by Grace Austin

In the rolling hills of Southeastern Ohio, Ohio University sits as a beacon of cultural and intellectual light. Since its founding in 1804, OHIO has been at the forefront of diversity in higher education.

John Newton Templeton became the first African-American to graduate, in 1828, and only the third African-American in the country. Margaret Boyd was the first female graduate nearly fifty years later, and Saki Taro Murayama, a Japanese citizen, graduated as the first international student in 1896. While this legacy is important, OHIO has worked to build on this foundation in the 21st century.

Under Vice Provost for Diversity, Access, and Equity Brian Bridges, OHIO has attempted to increase its diversity, seeking more minority students while maintaining its older departments and expanding its younger organizations. Bridges sees diversity education as the main facilitator for diversity change and improvement at the institution, and has personally worked to change how diversity is viewed.

“I have tried to expand the definition of diversity to move beyond conversations about race and gender and include broader forms of difference that are shaping our society,” said Bridges. “Issues around sexual orientation, nationality, physical and cognitive disabilities and socioeconomic status, among others, will shape the future in tandem with race and gender.”

While Bridges remains committed to diversity at OHIO, considerable issues have arisen within the current financial climate, as many universities across the country face significant budget cuts. OHIO has not been immune.

“Issues around sexual orientation, nationality, physical and cognitive disabilities and socioeconomical status, among others, will shape the future in tandem with race and gender.” – Brian Bridges, Vice Provost for Diversity, Access and Equity

“I would love to see us grow a little bit in terms of staff, since traffic has grown so much. But budget cuts have impacted us. We have limited resources and growing numbers,” said LGBT Center Director Mickey Hart.

Adds Bridges, “Building new and innovative initiatives is difficult when in a reduction mode and chief diversity officers around the country have had to cope with this reality. However, we plan to continue our progress by conducting a climate study this year and to work with faculty and administrators on infusing some of their areas with appropriate diversity activities.”

New Programs, Passionate Leadership

Although not a new idea on campus, OHIO’s Women’s Center came to fruition nearly four years ago. Despite its recent creation, the Center has been met with enthusiasm by the faculty and students.

“We are thriving as a center because people are committed to it and are using its services,” said Susanne Dietzel, the founding and current Director. “It adds value to our university.”

Said services are wide-ranging but popular, including an extensive resource center, a large International Women’s Day festival, weekly brown bag meetings, and a mentoring program which pairs upperclassmen with female professionals.

“If you have questions about women’s services you would come here, including issues of child care, pregnancy, and sexual assault. We work with student groups, bring in speakers, and we are empowering men to play a part in ending violence against women,” added Dietzel.

Another relatively new program is the LGBT center, now in its 13th year. Hart was present during its early stages.

“Most of what I’ve done are new initiatives. We really worked to grow the program, get our name out there, make people of aware of what were doing,” said Hart. “I think on campus we’re quite visible.”

Hart has used several methods to make the LGBT center’s message louder.

“We’ve worked a lot to humanize the issue. We do poster programs, including ‘We are OUTstanding’, ‘Queer Quotes,’ and ‘Face of Pride’ each quarter,” said Hart. We also do a program called ‘Speak Out,’ where we take a panel of students to classes and fraternities and sororities to share their stories and we open up [the panel] to questions and answers.”

Both Hart and Dietzel still see diversity as an exciting and highly relevant topic.

“Diversity speaks to who we are. We are a diverse community and we need to make sure we pay attention to the diversity of our constituents,” said Dietzel. “Diversity is still a pretty vibrant word, [although] some people have tuned it out and turned it off. Just because we’ve heard all about it, doesn’t mean we understand all about diversity,” said Hart. “[The challenge is] how do you enact that knowledge [about diversity] and make it better.”

Appalachian Experience

Ohio University remains a unique institution for its physical setting. The Appalachian area is a culturally distinctive region, and the city of Athens, while not racially diverse, has significant socioeconomic and age differences. Bridges has worked to bridge the gaps between the town and the university.

“My office has engaged with the City of Athens on a project to promote diversity and civility in the area and this will hopefully have a long-term impact in bringing the campus and community together around issues of difference,” related Bridges. “There was a town hall meeting on diversity and civility and we are following that up by developing an ongoing training program for community members.”

