October 25, 2020

Diversity summit, climate survey are ‘tangible’ results of Delegates’ Agenda, Stroble says

At the Global Inclusion and Diversity Summit, speaker Lee Gill started his keynote by identifying the stereotype of what diversity means.

“We’re going to talk about some black folks, we’re going to talk about some women, we’re going to talk about some Hispanic folks,” Gill said. “You are probably thinking, ‘Didn’t we have this conversation last week?’”

Gill is the chief diversity officer at the University of Akron in Ohio. The Global Inclusion and Diversity Summit took place on Feb. 28 at Webster University.

Lee Gill, chief diversity officer at the University of Akron in Ohio, opened the Diversity Summit on Feb. 28 with a speech on the University of Akron’s success in diversifying the campus. PHOTO BY GABE BURNS

Gill, who was hired by Webster University President Elizabeth Stroble while she was senior vice president and provost at the University of Akron, said diversity isn’t just about race. Diversity includes gender, socio-economic background and sexuality.

Gill is the chief executive officer at Stratus Group Consultants, which helps law firms and large companies develop diversity initiatives.

The topic of diversity was brought to the administration at Delegates’ Agenda last fall. Stroble said the university has been working toward being more diverse even before then.

“We are starting to be seen as a community that cares about global diversity and inclusion,” Stroble said. “(Diversity) is one of the four core values in the strategic plan.”

Stroble said the university has taken two tangible steps toward increasing diversity. The first step was putting on the Diversity Summit. The second step was sending out a survey to find out how Webster’s campus feels about diversity.

Webster sent out the survey on its own server. Gill believes this survey, and further information about a university’s diversity climate, should be done by a third party. When the University of Akron went through a similar process, Gill had his former colleagues at Stratus come in for two weeks to audit the university. Stratus then presented its findings to the president of Akron.

While Gill said he hasn’t been offering suggestions to Webster so far, he did say a chief diversity officer or a similar position is necessary to move forward.

“You got to have an office and person with the autonomy and the charge from the president,” Gill said.

Stroble said it’s too early to consider new hires or policies regarding diversity. But she said the university is considering it for later.

When Akron University hired him, Gill remembers Stroble’s main goals for the university were diversifying and educating faculty and bringing a culture of diversity and acceptance to the campus. Gill said diversity can’t be taught at one level; it must be taught comprehensively, from the administration to the students.

“If you are in somebody’s office and you want to meet with Dean so-and-so and the secretary treats you like a pile of whatever,” Gill said, “maybe (it’s because) you’ve got earrings and you don’t talk the language. That person shouldn’t be there. Because obviously they don’t have the cultural sensitivity to understand, ‘I shouldn’t be judging this person based off of how they look.’”

Stroble hopes Webster University can become more culturally sensitive through education. But people often don’t realize what they do or say is insensitive, Stroble said.

She said she was reminded of this at the Global Inclusion and Diversity Summit during The DisAbility Project skit. One actor pretended to be a child who was intrigued by a woman in a wheelchair. The child’s mother wouldn’t let them touch the wheelchair in fear that doing so would embarrass the woman. Stroble said the woman in the wheelchair didn’t see her disability as an embarrassment.

“When you are very young, you learn things in school or from your parent or your friends,” Stroble said. “And as you grow older, you don’t know where that attitude came from.”

Gill said, in the end, a more diverse university benefits students.

“I think diversity comes first. Because every student that walks through the door is different,” Gill said. “Academic education needs to meet you where you are at.”

While Gill said student success is the bottom line, he recognized that without funding, none of what he has done at the University of Akron would have been possible. Gill also said diversity is actually a selling point for universities like Webster and Akron.

“No money, no mission. Diversity is good business,” Gill said.

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