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Higher Ed Diversity Officers Bound for Cuba

In a fortuitous move that’s coinciding with the nascent restoration of diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba, a group of chief diversity officers and deans from American colleges and universities are traveling to the Caribbean island nation this weekend for a weeklong educational trip.

A group, including 15 members of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE) and its president, Dr. Benjamin D. Reese Jr., are flying to Havana from Miami on a chartered flight Saturday and will return to the United States on July 18. With the aim of studying “race, gender, and culture” in Cuban society, the group will meet with Cuban higher education faculty members, students and administrators, and visit the Latin American Medical School in Havana. The group is also scheduled to attend a “Race in Cuba” lecture by noted Afro-Cuban intellectual Esteban Morales Dominguez of the University of Havana.

“We see [this trip] as an opportunity for NADOHE members and some of our colleagues in higher education to have an opportunity to visit Cuba and better understand issues of race and gender in Cuban society,” Reese told Diverse.

“We’ve discussed for several years the importance of beginning to engage internationally in terms of the mission of NADOHE and we’ve been very successfully engaging with AIEA, the Association for International Education Administrators. But we felt that one of the important next steps was to take an educational mission abroad,” he explained.

Founded in 2006, NADOHE has emerged as a leading higher education diversity organization, as dozens of U.S. colleges and universities have established campuswide diversity offices and created chief diversity officers and deanships in recent years.

Reese, who serves as vice president of the Duke University Office for Institutional Equity and the Duke University Health System, said NADOHE leaders decided last year that Cuba would be the destination of the organization’s first international trip. “We discussed it and made the choice prior to the U.S. government making a change” that now has the two nations actively normalizing relations, he said.

Last December, President Obama launched efforts to normalize relations between U.S. and Cuba following more than five decades of severed diplomatic ties. This past July 1, the president announced that the two nations had agreed to reopen embassies in their respective capitals. U.S. higher education officials have generally praised Obama’s actions to normalize relations between Cuba and the United States.

“We applaud this historic and important step forward in normalizing relations with Cuba. The 50-year policy of isolating Cuba has accomplished no objective that was ever posited for it, and it is time to re-engage,” Victor C. Johnson, senior adviser for public policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators, said in a statement last week.

It’s believed that normalized relations between the two nations will open the door to far more academic exchanges than in past years as well as to new projects, including research partnerships and joint-degree programs between institutions. Academic exchanges with Cuba were never fully banned outright by the United States, but their scope of activity had been curtailed in comparison to exchanges with other nations, international education experts say.

Dr. Elizabeth F. Ortiz, vice president of institutional diversity and equity at DePaul University and NADOHE treasurer, said NADOHE members have much to gain from this week’s trip, including “the whole opportunity to network with faculty members and administrators for possible research projects [and] faculty and student exchanges.”

Although she’s not part of the NADOHE entourage this week, Ortiz has traveled to Cuba twice on higher education trips, including an excursion this past May as an American Council on Education (ACE) fellow.

It’s “important for [NADOHE members] to see the different contexts of diversity work. And then [ask] can we learn something and [also ask] can we share something to help them with their work,” Ortiz said.

“One other thing is exploring the higher education system in Cuba for best practices” in diversity practices, she noted.

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