James Madison University Takes Big-Picture Approach to Inclusive Excellence

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Diversity Champions exemplify an unyielding commitment to diversity and inclusion throughout their campus communities, across academic programs, and at the highest administrative levels. INSIGHT Into Diversity selected institutions that rank in the top tier of past Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award recipients. 

James Madison University (JMU) in Harrisonburg, Va., is founded on the belief that inclusion is at the heart of higher education. Under the guidance of President Jonathan Alger, JD, a national leader in affirmative action and civil rights litigation, the university has worked diligently to establish a culture in which civil discourse and the celebration of differences is the basis for educational excellence, personal development, and social progress.

Jonathan Alger

Alger’s influence on JMU is evidenced by how faculty, staff, and students work together to create a community where all students not only have access to higher education, but are also actively encouraged to engage in addressing issues of equity and social justice. “Diversity, access, and inclusion are embedded in our strategic plan and listed as one of 11 core qualities of our university,” says Alger. “Leadership at all levels is key to creating opportunities, allocating resources, and demonstrating support for such initiatives.”

“We strive to provide conversations and opportunities for all people to feel valued and heard,” adds Art Dean, executive director for the Office of Access and Inclusion. “We’re on a mission to create a campus environment where a person [of] any social identity can feel they belong and can contribute to the vibrancy of the JMU experience.”

Task Force on Inclusion
In the wake of the 2016 presidential election and the country’s increasingly divisive political climate, Alger decided last spring to launch a university task force to help create a campus environment where “people from different backgrounds can learn with and from each other in a way that is safe and civil,” he says. “After the election, and particularly after [the “Unite the Right” rally in] Charlottesville, we decided that we at JMU have an opportunity to model the kind of atmosphere of civil discourse that we would like to see in society.”

The Task Force on Inclusion is divided into four working groups focused on specific areas: campus climate for students, campus climate for employees, classroom inclusivity, and campus history and context. “[This type of work] requires active participation from faculty, staff, students, and the community, so the task force is quite large,” Alger explains. “It includes representatives from all different groups and perspectives because we have a very broad definition of diversity and inclusion at JMU.”

Perhaps the most innovative of the four, the history and context working group is designed to research and educate about JMU’s historical ties to segregation as well as create a better understanding of the legacy of oppression that has affected the university and the broader Harrisonburg community, says Alger.

“We are all shaped by our history, and we can’t change it, run from it, or ignore it,” he says. “What we can do is learn from it and think about where we go from here to change the story of our school and community to one that is inclusive and inviting of all voices.”

Art Dean

Dean says that one goal of the history and context working group is to research which building names, monuments, or other aspects of JMU’s campus may have historical connections to racism and white supremacy. “[Another one of our] goals is to understand how we can recognize the past while providing conversations that allow people from all sides to feel valued and heard,” he explains.

While it’s common knowledge that some of JMU’s buildings are named for leaders of the Confederacy, Dean says it’s important that the university community understand the context in which some naming occurred — as part of widespread southern resistance to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, for instance. “We believe knowing the truth behind these things on our campus is key to … having informed conversations about how to move forward as a community,” he says.

The history and context working group is expected to share its initial thoughts by spring 2018, at which time it will determine how to best inform the university community of its findings and what the next steps might be. According to Dean, this may include campus surveys or town-hall meetings.

Alger says that the most important priority for the working group is to educate the university and local community. He hopes the group’s findings will unite people in acknowledging and learning from the past, which may take the form of exhibits, presentations, publications, and even artwork. “It’s the job of all the different disciplines,” Alger says, “to think about how we can tell the story of our university.”

DEEP Impact 
At JMU, helping students understand cultural equity and social justice isn’t just the responsibility of faculty members or diversity and inclusion administrators; it is a shared responsibility at all levels. For example, the university’s Diversity Education Empowerment Program, known as DEEP Impact, employs undergraduate students to provide engaging, inclusive programming on the social justice issues that affect them and their peers. The program, which is overseen by the Center for Multicultural Student Services (CMSS), each year accepts eight to 10 student workers — or diversity educators, as they are called.

Ghant (center) with DEEP Impact diversity educators

Before applying for the paid position of diversity educator, students must spend at least one semester volunteering with DEEP Impact and complete a three-credit-hour leadership course. CMSS staff members Valarie Ghant, Tonya Lazdowski, and Dani Lechner — along with Associate Professor of Education Oris Giffin, EdD — teach the course to train facilitators. Ghant, who is the CMSS director, says that diversity educators come from a variety of backgrounds and majors, but all share the common goal of wanting to “contribute to their community by being a change agent.”

“Students sign up for the course because they are passionate about equity and social justice and because they want to learn more about the ways in which power, privilege, and oppression manifest themselves in society and on our campus,” says Ghant.

The DEEP Impact leadership course covers current events, social identity theory and terminology, and practical skills such as how to facilitate discussions on culturally sensitive topics. The breadth of the curriculum, Ghant explains, allows students to better understand their own identities and to appreciate the complexity of issues like bigotry and homophobia. She believes that this awareness is necessary for diversity educators to be able to successfully guide other students in activities that often require self-reflection.

