Big 12 Universities Excel at More than Just Sports

It would be fair to assume that when most people consider the Big 12 Conference, the first thing that comes to mind is the athletic prowess of its member universities. Within this nonprofit coalition — made up of 10 institutions in Texas, Kansas, Iowa, Oklahoma, and West Virginia — sports do play a large role in the dynamics of each campus’s culture. But that is only part of the picture.

The pursuit of excellence in diversity and inclusion ranks high among Big 12 universities’ commitment to their students, faculty, and staff. They are also dedicated to improving their campus climate and ensuring that all members of their community feel respected and have a safe space within which to express their ideas and concerns.

Six of the 10 institutions in the Big 12 Conference are recipients of the 2016 INSIGHT Into Diversity Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award, and two are also Diversity Champion institutions. In addition, the Big 12 Chief Diversity Officers Consortium — which seeks to find opportunities for joint diversity and inclusion programming — has set a goal for each of its 10 member institutions to earn a HEED Award.

Baylor University
In the past year, Baylor University (BU) has been busy building up its diversity infrastructure. In that time, Elizabeth Palacios, PhD, dean for student development, was named special assistant to the president on diversity, and Lori Baker, PhD, was appointed vice provost for strategic initiatives, collaboration, and leadership development.

“We are excited to have our two positions because they were both created in the spring in an effort to round out what we’re already doing on diversity,” says Baker, who serves on the President’s Advisory Council on Diversity.

Baker also works on initiatives to bring more faculty of color and women in STEM to campus. With funding from the provost’s office, current BU faculty have the opportunity to apply for $7,500 grants to help recruit these groups.

Palacios’ work is student-focused, and she says she has been collaborating with the Multicultural Student Cabinet at BU over the past year to increase communication between students and the president’s office to ensure their input in policy making.

Another faculty recruitment effort is BU’s Young Scholars program, which provides mentoring and support to Baylor graduates of color who are pursuing graduate studies at other universities.

“We hope that as they finish their graduate studies, they’ll consider coming back and being on faculty at Baylor,” Baker says, “but [the effort is] also to make sure they’re successful and developed … for their future.”

Additionally, BU’s annual Robert Foster Cherry Award — totaling $250,000 — recognizes outstanding teaching and brings the awarded professor to Baylor for a year in residence. The 2016 recipient is Michelle Hebl, PhD, the Martha and Henry Malcolm Lovett Professor of Psychology at Rice University. Her work centers on diversity and discrimination.

Furthermore, BU has established an exchange program with the historically black Xavier University in New Orleans to offer students and faculty an opportunity to experience different cultural perspectives in a new environment.

Iowa State University
Each year, Iowa State University (ISU) takes a contingent of faculty, staff, and students to the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education (NCORE). At last year’s conference in San Francisco, ISU’s President for Diversity and Inclusion Reginald Stewart, PhD, says there were 72 representatives from the university in attendance; he says the university’s consistently high participation at the event is a point of pride. In order to further the conversation and disseminate lessons learned at NCORE, ISU holds its own version of the conference, called ISCORE. Next year, the university plans to expand the event to include a community component.

Another unique feature of ISU’s diversity efforts is its Multicultural Liaison Officer (MLO). Each of ISU’s six colleges has a dedicated MLO who knows the ins and outs of his or her academic unit and who supports and advocates for diverse students within that unit. By designating MLOs within each college, the university has made the work of supporting underrepresented students the responsibility of more than just one centralized office.

Financial support for diversity has also been a strong point at ISU. The university has, as Stewart says, put money where its mouth is by being innovative about how it provides resources for diversity programming and by being laser-focused on securing funding.

“The work of diversity and inclusion is a financial investment, and much of it is new for us,” Stewart says.

Because of the newness of these efforts, faculty and staff have been intentional about writing grants and bringing in money to allow for the creation of innovative diversity programs — and their work has paid off. Last year, ISU was awarded a nearly $10 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to increase minority student participation in STEM at the graduate level, with the ultimate goal to increase faculty diversity in these fields.

Oklahoma State University – 2012-2016 HEED Award recipient

OSU students participate in the Office of Institutional Diversity’s Student Success Center Kickoff event.

Oklahoma State University’s (OSU) commitment to increasing diversity is decades old; since 1994, the university has served as the lead institution for the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP), a program funded by NSF that works to increase the number of minority students at every level pursuing studies in STEM. Jason Kirksey, PhD, vice president for institutional diversity and chief diversity officer at OSU, serves as the principal investigator on the project.

Kirksey is also president of the Big 12 Chief Diversity Officers Consortium. He says the group meets regularly to discuss ideas and share strategies and best practices around diversity and inclusion.

Jason Kirksey

OSU is a designated Minority-Serving Institution, and Kirksey says that is in large part due to its high enrollment of Native American students. He says OSU ranks first in the U.S. for the number of minority students who earn associate, bachelor’s, and graduate degrees.

To further partnerships with Oklahoma’s 39 federally recognized Native American tribal nations, in 2015, OSU launched its Center for Sovereign Nations. The center seeks to promote understanding of tribal nations’ sovereignty, serve as an advocate for Native American students on campus, and increase partnerships between OSU and Native American communities in the state.

