Making Every Voice Matter: University of Georgia Recognizes Diversity Across its Campus

The Arch near Holmes-Hunter Academic Building is the traditional entrance to the University of Georgia’s campus; its columns symbolize “wisdom, justice, and moderation.” (photo by Paul Efland)

With more than 36,000 students and a combined faculty and staff population of 10,000, the University of Georgia (UGA) in Athens is channeling the diversity of wide-ranging experiences into positive actions.

[Above: The Arch near Holmes-Hunter Academic Building is the traditional entrance to the University of Georgia’s campus; its columns symbolize “wisdom, justice, and moderation.” (photo by Paul Eland)]

According to Michelle Garfield Cook, PhD, associate provost and chief diversity officer at UGA, the provost’s five-year diversity plan — instituted in 2011 — set into motion an increased focus on diversity and inclusion across the entire university. Cook came to UGA in 1998 and spent the majority of her tenure as an associate dean in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences before becoming interim chief diversity officer in 2011.

“It wasn’t until I was in this role that I became aware of diversity and inclusion at the institutional level — the issues and challenges we face and the opportunities available to us as an institution,” she says.

The diversity plan was the first of its kind for the university and made diversity and inclusion a core principle of how UGA operates, Cook says. Accountability became a key component, with vice presidents and deans of each school and college now required to include an assessment on diversity and inclusion in their annual reports to the provost. Various units have even taken this effort a step further by developing their own diversity programs.

Current Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Pamela Whitten, PhD,  joined the university in 2014 and has since instituted additional diversity initiatives. She says that one of her proudest achievements is establishing, along with President Jere W. Morehead, JD, the campus-wide Women’s Leadership Initiative, which addresses the need to recruit more female faculty members, foster their career development, and improve work-life balance.

As part of the initiative, the Office of Faculty Affairs trains search committees on best practices for recruiting and hiring from underrepresented groups — including women — and works to increase the pool of diverse candidates. Some academic units have also launched their own initiatives to bring more women into leadership positions in business and agricultural and environmental sciences.

“The Women’s Leadership Initiative reflects a broader institutional commitment to maintaining an environment that allows individuals to reach their full potential,” Whitten says. “Fostering diversity is the right thing to do, and it also makes good sense from a business standpoint because the entire university benefits when a broad array of perspectives is brought to the table.”

Schooled in Diversity and Inclusion
In 2012, the Office of Institutional Diversity offered a way to ensure that the university’s varied perspectives are heard with the launch of its Diversity and Inclusion Certificate program. Since it began, nearly 1,100 UGA faculty and staff members have participated in courses geared toward examining current issues in diversity and inclusion. Cook calls it her office’s signature program and says it grew out of a need to turn words into actions.

“When we were talking to faculty and staff about diversity and inclusion and how to be inclusive, we worked with the assumption that they knew what this meant and how to operationalize it, but we quickly realized they didn’t,” Cook says. “Staff from across the institution who interact with students, faculty, and other staff in everyday situations — if they know the language of diversity and inclusion but don’t know how to operationalize it, we have a problem.”

Three-hour courses on a continually evolving range of topics are offered four times a year, and Cook says there is always a waiting list. Because there is no time frame in which participants must complete the six-course requirement, faculty and staff members are free to take courses that appeal to their interests and fit their schedule.

Although some staff members in the Office of Institutional Diversity lead classes, the majority are taught by UGA faculty and attended by a mix of staff and faculty. Cook says this is the advantage of UGA being a large research institution with faculty experts in diversity and inclusion.

Dawn Bennett-Alexander, JD, an associate professor of legal studies in UGA’s Terry College of Business and founder of the diversity consulting business Practical Diversity, has taught courses for the certificate program.

Dawn Bennett-Alexander addresses a group of students during the Georgia African American Male Experience. (photo by Chad Osburn)
Dawn Bennett-Alexander addresses a group of students during the Georgia African American Male Experience. (photo by Chad Osburn)

“I have found my students eager to learn, and in my course, they do it in whatever ways feel comfortable for them,” she says. “… To be able to do this without judgment, blame, guilt, or shame is such a relief for attendees. It provides the space to be able to engage in self-examination long after they leave [my class].”

Each year, those who have completed all requirements are awarded a certificate and lapel pin during a fall completion ceremony. Cook estimates that more than 400 people have received the certificate thus far.

Bennett-Alexander says that she’s also been impressed by the growth in interest in the program.

“I remember when there were so few participants. This time there were 100 [at the graduation ceremony],” she says. “For me, that meant the message was getting out.”

Reaching the Next Generation
In addition to the provost’s five-year diversity plan, UGA’s 2020 Strategic Plan has as one of its main objectives a focus on creating an open and inclusive environment, which UGA Student Affairs remains committed to furthering.

“My role is one that is trying to make sure we’re educating leaders for the world community and getting students ready to enter that world,” says Vice President for Student Affairs Victor Wilson. “My goal is to try to infuse inclusion, social justice, diversity, and equity into everything we do.”

The Intersection at Tate Student Center, which offers students a space to have discussions around issues of social justice, was an idea Wilson developed. Now, he says, it has become a group effort and is overseen by Multicultural Services and Programs, a department within Student Affairs.

“Not a lot of campuses have a space for dialogue,” Wilson says. “I think in our world, and especially our nation, people don’t often sit down and talk about the issues and have a dialogue. … There’s not an exchange about opposing opinions.”

Wilson is also proud of the African American Male Initiative (AAMI), which offers programming to improve the retention and graduation rates of these students. The initiative was made possible by a grant from the University System of Georgia Board of Regents.

As a UGA alumnus and African American man, Wilson admits his bias, but UGA has seen success as a result of AAMI; the university has the highest graduation rate for African American men in the University System of Georgia and saw a 56 percent increase in the number of enrolled African American male undergraduates between 2004 and 2014.

Second-year UGA undergraduate student Mansur Buffins says AAMI’s Georgia African American Male Experience (GAAME) is the reason he decided to enroll at UGA. The program invites admitted African American male students to spend a weekend meeting with members of UGA’s Black Male Leadership Society, the Office of Institutional Diversity, and department heads and professors.

“I had never been on a college campus before this experience, so it was absolutely amazing for me,” Buffins says.

He is an example of a UGA student who, as Cook says, is making his success everyone’s success.

“I’ve worked with [groups you wouldn’t consider diverse], and I’m continuing to [see] people realize that everyone is diverse; it’s not just certain groups,” Cook says. “They realize that their success is the institution’s success and that their engagement is critical to the success around them.”●

Rebecca Prinster is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. The University of Georgia is a 2014 and 2015 INSIGHT Into Diversity HEED Award recipient.