Hart has tried to improve resources and training for citizens in the area, while increasing organized programs and events that have expanded on a well-established, student-based LGBT community.

“There are no LGBT resources in Southeast Ohio, so we wanted to create a website, a one-stop shop for good, quality information and links to other websites,” said Hart. “In smaller cities, compared to the city, you need more services. We work with the local community for SafeZone training [support and information for LGBT persons], but we want to do more outreach.”

Looking to the Future

Bridges sees the value of diversity for current students, especially in their future careers.

“Understanding the importance of structural diversity and the benefits of an inclusive society will become increasingly important as the country and the world diversify racially and ethnically over the next century,” said Bridges. “Today’s college students will be leaders, politicians, businessmen, educators and the like in 20, 30, 40 years as this demographic shift occurs. They have to be prepared to communicate effectively across cultures.”

Bridges hopes to impart advice to faculty and students in hopes of continuing the process towards greater inclusion and diversity on campus.

“We need campus constituents to educate themselves and explore different cultures, experience different cultures, move to a level of endorsing the involvement of others in cultural exploration and evaluating their journey,” said Bridges. “If we can get more students, faculty and staff to engage in this process then we will develop a truly multicultural institution not only in numbers but in culture and climate as well.”

Q&A with Ohio University President, Roderick McDavis

Ohio University President, Roderick McDavis
Ohio University President, Roderick McDavis

Diversity can mean a variety of things for different people. What does diversity mean to you?
Diversity describes a broad spectrum of unique characteristics among people. Those characteristics include race, ethnicity, gender, heritage, belief systems, age, sexual orientation, creative processes, political perspectives, socioeconomic status, and cultural traditions.

OHIO has a storied tradition of diversity, but it still remains a hot button issue. What have you done as president to improve diversity and understanding of diversity among the student body and faculty?
When the Board of Trustees named me the 20th president of Ohio University, they charged me with increasing the diversity of the University community, including students, faculty and staff. From the beginning of my work, I have identified clear ways in which we could move toward the goal of a more diverse University community. We are working hard to create and sustain a welcoming and inclusive campus environment for people of color, including multicultural initiatives and activities.

The establishment of Ohio University’s Urban Scholars Program and Appalachian Scholars Program support students who may be the first in their families to attend college. My wife, Deborah, and I have made personal contributions to the Urban Scholars and Appalachian Scholars programs at Ohio University since their inceptions.

In addition to reaching out to students in Ohio and across the nation, we have set a goal of increasing our international student enrollment and broadening the diversity of the candidates for faculty, administrative, and staff positions.

What have been the major diversity challenges at OHIO during your tenure as president?
The challenges to diversifying Ohio University are similar to other universities geographically located in a rural area. For some individuals, the distance from a major metropolitan area signifies a lack of multicultural experiences ranging from the arts to dining and personal services. For that reason, we have worked to increase the number and variety of multicultural experiences available at the University. At the same time, we have worked with the greater Athens community to encourage the expansion of business and personal services that meet the needs of a diverse population.

The process of increasing diversity can be frustratingly slow. The slow pace is in some ways related to the conundrum that to foster diversity you must have a strong foundation of diversity that is apparent to potential new members of the community. It is challenging and uncomfortable to feel like you are “the only one” of a particular group in a setting.

Do you think OHIO has made progress in diversity?
We have made some progress in increasing the diversity of Ohio University, but our work is far from complete. We have seen positive changes in action through the expansion of initiatives, activities, and scholarship support. This work has begun to yield results, but progress is slow. We have a goal that within five years our incoming freshman class will include 15 percent multicultural students, seven percent international students, and 18 percent students from Appalachian counties. We are making progress toward those goals, but have much work ahead of us.

What are your diversity goals in the future?
It is my vision that in the coming decades diversity will become a core strength upon which Ohio University’s reputation as the nation’s leading transformative learning community is built. Whether in business, the arts, education, environmental issues, medicine, or government leadership, the degree of cultural expertise and global connectivity required for success will grow exponentially. To prepare our graduates for success in this environment, we must provide them opportunities to experience and value a broad range of cultures, languages, perspectives, beliefs and backgrounds as an integral part of their learning experience at Ohio University.

Organization: Ohio University
Date Founded: 1804
Employees: 4,780
Enrollment: 32,359
Mascot: Bobcat