A seasoned diversity officer who has held leadership positions at top universities across the nation has now been tapped to spearhead diversity efforts for the University of Missouri System.
Dr. Kevin McDonald, who is currently the vice president and associate provost for diversity and inclusion at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), will begin the position in Missouri on June 1. He will be the first chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer in the 177-year history of the university.
McDonald’s appointment comes amid a challenging year for the university system. In 2015, a series of student protests related to race, workplace benefits, and leadership resulted in the resignations of the president of the University of Missouri System and the chancellor of the flagship Columbia campus.
The university was catapulted into national headlines after a student went on a hunger strike and the football team staged a boycott.
Michael A. Middleton, an African-American who graduated from the university and taught at MU’s law school, was appointed interim president of the University of Missouri System in November.
Dr. Henry C. “Hank” Foley, who had been senior vice chancellor for research and graduate studies and the UM System executive vice president for academic affairs, research and economic development, was named interim chancellor.
Following the protests, the Board of Curators promised several new initiatives aimed at making the four campuses of the university system more inclusive to minority students. A diversity officer was among the promises.
McDonald, who was vice president for equity and inclusion at Virginia Tech for three years before relocating to RIT in 2010, said that he views the job as a unique opportunity to help improve the climate on all of the campuses.
“I think institutions across the nation are grappling with the same issues as the University of Missouri System is grappling with,” said McDonald, who earned a law degree from The Ohio State University and a doctoral degree in education from the University of Rochester. “It just so happens that the University of Missouri was dealing with it on a more visible level.”
In an interview with Diverse, McDonald said that he is excited to partner with students and other university stakeholders to help make the system more inclusive.
But he also readily admitted that he won’t be coming to the job with all of the answers.
“I really want to get a lay of the land,” he said. “What are some of the issues that have brought us to this point? What is the data telling us? What has worked and gained traction and warrants additional resources? You have to look at this as an opportunity to help effect transformational change. That’s defined my career.”
In this new role, McDonald will serve as an adviser to the UM System president.
“Inclusion is vital to the success of all students, staff and faculty,” Middleton said in an announcement about McDonald’s hire. “The UM System will benefit immensely from his experience as he plans to foster more inclusive campus environments that embody a true culture of respect.”
Indeed, other diversity officers across the nation who know McDonald say that he is the right person for the job.
“Dr. McDonald has proven to be a talented administrator and leader who has made appreciable differences in moving diversity forward at every institution he has served,” said Dr. Taffye Benson Clayton, associate vice chancellor for diversity and multicultural affairs and chief diversity officer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Clayton pointed to McDonald’s work as a board member of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE) and added that “the breadth and depth of his experience within the academy as well as his demonstrated thought leadership on matters of diversity, inclusion and inclusive excellence will serve his new colleagues and the Missouri System well.”
Diversity experts have applauded the Board of Curators for establishing the vice president and chief diversity officer position, adding that the university has now taken an innovative approach to institutionalizing the values that are central to higher education.
“Kevin McDonald will add his skills as a diversity and inclusion expert at a time when leadership is not only important to the system but important to our nation as well,” said Clayton, who has worked with McDonald across the years.
While many students of color at Mizzou laud the hire, they’ve also expressed concerns that McDonald may not have the power to enact change, in light of a conservative legislature that holds the university’s purse strings and that expressed dismay over the student-led protests.
“I think the position is long overdue,” said Maxwell Little, a founding member of Concerned Student 1950, which led the protests and later issued a list of demands to university officials. “I’m concerned with how much he can really do at a system level, when legislators continue to show their true colors about what they think about diversity.”
Little said that he met McDonald when he was on campus interviewing for the job. He said that he asked McDonald how he would navigate racism and help eliminate the vestiges of White supremacy still operational on campus at a forum held for job candidates.
“He gave a strategic political response as I expected,” said Little, a graduate student at Mizzou. Still, he and others have said that they want McDonald to succeed and have pledged to meet with him if he reaches out.
“I can appreciate anyone who is not willing to compromise,” Little said.
Jamal Eric Watson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on twitter @jamalericwatson