Another signature OSU initiative is its Retention Initiative for Student Excellence (RISE). The program, which is 10 years old, assists first-year students in the transition from high school to college. OSU also boasts robust participation in its TRiO programs: Upward Bound, Student Support Services, and Educational Talent Search.

Texas Christian University

Darron Turner

At Texas Christian University (TCU), Chief Inclusion Officer and Title IX Coordinator Darron Turner, PhD, says the university’s Community Scholars program has been successful in attracting students from diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. Through a partnership with 11 schools in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, high school seniors have the opportunity to compete for a full-ride scholarship to TCU; during the last school year, the university awarded 44 of these scholarships. According to Turner, they have seen four-year graduation rates of 90 percent for students in the program.

In addition, TCU has focused on training students, faculty, and staff to engage in difficult conversations. “Most of these conversations happen when we’re not there; they happen outside of the classroom,”  Turner says. “That’s why it’s important to have someone there who’s been through the training.”

Students play bongos during TCU’s Community Renewal Drum Cafe event.

TCU also holds a free luncheon on the last Friday of every month, where anyone can come to eat and interact with people of diverse backgrounds. “It’s amazing what a plate of food and a small room will get you,” Turner says of the event.

Moving forward, Turner hopes TCU can continue to expand opportunities for students of all backgrounds to meet and interact. He says he would like to work with faculty members to create in-class opportunities for dialogue, so that students who may otherwise not attend diversity events on campus can engage with diverse perspectives.

Texas Tech University – 2012-2016 HEED Award recipient and 2016 Diversity Champion
Since 2009, Texas Tech University’s (TTU) Teaching, Learning, and Professional Development Center (TLPDC) has been facilitating teaching excellence through its Institute for Inclusive Excellence (IIE). Annually, 15 faculty members from nearly as many departments spend the academic year working through modules aimed at improving their understanding of diversity, equity, and access in the classroom and across the institution. Guest speakers from TTU and other universities lead discussions on issues of identity and implicit bias.

Suzanne Tapp

Suzanne Tapp, executive director of the TLPDC and co-facilitator of the IIE, says a unique result of the program has been the development of relationships within the cohort. Some members have formed research teams across disciplines — business and education, for instance.

The current IIE cohort, Tapp says, has expressed concern over how to best handle post-election conversations in the classroom. She says a resource from the Portland State University Office of Academic Innovation has proven useful for assisting faculty with navigating tricky conversations and that IIE members are continually discussing how best to contribute to the community.

Judi Henry

TTU student-athletes have been active in community outreach as well. Judi Henry, EdD, senior associate athletics director at TTU, points to the J.T. and Margaret Talkington Leadership Academy at the university. She says student-athletes in the program are involved in community outreach — participating in reading and mentoring activities with young students, serving as role models, and going on outings with low-income students. Henry says the academy has played a part in attracting diverse student-athletes to campus, including international students.

University of Kansas
While the University of Kansas’ (KU) diversity initiatives may still be in their “infancy,” Vice Provost for Diversity and Equity E. Nathan Thomas III, PhD, says that the university is trying to stay one step ahead of crises, both national and local.

E. Nathan Thomas III

“With all the dynamics taking [shape] over the last two to three years, as an institution, we’re trying to mobilize leaders to be ahead of social issues and incidents that may take place,” says Thomas, who is also the vice president of the Big 12 Chief Diversity Officers Consortium. “We know that what happens at the national level will probably impact our campus, and we want to get in front of some of those [issues] and make sure that students feel safe.”

Over the past year, KU completed a climate survey of its five campuses. Thomas expects that the results will allow the university to better target its diversity and inclusion efforts. Through the work of its Diversity Leadership Council Workgroup, KU will set goals related to those results.

University of Oklahoma – 2016 HEED Award recipient

Jabar Shumate

Jabar Shumate, vice president for the university community at the University of Oklahoma (OU), was hired in 2015 shortly after a racist incident that was caught on video shook the university community. But he had been in conversation with OU President David Boren, JD, for months prior about improving diversity and inclusion on campus. The university was aware that it needed to be doing more to provide for its underrepresented minority students, Shumate says.

In his role, Shumate is responsible for changing the OU community by bringing diverse individuals together.

“We know stereotypes arise when people don’t take the time to talk to and engage with people from different backgrounds,” he says. That’s why OU encourages students to study abroad; by doing so, they get to experience how it feels to be in the “out” group.

Members of the campus community recognize OU President David Boren for 50 years of public service.

OU was one of the first institutions in the Big 12 to have a diversity course requirement for its students and a dedicated freshman diversity experience. Now in its second year, roughly 8,000 students have gone through the Freshmen Diversity Experience, which Shumate says helps develop culturally competent student leaders who work well with people from diverse backgrounds.

