Diversity: A fundamental component of the Iowa State experience

White police officers shooting black suspects. Fear and prejudice against Muslims. Campus uprisings across the U.S. by students who do not feel supported, valued, or safe.

Incidents of racial, ethnic, religious, and gender-related differences have been simmering for years in this country, and they have recently come to a full boil.

At Iowa State, President Steven Leath has made campus diversity and inclusion issues a priority since Day One. During his installation address in September 2012, he announced his commitment to promoting diversity on campus. In 2013, he ordered a university-wide diversity asset inventory and audit. Based on the recommendations from that analysis, he named a search committee that would attract the university’s first vice president for diversity and inclusion, and implemented other key initiatives.

Iowa State’s fall 2015 enrollment of 36,001 included a student body with record ethnic and multicultural diversity. But that increase has not come without some growing pains. In recent months, President Leath has responded swiftly to student concerns about safety and inclusion issues.

“Diversity isn’t something we should merely tolerate; it’s a fundamental component of higher education and the Iowa State experience,” he told the campus community in a Nov. 20, 2015, open letter. “By working together to embrace diversity and create a more inclusive culture we will make Iowa State a more inspiring and invigorating place to discover, learn, and achieve.”

Taking stock
During President Leath’s installation address in September 2012, he outlined his key priorities for the university. One of his initiatives was to “promote diversity on campus by supporting several recommendations proposed by the University Committee on Women and other key groups, and also by partnering with King and Moulton Elementary Schools in Des Moines to help increase the number of lower income and minority students enrolling at Iowa State.”

Just a few months later, in March 2013, Leath announced that Iowa State would conduct a university-wide diversity asset inventory and audit. Th e inventory was intended to take stock of the university’s diversity programs and initiatives; the audit phase would examine Iowa State’s diversity strengths and weaknesses, creating a road map for the future.

Leath said at that time that the project would help Iowa State better understand its existing diversity assets and more efficiently align those resources so the university could effectively support and promote diversity on campus and throughout the Ames community.

“Iowa State University is as diverse as it has ever been, but we have a responsibility to build upon past successes and ensure that we strive every day to create an environment that is as welcoming as possible to all people – regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation,” Leath said in a memo to the campus community.

The study
Jerlando Jackson (L)(PhD ’00 educational leadership and policy studies), founder of The Jackson Consulting Firm and distinguished professor of higher education at University of Wisconsin-Madison, has donated his services to conduct the diversity review and develop the final report for his alma mater.

Some of the report findings highlighted Iowa State’s already-positive practices, such as aligning groups based on affinity, recruiting diverse candidates for open faculty and staff positions, the presence of a supportive climate on campus, and a strong town-gown relationship. Jackson’s key recommendations for improvement included:

  • Provide incentives for colleges and units to increase diversity
  • Create a chief diversity officer position
  • Support groups in diversity-related endeavors
  • Be transparent in moving diversity efforts forward; hold regular listening sessions, invite suggestions, and include student leaders in planning
  • Conduct an institution-wide policy review to sharpen commitment to diversity
  • Assess and meet the social needs of diverse groups on campus
  • Focus equally on retention and promotion of diverse groups
  • Ensure that central administration reflects diversity expected in the campus population

Also in 2014 the University Committee on Women published the findings of its Status of Women at Iowa State University report. Key findings showed improvement since a similar report was conducted in 2002; however, the report indicated improvement was still needed in areas including representation, professional development opportunities, work/life balance, and knowledge of diversity initiatives on campus.


Reginald Stewart, ISU’s first vice president for diversity and inclusion

Vice president for diversity and inclusion
Chief among Jackson’s recommendations in the university-wide diversity review was to create a chief diversity officer position, and in early 2015 Leath created a first-ever position for Iowa State: the vice president for diversity and inclusion. A search committee was formed, a job description was written with broad campus input, and recruitment efforts began. By September, candidates were invited to campus for public forums and a series of interviews.

Reginald Stewart was Iowa State’s choice. He began his duties on campus Dec. 1. Stewart is the former chief diversity officer and adjunct professor of educational leadership at the University of Nevada in Reno.

“Iowa State’s commitment to diversity isn’t simply measured by statistics; it’s a principle that guides our land-grant mission of education, research, and service,” Leath said in naming Stewart to the position.

Stewart says he was attracted to Iowa State because it was a well-known, well-respected institution and that the university had put a great deal of thought into the establishment of the diversity and inclusion position.

“President Leath communicated that ISU has a dedicated faculty and staff, an engaged student body, and a desire to add a national reputation as a leader in diversity and inclusion to an already impressive list of accolades,” he said. “It was clear that Iowa State wanted to see long-term evolution in its diversity and inclusion efforts and was willing to invest the time needed to implement structural and procedural change.”

Working together
But before Stewart even arrived on campus, the Iowa State community was faced with overt acts of racism and bigotry during a peaceful protest against a presidential candidate outside Jack Trice Stadium on Sept. 12, 2015. A public forum, coordinated by ISU’s Student Government and Latinos United for Change (LUCHA), was held on Sept. 30 in response to the incident, in which a woman ripped a student’s protest sign.

That forum, President Leath said, “reminded us all that racism, bigotry, discrimination, and marginalization are happening on the Iowa State campus. The forum provided me an opportunity to listen, learn, and feel – to truly understand what some of our minority students, faculty, and staff have endured – and it underscored the importance of empathy and action.”

As a result of the public forum, and of subsequent meetings with groups on campus, Leath and his senior administration took a number of steps to continue addressing these issues, including:

  • Assigning ISU Police officers as liaisons to Multicultural Student Affairs to establish a strong partnership with ISU’s multicultural community
  • Developing a plan to expand the safety escort service
  • Developing a plan to relocate multicultural artwork to more visible areas on campus
  • Establishing a Diversity in Art course and a multicultural art exhibition
  • Launching a process to develop the university’s new strategic plan, which includes a subcommittee to ensure a welcoming, safe, and inclusive campus environment

In a letter dated Nov. 20, 2015, Leath told the university community that the university was developing an initial plan of action in close collaboration with Vice President Stewart and all stakeholders focused on three areas:

  • Classrooms: Existing training for faculty, lecturers, and teaching assistants on issues of diversity will be evaluated and, where necessary, new training will be developed and offered annually.
  • Academic advising: A framework will be established to enable departments to understand more about the cultural climate in all of our programs.
  • Student experience: Student orientation programming will be evaluated to ensure it includes culturally dynamic opportunities for students to engage with one another. Existing diversity committees and initiatives within colleges and departments will be reviewed and evaluated to determine gaps and ensure student representation. All student clubs and their advisers will be expected to understand the university’s expectations for creating a welcoming and inclusive culture.

“Acts of racism, bigotry, discrimination, and marginalization have no place on college campuses or in society,” the president concluded, “but we cannot ignore the fact that they are happening, and Iowa State is not immune. The reality is there are students, faculty, and staff on college campuses across the country, including here at Iowa State, who do not feel completely accepted, welcome, or safe. We must acknowledge this openly and candidly. We must work together to change this reality by taking action every day to reinforce a culture of inclusion and respect that upholds freedom of speech and expression in a way that fosters open discussion and civil discourse.”

– Carole Gieseke

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