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News >  Higher education

Gonzaga University’s new chief diversity officer hopes to spearhead ‘impactful’ changes

Kelley  (Greg Mason / The Spokesman-Review)
Kelley (Greg Mason / The Spokesman-Review)

As far as Robin Kelley is concerned, Gonzaga University administrators should always have a question on their mind about how they run the institution.

“Anything that happens at the university,” she said, “the question should always be, how does this add value to our diversity, equity and inclusion goals for this campus?”

The philosophy is Kelley’s primary focus as Gonzaga’s chief diversity officer, a position she was appointed to earlier this month.

She leads the university’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, which is responsible for promoting the office’s namesake ideals across a variety of facets, such as campus climate, curriculum and workforce development. Kelley was promoted to the position, as she was officially brought on as associate diversity officer last July.

“I believe in a methodology that’s called inclusive excellence where you embed diversity, equity and inclusion into everything,” Kelley said.

Raymond Reyes, Kelley’s predecessor, added, “If you read our mission statement right now, the last paragraph is saturated with references around social justice, intercultural confidence, diversity, global engagement. It’s really closing the gap between rhetoric and reality. Walking our talk. The central office allows that sort of ability and distinction.”

Reyes served as chief diversity officer and associate provost prior to his reappointment to a new role this month, serving in those roles for 22 out of the 33 years he has worked for Gonzaga.

During that span, relevant changes at Gonzaga included the creation of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in 2019, the implementation of campus climate surveys and the establishment of the Institute for Hate Studies.

Reyes is now working out of the Office of the President as associate vice president for cultural initiatives. He said he will be working mostly with alumni and potential donors in developing opportunities for people to invest “in this area of our mission,” working closely with Wendy Thompson, director of the Office of Tribal Relations, and Joe Poss, vice president of university advancement.

Gonzaga President Thayne McCulloh announced the positional changes in a letter earlier this month, stating that Reyes accepted his invitation to move into the cultural initiatives role.

Citing circumstances including the #BlackLivesMatter movement and nationwide anti-Asian racism, McCulloh said the changes are “reflective of an increased emphasis upon diversity, equity and inclusion at Gonzaga University.”

“Cognizant of our structural biases as a PWI (Predominantly White Institution), the systemic racism that exists within our community and nation, the imperative to create a truly diverse, inclusive, and anti-racist campus culture and community must be a priority,” McCulloh wrote.

The prospect of developing existing programs while bringing her own ideas to the table drew Kelley to the role.

Before Gonzaga’s centralized diversity office was created, Reyes largely served as “a solo act” as chief diversity officer, he said. Reyes said Gonzaga now has a “nucleus” to coordinate diversity and inclusion efforts across the university community.

“It’s embarrassing to admit how white our faculty is,” Reyes said. “Our student body is more diverse right now than our workforce. We have a lot of catching up to do.”

That said, Reyes believes Kelley is “perfect” for the position.

“If anybody’s going to be able to pull it off, it’s going to be Robin,” he said. “In a way, it takes an insider-outsider. What I love about Robin is, she asks a lot of questions. Sometimes, it can even get on your nerves, I’ll be honest, because people aren’t used to that. But she brings a whole different optic to the work, and she asks questions that challenge us to question our assumptions.”

Kelley – founder and president of the Kelley Consulting Firm, a diversity and inclusion agency – has about two decades of relevant administrative experience in higher education, according to the university.

She previously served as associate vice provost in the Office for Institutional Equity and Diversity at North Carolina State University, director of the Office of Equal Opportunity at Iowa State University and assistant director of the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at State University of New York (SUNY) Buffalo. Her education includes a Ph.D. in higher education administration from Iowa State University, a master’s degree in education from SUNY Buffalo and a certificate in diversity management from Cornell University.

Her priorities as chief diversity officer include the development of a diversity, equity and inclusion strategic plan for the university. Kelley said the office hopes to have a draft done by the end of June, before vetting the plan with campus groups for feedback in the fall.

Kelley said she is also looking at implementing a racial equity climate survey in a similar vein as the campus climate survey, which goes out every four years.

“If we want to be impactful, which I think the president wants to be, we can’t be impactful if people aren’t working together, and that’s where a central office comes in,” she said. “You can have as many wonderful programs as you want, but if you don’t have people working together and people don’t have a strategy around the work, then you’re not going to be impactful, and you’re not going to get that transformational change that’s required if you’re really going to implement diversity and inclusion in your institution.”

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