By Dr. Sherry Turner, Vice President for Strategic Initiatives and Chief Diversity Officer
Several events that have transpired in the wake of protests to George Floyd’s murder have highlighted the various ways in which my own experiences as a Rhodes student inform my work as an administrator, keep me honest and make me even more determined to use my position at Rhodes to effect meaningful change. Several days ago, I took a trip down memory lane with a colleague. While searching the Rhodes digital archives, my colleague found an old issue of the Sou’Wester that contained a letter that I had written to the editor in May of 1984. In that letter, I detailed the alienation of Black students, lack of culturally relevant campus programming, and instances of subtle and overt racism we experienced on a regular basis.
After reading that letter, I found a copy of the Sou’Wester from my first year that featured a special section on being Black at Rhodes. Remarkably, with few exceptions, the concerns raised by Black students almost forty years ago are the same concerns we have heard voiced by Black students in the past three weeks. The similarity of our experiences highlights that neither my experiences from over three decades ago nor the experiences of Black students today are unique to our particular moment in the history of the Rhodes. Instead the similarities underscore that there are some persistent challenges at Rhodes. Our students today have demonstrated extraordinary courage and agency in revealing Rhodes’ imperfections and in prompting the institution to move forward. Their critique stems from their loyalty to Rhodes and their desire to see Rhodes live up to its potential.
When Rhodes College’s President, Dr. Marjorie Hass, invited me to serve as the College’s first Vice President for Strategic Initiatives and Chief Diversity Officer in February 2018, I needed to be fully transparent. First and foremost, I wanted her to know that my experiences as an African American student at Rhodes had been very painful ones that had made me hesitant to return to my alma mater. Yet I also wanted her to know what I thought would be necessary to ensure that any person in the role would be successful. I conveyed that diversity and inclusion work could be very difficult because it involves taking unpopular positions and holding the institution accountable for doing better; and that Rhodes College, rather than the Chief Diversity Officer, needed to own the work, articulate its goals and priorities and set the institution’s agenda. I also shared with her that after having read consultant reports and task force recommendations dating back 20 years, I felt strongly that the campus needed to develop a plan and a strategy for implementing change - especially in those problematic areas that surface repeatedly.
I found her responses reassuring. She assured me that diversity and inclusion would be a major component of the College’s strategic plan. She wanted to set institution-wide goals and help move the college forward on issues related to climate, equity, diversity, and inclusion so that future students would not leave feeling the same way I did. She promised that I would have her full support and would not have to do the work alone. With that conversation, I began to consider how I would approach the task that I was being called upon to accomplish and to contemplate what it would be like to return to Rhodes.
There have been promising signs. What I appreciate most about my new position is that diversity, equity, inclusion and access are being explicitly linked to the College’s strategic plan. President Hass and many of my colleagues have been intentional in considering who the students of the future will be, what the Rhodes of the future will be, what our impact on the world will be, and how we will create an environment in which all students have a sense of belonging and thrive.
My “Sankofa” Moment
After graduating from Rhodes, I was fortunate to have studied and worked at other colleges and universities that provided the affirmation, resources and support that I did not find as a student at Rhodes. Throughout my career in higher education, I have tried to foster the type of campus environments in which those who are at the margins know that they truly do belong and can thrive. I take this work seriously and feel that it is part of my calling and mission. In many ways, my return to Rhodes is my “Sankofa” moment. “Sankofa” is a principle of the Akan people of Southern Ghana and can be translated as “go back to the past and fetch it.” I’m returning to Rhodes and bringing forward those things that were necessary for my success and will be necessary for the success of future generations of students. I am committed to this work and believe in our capacity to achieve success in it.
This moment is also one in which I reflect on the principle of “Kuumba,” a Swahili word that means “creativity”and that speaks to my own responsibility to “do always as much as I can, in the way that I can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than I inherited it.”
Granted, Rhodes has made a lot of progress since I was a student. Whereas there were no Black faculty, only two female tenure-track faculty and fewer than three Black salaried employees during my student years, there are now approximately 50 Black persons in those roles along with two Black Vice Presidents and five Black trustees. Whereas it was rare to encounter courses that focused on diversity and inclusion, we now have a major in Africana Studies and minors in Latin American and Latinx Studies; Gender and Sexuality Studies; Asian Studies and Jewish, Islamic and Middle East Studies. We have both recruited and graduated significantly more diverse students (approximately 10% Black students and 30% students of color today compared to 3% in 1984). We have newly created positions including a Chief Diversity Officer, a Dean for Faculty Recruitment, Retention, and Diversity and a host of committees and working groups focused on diversity, equity and inclusion. We have instituted a bias reporting system and we require academic departments to report on their diversity and inclusion efforts.
In spite of these markers of success, there remain two persistent problems that Rhodes must overcome.
- In spite of the recent success we have had in recruiting Black faculty and staff, we have not been as successful in retaining them or in providing opportunities for meaningful career growth.
- Although our Black students succeed at Rhodes, their experiences at Rhodes are less positive than their white peers.
Addressing the Problem: A Path Forward
Why do these problems persist? In my observation, Rhodes has progressed in the area of diversity. We can both document and see the increases in the representation of persons across various dimensions of difference such as race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, social class, education, language, age, gender, gender expression, sexual orientation and ability.
Yet we have fallen short in our collective efforts at inclusion. We have not yet succeeded in creating a community that embraces difference and that welcomes, respects, supports and values every individual or group. As we have stated in our strategic plan, we must work toward a campus climate that fosters a sense of belonging, relationship building and community building across difference.
