IT'S BEEN A year of work for Georgia Southern University.
Last spring, the school hired Dr. Damon Williams to conduct a campus climate survey in response to a string of racist incidents. The report’s outlook was fairly bleak: only 46% of all respondents to the survey felt like they belonged on campus. Across all three campuses—Savannah, Statesboro, and Liberty—those numbers were dismal.
But Georgia Southern was motivated to keep doing the work, and part of that work included hiring Dr. TaJuan Wilson, the Associate Vice President for Inclusive Excellence.
Wilson, who assumed his role March 1, brings with him a wealth of expertise in the area of equity and inclusivity on college campuses. Currently, he is working on an inclusive excellence plan that seeks to help make Georgia Southern a more equitable school, from top to bottom.
We caught up with Wilson last week.
What’s your new role?
I’m the associate VP for inclusive excellence and the chief diversity officer. This is an inaugural role at Georgia Southern. My role here is really to develop comprehensive strategy to move the institution forward with respect to all things diversity, equity and inclusion.
I conducted a pulse survey when I came into the institution that would guide me in the development of our very first Inclusive Excellence Action Plan. That has been my complete focus: really understanding the culture and being engaged in a process of moving us forward. That plan typically would take a year to be drafted by an institution, but we feel such a sense of urgency here that we feel like we had enough information to forge ahead. That plan took me about three months to develop. It’s not public yet, but it’s soon to be public.
[The plan] is centered around four high-level goals. Goal one is to create an equitable and inclusive environment for all here at Georgia Southern. Goal two is to increase the representation of diverse students, faculty, staff and community partners at all levels of the institution.
Goal three, we really start thinking about how we facilitate access to achievement, success and recognition for underrepresented students, faculty, staff, and alumni. And our final goal really centers around this notion of how we implement strong, genuine and consistently communicated, culturally inclusive practices that we enforce not only in our university’s strategic plan but this inclusive excellence plan that we’re drafting.
The plan has been presented to the rest of the president’s cabinet for their feedback, as well as our extended leadership team. At the point of getting all that feedback, we’ll move forward and work with marketing and communications on a real plan to communicate this.
In addition to the plan, I’ve spent some time redeveloping the President’s Diversity Advisory Council, which is made up of faculty and staff representation. I recognized that committee was missing some key leaders that could actually enact change for us as an institution, so we’ve completely revamped that group. The same is true with our President Student Advisory Committee. We’re beginning the early stages of introducing employee resource groups on campus that didn’t exist before, so we’ve identified some initial groups we want to start with and we’ve given our community the opportunity to tell us other groups they’d like to see as well.
What kind of feedback have you received on these efforts so far?
It’s not completely solidified yet, but I will tell you it’s been very positive. People are excited about some of the things they’re reading in the plan. Again, as somebody new here, they’re helping me consider some previous attempts to do some of this work. “Before, we tried something a little different. Yours seems to be super clear and more defined; we’re excited about trying this again.” Most of what’s in the plan has never been attempted before, though.
How much did you lean on Damon Williams’ report on diversity, released last August?
Damon was hired as a consultant for the institution; we brought him to essentially take a pulse of campus. We want to double back and do a campus climate survey, which will actually happen this November, so we can take a deeper dive and have more specific data. I would like to be able to, for example, go to the division of student affairs and say, “Here’s your specific data; here’s what’s happening in your unit so you can enhance the experience of your students, faculty and staff.”
Right now, we don’t have data that we can give to help people to that end. There’s very high-level general data that’s super helpful—Damon does incredible work—but we want to facilitate a deeper campus climate survey. That was actually one of his recommendations of his report, so we’re following that recommendation. He also said we should develop a comprehensive plan, so we’re doing that as well.
These are national best practices that would have happened no matter what, but they’re part of his plan for sure.
How will this plan be enforced?
We’ve never had a plan before. I think that having a plan is a key step in creating accountability. I have this university-wide plan, but the next step is to require that every college and central unit develops their own plan utilizing the centralized template that I’m also creating, so we’re all speaking the same language and working towards the same goals. In that plan, we’re going to be asking them to indicate what resources they need in order to accomplish this work, who are the key or lead personnel on this project, how will they measure success, and what will accountability look like for them at their own individual levels.
My job is really to shepherd the change at a high level and then making sure there’s accountability as well. I think in the past we’ve done a good job of introducing that this is something that’s important—we embedded it as pillar three of our university’s strategic plan—and then a natural next step was to bring in a senior leader who could help them create some accountability. That’s our next step.
Some of the things we’re really talking about in the plan are around recruitment, retention and advancement of our students, faculty and staff. How do we engage with the local community and our alumni base? How do we see some success in this functional area?
We call for things like a revamp of some of our HR procedures and protocol around the recruitment process, so we’re going to be embedding our required inclusive excellence statement at the time of application.
We’re also taking a hard look at how we recruit. Have we built the appropriate pipeline so we can attract and retain a diverse faculty and staff? Our student body is incredibly diverse. 26% of our students are African-American. About 7-8% of our students are Hispanic or Latino. There’s goodwill in a way that a lot of institutions don’t have at that level of diversity. Now it’s about how we support these students and ensure that they’re successful while they’re at the institution.
We’re going to be enhancing some of our retention programs and services, we’re allocating resources for support, we’re creating and fostering new programs and partnerships. We’re also talking about training and education, which is super important. We’ll require that search committees go through implicit bias training so we can make sure we’re removing any barriers that may exist for candidates who are interested in coming to Georgia Southern. It’s a really holistic approach and I think that’s the most important thing to remember.
It’s an exciting time to recognize that there are challenges at Georgia Southern, but we’re really committed to enhancing the experience of our students. It really starts with this comprehensive strategy. I always tell people this thing is a marathon, not a sprint. Real, tangible, sustainable change takes some time, but I’ve only been here since March 1. We’re going to forge ahead and get it done. I feel very confident in my ability to say that for sure.