The University of Texas at Austin – 2012-2016 HEED Award recipient and 2016 Diversity Champion

Gregory Vincent

The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) has one of the few self-sustaining athletics programs in the country, but in recent years, the university has also been in the spotlight for its legal entanglements. Vice President for Diversity and Community Engagement Gregory Vincent, PhD, JD, believes the legal scrutiny over the institution’s race-conscious admissions practices has only served to strengthen UT Austin’s commitment to increasing diversity.

“Being faced with the legal scrutiny of the last 20 years — and the last eight years with the Fisher case — has been a major mark of our commitment to diversity and the success of race-conscious admissions,” he says.

In the athletic arena, Vincent says student-athletes are university representatives and have been leaders on campus. “They represent us, and they are perhaps our most well-known members,” he says.

Students during UT Austin’s 15th annual day of community service, called The Project

As such, different leadership initiatives are in place to help develop student-athletes. The Black Student-Athlete Summit is held annually at UT, and this year’s theme was “The Black Student-Athlete in the Age of Black Lives Matter.”

Vincent says he is concerned that in light of the current political climate, some students may feel empowered to express their ideas in ways that can be perceived as offensive. He wants to ensure that UT Austin is a place where students feel safe and accepted.

West Virginia University – 2016 HEED Award recipient
Located in one of the whitest states in the U.S., West Virginia University (WVU) remains undeterred; despite the challenges caused by demographics, WVU has successfully increased student diversity through targeted recruitment and has become more racially diverse than the overall state population. In fact, this year’s student body was the most diverse in WVU history.

David Fryson

“Since 2012, we’ve found innovative ways of attracting diverse faculty and students,” says David Fryson, JD, vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion. “We’ve used innovative recruiting strategies to raise the university’s diversity profile in a state that is not known for its diversity.”

Fryson says that one measure of success is the increased diversity of applicants to WVU. In 2016, first-time applications from African American students increased more than 99 percent; from Hispanic students, 58 percent; and from Asian students, 62 percent. Fryson credits the university’s “out-of-the-box” recruiting strategies — such as attending the faith-based conference MegaFest in Dallas and Multifest in Charleston, W.V., a three-day education and cultural festival — for such success in attracting underrepresented minority students.

WVU’s new LGBTQ+ Center

Furthermore, Fryson points out that WVU continues to raise its diversity profile through new and ongoing initiatives, from its signature Chancellor’s Scholars Program, which works to increase the number of underrepresented minority students in doctoral programs, to the opening last fall of its LGBTQ+ Center.

Kansas State University – 2014-2016 HEED Award recipient
Established as the Kansas State Agricultural College in 1863, Kansas State University (K-State) is the oldest public higher education institution in the state. The university continues to have a strong agricultural program and offers a signature summer initiative to engage low-income youth in outdoor experiences.

Now in its 10th year, the Nicodemus Educational Camps provide an opportunity for primarily low-income students in grades five through 10 to spend a summer in residence at K-State, where they fish, hike, and ride horseback. The purpose of the program is to expose these students to educational and outdoor experiential activities they might not have been able to experience otherwise. The Kansas Black Farmers Association funds the camps — which are offered twice in the summer, for 20-30 students each session — and they are co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service Center, the Caroline Peine Charitable Foundation, and K-State’s College of Agriculture.

Zelia Wiley

“The Nicodemus camp is a great opportunity to increase students’ awareness of [careers] in agriculture,” says Zelia Wiley, PhD, interim associate provost for diversity at K-State. “What we’re showing them is that [agriculture has] a rich history and is part of the foundation of America. You can find a good job in agriculture; it’s not just getting dirty.”

K-State is also working to grow female representation in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The university’s Office for the Advancement of Women in Science and Engineering offers a series of Women in Science Programs meant to increase the participation and advancement of women in these fields, starting as early as the sixth grade. For girls in grades six through 12, the Girls Researching Our World (GROW) and Exploring Science, Technology, and Engineering (EXCITE!) programs introduce young girls to STEM through one-day workshops and summer camps on the K-State campus. At the undergraduate through postdoctoral levels, the SUCCEED and ADVANCE programs allow female STEM students to serve as mentors and provide networking and professional development opportunities.

INSIGHT Into Diversity Co-publisher Lenore Pearlstein (right) presents the 2016 HEED Award to Zelia Wiley and K-State Provost and Senior Vice President April Mason.

Launched by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in 2003, the Kauffman Scholars Program is another signature initiative at K-State. During the summer, low-income, urban students from the Kansas City area stay in K-State residential halls, participate in educational and recreational activities, and receive academic and life-skills mentoring. The program follows students from the seventh grade through the completion of a bachelor’s degree, in classes of 200 to 300.

The program has 1,013 active scholars, with 601 enrolled in college during the 2015-2016 academic year. The Kauffman Foundation estimates that by the end of the program — which will be marked by the graduation of its current scholars in 2021-2022 — the organization will have invested $130 million in these students over 19 years.

For Wiley, this work is deeply tied to K-State’s mission as a land-grant university.

“We know … that we have to educate [diverse] populations,”  Wiley says. “As a land-grant institution, we need to prepare this generation to take jobs, go back to the farm, or go to graduate school, so we are working to truly increase the pipeline.”●

Rebecca Prinster is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.