Kennesaw State University Examines, Embraces Diversity on a Personal Level

Although Kennesaw State University (KSU) is a relatively young institution at only 52 years old, its history is complex. Located in metropolitan Atlanta, Ga., the university utilizes its history and connection to the community to serve students of all backgrounds through awareness and understanding.

[Above: More than 3,000 Kennesaw State University students, faculty, staff, and community members come together on the university’s main campus in metropolitan Atlanta, Ga. in an attempt to break the world record for the largest human peace sign in April 2012.]

“I think it’s very easy to … not recognize and understand the kinds of struggles and commitments that are necessary to make diversity meaningful in everyday practices and the overall structure of an institution,” says Dr. Nathalia Jaramillo, deputy chief diversity officer at KSU.

In order to understand its own dynamic past, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) at KSU, led by the university’s Chief Diversity Officer Dr. Erik Malewski, began documenting the history of diversity at KSU. Through interviews with 14 faculty and staff members — who have worked on campus anywhere from eight to 30 years — the ODI is compiling a chronicle of the university’s past that it hopes will inform its future.

“We’re looking into the social, political, and historical context of Kennesaw State at [those] times,” Jaramillo says. “I think, for us to be able to move ahead, we need to understand where we came from and what conditions were in the past, and the different ways they also manifest themselves in the present, so they can inform our best practices as we move forward.”

What began in 1963 as a junior college with about 800 students has since grown — in part because of KSU’s recent merger with Southern Polytechnic State University — into a large dual-campus state university.

“There was minimal diversity on this campus when it opened,” says Jaramillo. “Kennesaw was more rural back then. It was a nontraditional campus. Now it’s grown to about 35,000 students.”

Jaramillo believes much of KSU’s growth is due to relationships that university leaders — both past and present — have developed with the local community, including a focus on reaching out to underrepresented groups.

“Under the leadership of Dr. Betty Siegel, who was the previous president before [President Daniel S.] Papp, [KSU] developed relationships with Zion Baptist Church. [Siegel] had her faculty and staff go to church on Sundays so that they could start to develop relationships with the community,” Jaramillo says. “It was really that kind of personal interaction that framed diversity efforts on this campus and translated into different kinds of initiatives to make this a much more inclusive community.”

Now with a student body that is made up of 30 percent underrepresented minorities, KSU is able to take a higher-level approach to diversity and inclusion that focuses on support and awareness.

Understanding Complexities
Beyond ensuring that underrepresented populations are included at KSU, the ODI places great emphasis on making sure all aspects of an individual’s identity are recognized and understood. Malewski refers to this process as “re-representation.”

“We have to think about how different communities and cultures get represented in the world and on campus,” Malewski says. “[More dominant] communities … tend to have really complex representations of who they are. So if you think of heterosexuality, there tend to be a lot of dimensions to it; people talk about it all the time, and it’s in TV shows. Then you have communities that might be more disparaged and there’s not as much knowledge [about them] in the world or on campus. So we have to change those distortions and re-represent those communities in more complex ways.”

One way Malewski does this is by hosting guest speakers, as part of the ODI’s Diversity Forum, who offer students clear examples of intersections of identity. “So we might have a speaker who has a learning disability, or some other disability, and is an African American male,” Malewski says.

“Those are some ways we can challenge those one-dimensional [methods] of thinking about some of these issues,” he adds.

However, at KSU, it isn’t enough to ensure representation, support, and understanding of underrepresented groups. Another concern, shared by Malewski and Jaramillo, is providing access to resources for not one, but all diverse populations.

“It can’t just be about the cultural or symbolic dimension; it has to be about the distribution of support and resources as well,” says Malewski. “Diversity is expensive. You need to have resources to do the work.”

Enacting Improvements
Despite being a young office — it was established in 2008 — the ODI is well supported across campus by faculty, staff, and students, as well as President Papp himself.

Through KSU’s six Presidential Commissions, the university takes a proactive approach to addressing issues of diversity and inclusion on campus. Commissions include Disability Strategies and Resources, Gender and Work Life Issues, GLBTIQ (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Questioning) Initiatives, Racial and Ethnic Dialogue, Veterans Affairs, and Sustainability.

Students at a kickoff event for KSU’s Campus Culture and Climate Assessment survey 
Students at a kickoff event for KSU’s Campus Culture and Climate Assessment survey

With guidance from the ODI, the commissions are tasked with identifying, suggesting, and implementing activities, programming, and policies that will lead to an increased understanding and acceptance of diverse perspectives across KSU’s campuses.

“[The commissions] are visionary; they are thinking way down the road about what that community needs. They’re advisory, so they are advising the president on any concerns that come up before they become issues,” Malewski says. “And we look for unintended consequences, the kinds of things where a policy or program wasn’t intended to marginalize a community, but maybe it has.”

Jaramillo sites the Gender and Work Life Commission’s initiative to examine and address gender pay equity at the university as an example of a project taken on by these committees.

Yet another effort to address diversity and inclusion issues is a campus-wide climate assessment, conducted by the ODI last year. Malewski and his staff are currently working on disaggregating data in order to provide individualized reports to every college at KSU, each of which will then be tasked with establishing a diversity action committee that will create an action plan to address any issues revealed in the report.

“We’re adding that layer of quantitative research that really looks more at the overall [picture],” Malewski says. “I think when we have that as a baseline, we can make interventions to try to improve the climate for people who may feel excluded or not supported. Then we can come back and see if it worked, and if it didn’t, we can figure out why. But the whole thing for me is to have an arc of improvement across time.”

For Jaramillo, KSU’s focus on the personal, human aspect of diversity and inclusion is what will continue to set the university apart.

“There’s been a very strong effort to develop the personal, in addition to policies that need to be put into place or organizational structures that need to be revised,” she says, “but it all started with very fundamental human interaction, which I think is often lost when we talk about diversity initiatives at big universities. But it’s not lost here.”●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.