Rutgers University-Newark has distinguished itself as the country’s most diverse campus community for years.
Now, university leaders are seeking to build on the institution’s legacy of inclusiveness. Late last year, Rutgers University-Newark established the Commission on Diversity and Transformation and appointed two experienced administrators from the Newark campus to lead it: Executive Vice Chancellors Dr. Jerome Williams and Dr. Shirley Collado.
ACUE exchanged emails with Dr. Williams, who talked about the new commission, his own instructional experience as a PhD candidate, and ongoing challenges within higher education.
Below is a condensed and lightly edited version of our interview with Dr. Williams.
Tell us about your professional journey through higher education.
It’s been a long, winding road that has led me to my current position as Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark (RUN). Prior to my assuming this position September 1 of last year, I had been a business school faculty member and marketing scholar for almost 30 years, including stints at Penn State University, Howard University, and the University of Texas at Austin. Prior to my academic career, I had worked for the Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI), and for General Electric Company (GE).
While it may seem like a somewhat diverse career path to arrive at my current position, there is a common denominator. At each stop, my focus has been on social justice, either in the workplace, the marketplace, or the academic space—whether that included identifying low-cost, renewable sources of energy for underserved, minority communities when I worked for SERI and GE, publishing a number of scholarly articles and books on diversity, social justice, and consumer equality, including a forthcoming book on race and the American marketplace, or my over two decades of work on bringing great diversity to business school faculties through my involvement with the PhD Project. So when RUN Chancellor Nancy Cantor asked me to step into the role of Provost, with a major emphasis on implementing two major initiatives, namely, diversity and publicly-engaged scholarship, it was a natural next step for me.
How can instructional quality help colleges and universities address the needs of a diverse student body?
I think there are significant opportunities to cultivate positive attitudes regarding diversity and inclusion in the classroom.
When you think about it, most faculty members spend 4-5 years getting a PhD, almost exclusively focusing on developing expertise in their chosen field, and essentially little, if any, in developing proficiency in teaching and pedagogy in general, let alone in diverse classroom settings.
I think of my own experience in my PhD program, where my first semester on campus, before taking any classes and without the faculty’s knowing anything about my classroom performance, I was assigned to teach two sections of an introductory course.
When I was a faculty member in the Rutgers Business School, I also was Director of the PhD Program. One thing I’m proud of during my stint as PhD program director was a seminar that all PhD students were required to attend before or during their first teaching assignment. I taught one of the seminar sessions, ‘Diversity in the Classroom: Teaching the Tough Stuff.’ This session explored the many positive effects and benefits of a diverse student population and looked at the means by which an instructor could enhance the educational experience of all students by leveraging this diversity to broaden the perspectives of the students. I focused on the need for the instructor to be sensitive to the diverse nature of the students in order to maintain a positive learning environment. I also focused on culturally sensitive issues that can present challenges in the classroom, e.g., issues related to race/ethnicity, disability, sexual harassment/gender, appropriate language, religion, sexual orientation, age, ideology, etc.
In addition, the seminar encouraged an open interchange and discussion of these issues while engaging in some role play and offering some classroom vignettes to illustrate sensitive classroom situations to which students could respond. I also spent time identifying sensitive situations they may have encountered in the classroom related to diversity and inclusion. I think colleges and universities could do more to foster this kind of preparation for the professoriate, including those about to enter the profession and those who have been teaching for many years.
How did the Commission on Diversity and Transformation come about and what is your role?
The idea of the commission emerged from the collective thinking of the two of us [Williams and Collado] with Chancellor Cantor to identify some ‘big ideas’ to really move the needle in terms of the call to ‘leverage our diversity’ that emerged from our strategic planning process. At this point, we have an outstanding group of faculty, staff, and students who have been appointed to the commission.
We held our initial meeting in December before the end of the Fall Semester, and will be holding our first meeting with the start of the Spring semester this Thursday. We plan to meet every other week. While Shirley and I have been giving some initial thinking to the agenda for the commission meetings, this is all preliminary. Essentially, we want the agenda for the commission’s work to be driven by the collective thinking of the commission as a whole. Therefore, our goals, plans, objectives, and initiatives will all start to emerge as we begin our regular bi-weekly meetings this semester.
What do you think is the greatest challenge to students at Rutgers and on campuses across the country today?
I think the challenges are quite different for students at Rutgers Newark compared to students across the country. In the case of RUN, the challenge is that our students, who come from many diverse backgrounds, do not have to be concerned as much about achieving a “critical mass”—as is the case at most universities—but they and we all face the challenges of figuring out how we can engage each other more deeply across differences.
In addition to being recognized as a longtime leader in diversity by U.S. News and World Report, the Education Trust recently declared Rutgers-Newark as one of the top schools in the country for improving graduation rates of students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. What’s your response receiving these kinds of distinctions?
Such accolades are a source of motivation, because they remind us of the need to continue being vigilant in meeting the challenges the commission will face and not to become complacent and ‘rest easy.’ RUN is a campus filled with students hailing from so many diverse ethnic, cultural, and racial heritages that it is useless to count, but important only to know that nothing predominates. Yet despite this high level of diversity achievement, it was precisely our students (supported by many faculty, staff, and administrators) who suggested the commission. The level of diversity at RUN obviously is a blessing in one sense, but we know we can’t be satisfied with diversity in numbers; we need to do more to encourage genuine engagement across differences to truly leverage this great asset.