efforts to create a more inclusive community to faculty and staff.
“There are many opportunities to make our institution more inclusive, not just for our students but as a workplace for employees. That work begins with a prospective employee’s first impression of NIU, and I think there are exciting opportunities for ADEI and HRS to tell a story that helps us attract and retain a more diverse workforce,” she said.
The importance of creating an inclusive and equitable culture has been amplified by the Black Lives Matter protests of recent weeks, she said. In addition to the local and national protests, the Supreme Court decision that protects the LGBTQIA community from workplace discrimination and the decision to keep DACA further support NIU’s effort to be an institution committed to inclusion.
“It’s an exciting time,” Edghill-Walden said. “We are at a moment, as an institution and as a country, where if each of us do our own work, we can make substantive change and dismantle systems of oppression. It would be huge.”
President Freeman said she looks forward to working with Edghill-Walden to make that goal a reality.
“I am delighted that Vernese will be remaining at NIU as the vice president for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, encouraging our community to model learning, growth and shared responsibility as we move forward together to eradicate systemic racism and dismantle structures that perpetuate inequity,” Freeman said.
Edghill-Walden’s prior academic and professional experience prepared her well for success at NIU.
From 2007 to 2015, she served the City Colleges of Chicago in positions of increasing responsibility, advancing from associate director of Research and Evaluation to executive director of Academic Development to associate vice chancellor for General Education and Academic Affairs to provost and chief academic officer.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Bucknell University in 1987, a master’s degree in higher education administration from the University of Delaware in 1992 and a Ph.D. in sociology from Howard University in 2007.