We must also give careful consideration to our efforts to promote equity. Are we ensuring fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all members of our community? Are we identifying and eliminating barriers that have prevented the full participation and recognition of some groups at Rhodes? Are we correcting historical and current imbalances in the way that we provide effective opportunities to historically underserved and underrepresented populations? As a group of students indicated in their recent Facebook post, we must do better.
I have found the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) Inclusive Excellence framework and assessment tools developed by College and University Professional Association for Human Resources and the New England Resource Center for Higher Education to be useful in helping us to articulate what “doing better” looks like:
- Our commitment to diversity and inclusion must be championed by our top campus leaders who are both equipped and willing to engage our stakeholders in dialogue about the value of diversity, equity and inclusion to Rhodes’ educational mission.
- Our commitment to this work must be championed, lead and owned by our faculty who must understand that diversity, inclusion and equity are essential to Rhodes’ academic core.
- Our commitment must be reflected in our curriculum, pedagogies, research, scholarship, creative endeavors and service.
- Our commitment must be informed by data, scholarship and best practices, regularly reexamined and visible in our formal institutional goals, priorities, strategies, policies and procedures.
- Our commitment must be obvious from our recruitment, retention, graduation and embrace of under-represented students.
- Our commitment must be evident in the opportunities we provide for students to learn, grow, lead and serve in ways that promote an understanding of diversity, inclusion, and equity.
- Our commitment must be proven by the expectations we set for, training we provide to and our evaluation of the work of our faculty and staff.
- Our commitment must be visible in the representation of diverse people in positions of leadership, on committees and other roles.
- Our commitment must be documented in our annual assessment of equity in recruiting, employment patterns, compensation, benefits, promotion, attrition and retention of faculty and staff among members of protected groups.
- Our commitment must be reflected in our institutional culture – our celebration of diversity; our modes of promoting dialogue and personal growth among all members of this community; and our collective response to crisis.
- Our commitment to this work must be shown in our meaningful engagement and partnerships with the broader external community.
- Our commitment to this work must be reflected in the funding and resources that we devote to diversity and inclusion programs and staff, particularly in times of budget crisis.
The Plan for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Rhodes is in development and will consist of these core components.
To My Rhodes Colleagues
To my fellow administrators and executives, the passionate voices of our students and the uprisings taking place in communities around the globe demand that we get this right. We have to dig deep and ask hard questions: What is it about Rhodes that makes these issues pertaining to racism, diversity and inclusion persist? What is at the heart of the problem? How do we restructure the edifices that lead to inequity on our campus?
If we are serious about inclusive excellence, then our efforts must be shown vertically at every level of the institution and horizontally across and within every unit of the institution. Every division and every department must take responsibility for promoting diversity and inclusion.
Certainly, at Rhodes, like most colleges and universities, we can identify a variety of initiatives, programs or services that promote diversity and inclusion. Yet a hallmark of inclusive excellence is that campus efforts are institutionalized and coordinated to yield greater impact for all students and for the institution as a whole.
To Rhodes Black Students and Fellow Alumni
I hear you. I feel you. I see you. I believe you.
It is not lost on me that this year marked Rhodes’ first Sankofa celebration – an event to acknowledge our Black graduates’ hard work and accomplishments and celebrate Black culture. Our acknowledgment and study of our history at Rhodes can serve a useful purpose in ensuring success for future Rhodes students and the College itself. There is work for you to do as well.
- Remember that your purpose in coming to Rhodes is to get an education.
- Explore your intersectional identities and the ways systems of oppression target Native American, Asian American, Latinx and other underrepresented communities.
- Work to bring about inclusion, belonging and representation for your counterparts who are different from you.
- Continue your efforts to build a beloved community and to ensure that Rhodes fulfills its promises to all students.
To Other Under-Represented Groups at Rhodes
Your presence in this community and your varied identities – age, race, ethnicity, gender, ability, nationality, religion, class, age, gender expression, sexual orientation, race, etc. – contribute to the richness and strength of the Rhodes community. Your challenges and triumphs as members of this community must be acknowledged. Our commitment to create an empowering diverse, inclusive and equitable environment and to doing better is to you.
We recognize the critical importance of our understanding the full breadth and depth of diversity within the Rhodes community and of our intentional support of that diversity. The ways in which we acknowledge your history, presence, accomplishments and needs; pursue our goal of full inclusion and belonging; and provide ongoing support and resources reflect our commitment to you.
To the Broader Rhodes Community
Our diverse community at Rhodes and our placement in Memphis provide rich opportunities for learning about our own identities and those of others, about power and privilege, about engaging in meaningful dialogue and building coalitions across difference, about allyship and about structures and systems that must be dismantled.
When I said yes to President Hass’s invitation to serve in my current capacity, I knew that I was committing to climb a very steep hill. It is reassuring to know that there are others who are climbing with me and understand the rigor required to bring about institution-wide change in climate, equity, diversity, and inclusion at Rhodes. There is much work to be done and I believe that with our shared commitments there is much that we can accomplish together.
College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (May 5, 2020). CUPA-HR’s DEI Maturity Index – A Tool to Improve DEI Among the Higher Ed Workforce. Retrieved from: https://www.cupahr.org/blog/cupahr-dei-maturity-index-a-tool-to-improve-dei-among-the-higher-ed-workforce/on June 2, 2020.
New England Resource Center for Higher Education (2014). Self-Assessment Rubric for the Institutionalization of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Higher Education. Retrieved from: www.nerche.org/images/...Rubric/NERCHE_PI_Rubric_Self-Assessment_2017.pdf on July 9, 2018.
Williams, D. A., Berger, J. B. & McClendon, S. A. (2005). Toward a Model of Inclusive Excellence and Change in Postsecondary Institutions. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.