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Diversity About Acknowledging Differences, Chief Diversity Officer Says

By Jody Record, Campus Journal Editor
December 19, 2007

Wanda Mitchell borrows her philosophy from Maya Angelou who, to paraphrase, said if you do what you do for any reason other than for the joy and satisfaction that it brings, then you’re doing it for the wrong reason.

Mitchell tries to apply that thinking to her life. And she considers herself fortunate that in her role as the university’s vice provost and chief diversity officer, she finds both joy and satisfaction in doing a difficult job.

“This is not easy work. There are times when you ask why people are so opposed to institutional change. But it seems that on those days, I always get an email or a phone call thanking me, telling me that my work is making a difference. And it’s not just people from underrepresented groups who contact me,” she says. “Those messages are so rewarding as well as encouraging.”

The Allendale, S.C., native who once thought of entering the medical field received a doctorate in education from the College of William and Mary. After serving as associate director of the general education department at Georgia’s Paine College, she began a long career at Hampton University, a predominately black university in southeastern Virginia. She came to UNH in 2002 as a visiting professor in the education department, after serving as a department chair.

In 2004, Mitchell became the special assistant to the provost for diversity initiatives. Her new role as chief diversity officer is much the same as it was before UNH adopted that title, which many universities around the country have been using for some time, but her work now extends across administrative divisions. She still spends her days addressing issues of recruitment and retention of a widely diverse community, campus climate, community outreach and leading initiatives to advance inclusion for everyone—not only for people from underrepresented groups but everyone inclusive of persons of differing perspectives, cultures and experiences.

“It’s not just about race and ethnicity,” Mitchell says. “Diversity is about acknowledging individual differences. Inclusion is about where and how we come together to transform a learning community.”

A chief officer of diversity was first talked about in 2004 as a way of “walking the walk” of diversity being a priority at UNH. Mitchell assumed the title in July of this year. It was, she says, a way to expand the work that was being done--a way to connect words and ideas and actions. All of which, she says, would not be possible without the university’s many champions of diversity.

“When you have stakeholders working together you have greater opportunities to advance women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics or hiring members from underrepresented groups as faculty and administrators. You get more leverage to move the issues forward,” she says. “This work wouldn’t be possible if we didn’t have allies and persons committed to changing the university culture.”

Since coming to UNH five years ago—when she said of New Hampshire that she thought she’d moved to another world-- Mitchell has seen the efforts towards diversity bearing fruit. In 2004, the Diversity Strategic Planning process was launched. The charge from the Faculty Senate to recruit faculty, staff and students from underrepresented groups has become a work in progress. And, in the fall of 2004, the Diversity Strategic Planning Task Force was formed.

The 23-member group was given the directive of crafting a five-year strategic plan for enhancing diversity on campus. That plan includes a clear definition of the Faculty Senate goal of recruitment and retention as well as working toward a curriculum that incorporates a focus on diversity, the aim of advancing a community climate of inclusion, and developing partnerships outside the university that promote diversity and inclusion.

People are seeing, Mitchell says, that diversity and inclusion matter and “cannot occur in silos.” She refers to Martin Luther King, Jr., stressing that his work wasn’t only about people of color, it was about all people. King’s work and mass marches were about education, health care, voters registration, economic stability, changing public policy, affordable housing, fair hiring practices, raising the minimum wages for the poor, and denouncing the funding of the Vietnam War, she says.

“Human resources are the best resource a university can have,” Mitchell adds. “You need to have different voices. We want to make sure people who have no voice are having an opportunity to be heard. We want to know who’s NOT at the table as we discuss major policies.”

“Diversity isn’t about being different,” she says. “It’s about recognizing those differences and ensuring equity at every level of our institution. It’s about access and inclusion—to transform institutional culture and practice.”

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