Profiles from the Hill: UA reinforces commitment to diversity with new administrative position
By: Kimber Wenzelburger
Charles Robinson was hired as the UA’s first vice provost for diversity in March 2009. He spoke with Managing Editor Kimber Wenzelburger last week about what diversity means to him, why diversity is actively pursued at the University of Arkansas and what he sees for the future of this campus.
Your position – vice provost for diversity – is new. Why do you think administrators thought the position was important to establish?
We’ve had a chief diversity officer, and basically this is a continuation of that. The only difference really is that I sit on the chancellor’s executive committee, which I think sends the message that the university is really serious about diversity. Diversity is one of our priorities, and we intend to continue to improve and promote diversity.
We hear the word “diversity” so much. What does it really mean, and why is it significant?
In my opinion, diversity is about understanding others. It’s about being comfortable within our world community. The world is smaller now than it’s ever been, and it’s important for people to have a better understanding of people who come from different ethnicities, different backgrounds, different regions of the country and areas of the world. Diversity is an educational component that should be a part of any institution of learning, especially in higher education. Diversity is also about inclusion, and the more diversity we have, the more opportunities we create for people to realize their hopes and dreams.
Does your office focus on any other areas of diversity, like gender and age?
Definitely: gender and non-traditional students. These students, maybe single parents, may come to school on a part-time basis, and they’re important to us. And students who have the opportunity to know students with different experiences are able to better understand those individuals and society at large.
What goals have you set for yourself as vice provost for diversity?
This year, what I would like for us to do is to seriously take on the effort to increase our numbers of underrepresented students, whether they be African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, people who are socioeconomically from lower incomes… We need to grow our critical mass so we can better ensure that our students will have those opportunities.
How has the UA progressed in promoting diversity over the last few years?
I’d like to think that we have become more sensitive of the need to aggressively pursue diversity and embrace it. In the past, we’ve talked about diversity, but now I think we’re being more aggressive in establishing policies to implement it. I have taken students, faculty and staff on recruiting trips. We bring people to the campus from these diverse communities. It’s about creating scholarship programs that reach out to first-generation students from these underserved communities, and we’re doing more of that.
What are your daily duties as vice provost for diversity?
I assist in the recruiting piece. I assist in working out policy, not just diversity policy, but policy that is largely tied to academic affairs because I’m in that office. I’m also still the director of the African American Studies program, and I have duties related to that. I’m still technically an associate professor, and in the fall I’ll begin teaching again. I wear a variety of hats, and they all really end up in the same place: It’s about trying to create opportunities for people to come together and learn from each other.
What are the responsibilities of the Office of Diversity as a whole?
Two units report to this office: the Multicultural Center and Student Support Services. And again, daily, we’re trying to coordinate efforts to help recruit and retain underrepresented students, faculty and staff.
In your communication with students, what have you learned about their opinions on the diversity of this campus?
Most people would say that diversity is a good thing. If you talk to people from underrepresented communities, they probably feel that the university is not as diverse as it should be. But I think the general sense is that diversity is something we should pursue, because it’s all about inclusion, making us all culturally literate, so we know about a variety of cultures, and so we can engage one another in a peaceful and progressive way. There’s a real positive sense with most of the students I deal with.
Finally, where do you hope to see this campus in the coming years, in terms of its diversity?
In five or 10 years, it’s my hope that we will not have to talk about growing our numbers, because our numbers will be sufficiently large. It will be simply about creating more opportunities for on-campus engagement between students – and we’ll be sufficiently diverse. And when I say that, the goal I’m searching for is that I want this campus to look like the state of Arkansas, demographically. If we do that, I think we’ll have achieved what we can reasonably do. Then we can really focus on just making sure people are empowered in this diversity and that, at the end of the day, we come away feeling as one campus family that’s moving in a positive direction for everyone. It’s a crazy thing: We want to promote diversity and come away feeling as one. I think it’s something we ought to be working diligently toward.