DEEP Impact’s diversity dialogues, for example, invite students to openly discuss current events and issues related to social justice and identity, such as the mass incarceration of African Americans or immigration reform. Diversity educators facilitate these conversations by providing a researched overview of the topic and establishing ground rules to ensure participants respect the opinions of others. Diversity dialogues occur regularly throughout the semester and are usually open only to students, which Ghant says helps create an environment where they can share personal stories and opinions without feeling they need to defer to the authority of a faculty or staff member.

“Students show a much higher comfort level when they’re engaging with their peers on these types of issues,” she says. “It takes the power dynamic out of the situation so that collaborative learning and conversation can truly happen.”

At the same time, the conversations are meant to help students challenge their beliefs and broaden their perspectives. “It’s our intent that students coming into this space will walk away with a little more understanding and empathy for others and a better [awareness] of their own identity,” Ghant explains. “It is a great opportunity to learn from one another, especially in a time when there is such a need to try to understand differences — and to do so in a way that is positive and respectful, rather than negative and dismissive.”

Ghant believes that part of what makes the dialogues so powerful is the ability to speak truthfully on timely topics that affect the daily lives of JMU’s students. For instance, the diversity educators recently held a session in response to President Donald Trump’s rescission of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The event provided an opportunity for students protected by DACA to voice their concerns and to explain to their peers the effect that the rescission could have on them and their families.

DEEP Impact provides similar opportunities for open, honest conversation on difficult topics through its outreach programs, which are offered by request to individual classes and student organizations. In addition to facilitated discussions similar to the diversity dialogues, programs can include presentations, exercises, and workshops designed to meet specific learning outcomes. The diversity educators tailor the format and content for each class or group. One example would be a student service organization that wants to learn about the interplay of economic status and social privilege in order to better work with local disadvantaged populations, says Ghant.

“DEEP Impact’s programs are unique because they can be fluid and flexible to meet the needs of our campus,” she says. “It helps us as administrators stay in tune with students and to reach those who are passionate about making change in society.”

Professors in Residence 
In a community like Harrisonburg — where 56 percent of students are reportedly foreign-born and 30 percent of residents live in poverty, according to U.S. Census Bureau data — many young people believe that higher education is beyond their reach, says David Owusu-Ansah, PhD, a history professor and the executive director for faculty access and inclusion at JMU. To address this concern, in 2003, JMU’s faculty senate proposed the creation of a program that would allow the university to work directly with the city’s most underserved schools — those that have the highest percentage of free and reduced lunches — to empower and introduce sixth through 12th grade students to the possibility of postsecondary education.

A JMU Professor in Residence leads a science class at a PIR partner school.

Through the program, called Professors in Residence (PIR), Owusu-Ansah matches tenured faculty members with low-income middle and high schools where their particular areas of expertise can be of the most benefit; for example, a professor who specializes in reading and learning technologies may be matched with a school that has requested assistance with improving literacy. Professors in Residence take on reduced course loads, allowing them to spend at least one day a week working in their assigned schools, where their duties can include serving as consultants for administrators, helping teachers design curricula, or providing one-on-one advisement and tutoring for at-risk students.

PIR began by placing professors in Harrisonburg City Public Schools, but has since expanded to include underresourced schools in Richmond, Roanoke, and nearby rural communities. Owusu-Ansah says this expansion has only been possible because of the willingness of the entire university community to contribute to the program, including many faculty members who serve in roles other than as professors in residence. “The professors who serve in these schools become liaisons between them and the university and can let my office know of any extra needs [the schools] may have,” he explains. “If a history professor comes to me saying their school has a challenge with mathematics, I know I can go to our math department and find faculty willing to visit the school to help with this problem.”

PIR faculty who work in math, science, reading, and writing primarily work to increase students’ college readiness in these areas, says Owusu-Ansah. This often means finding ways to create innovative learning experiences that don’t require expensive materials, technology, or teacher training. At a nearby rural high school, for example, several JMU science faculty collaborated on a project that allowed students to raise local species of fish in classroom tanks, release them into their natural habitats, and perform research on the health of the fish in nearby streams. Beyond making learning more exciting and tangible, Owusu-Ansah says this type of experience shows disadvantaged students that they are capable of working with tenured professors on college-level coursework.

Some professors in residence work primarily in administrative roles in which they take on a variety of duties intended to increase the number of students who apply to and are prepared for college. This effort includes advising guidance counselors on how to help students determine a major and a career that suits their interests, arranging campus visits, or assisting with writing application essays and finding scholarships — whether students express interest in JMU or a different institution. “The idea is not just to get students to come to JMU, but to improve access to higher education for students across the state of Virginia,” says Owusu-Ansah.

Due to confidentiality, JMU does not have access to data regarding how many students from PIR partner schools go on to attend college — except for those who enroll at JMU. The participating professors and schools, however, have all noted a positive effect on students’ interest in pursuing higher education.”●

Mariah Bohanon is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. James Madison University is a 2017 INSIGHT Into Diversity HEED Award recipient.