STARKVILLE — Conversations about diversity on university campuses typically center on racial and gender issues. But international diversity is becoming a priority.
At Mississippi State, international diversity is a challenge, says Karin Lee, director of international recruitment and retention at MSU.
“Last year, international students had an economic impact on Mississippi to the tune of $78.1 million dollars with $18.3 million dollars coming to Mississippi State University,” she says. These students also introduce a global perspective to state campuses.
“In 1997, MSU’s diversity was specifically black and white,” said Lee. “We’ve come a long way and have a long way to go.”
Lee spoke at the 5th annual diversity conference organized this week by Mississippi State University’s President’s Commission on the Status of Minorities. The commission recommends actions to improve the representation, development and success of minority students, faculty and staff.
“Like many other institutions of higher education, the dynamics of race, gender, privilege and other identities have multiple implications in fostering an environment of inclusion,” says chairperson Dr. Lakiesha Williams.
Jeff Johnson, an award-winning investigative journalist, social activist, MSNBC political contributor and author, opened the conference by saying he has witnessed many organizations, companies and institutions be “diverse in the standpoint that they have checked off boxes.”
“I’ve got my black person, Asian, transgender, disabled and even a Muslim,” he said. “But, I don’t have the infrastructure or ecosystem that insures that there are conversations about the value propositions that each one of those individual people bring to the table as a result of who they are.
“It’s nonsense. Because I want your diversity, but I don’t want you.”
In an opening panel discussion, administrators from Alcorn State University, University of Mississippi, University of Southern Mississippi, University of Mississippi Medical Center as well as MSU addressed strategies specific to strengthening inclusion at their campus.
Unlike the other universities represented on the panel, Alcorn State University is a land grant institution founded for the education of black people.
“The majority of our student population are African American,” said Dr. Donzell Lee, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at Alcorn. “We understand that we have an obligation to help our students understand and appreciate those individuals who are different than themselves.”
One way to do that is recruit international students to Alcorn, Lee said. The university has enrolled students from 18 countries, he said.
There is a financial as well as cultural incentive to bring international students to Mississippi campuses. International students pay double the amount in-state students are charged for tuition, and they are not eligible for federal financial aid. They can apply for institutional scholarships, but not every institution offers such.
Because the state continues to reduce funding for higher education, universities need to put more effort into international outreach, said Lee.
“Diversity trends change with time,” said Dr. Donald Cole, assistant provost at the University of Mississippi, “but race was the big elephant when I started in this work and it still is.”
Cole entered the predominantly white University of Mississippi as a freshmen in 1968. He said he was “not welcomed and was scared. Last semester was the first time students came up to me and said, “Dr. Cole, we’re scared.’”
“And that hurt me,” Cole said. “because it’s been almost 50 years. Something should have changed.”
Dr. Katrina Caldwell recently was named the inaugural vice chancellor for diversity and community engagement at the University of Mississippi. Before arriving in Oxford, Caldwell served as Northern Illinois University’s assistant vice president for diversity and equity since 2012.
The University of Southern Mississippi expects to hire a diversity officer as well, said Andre Heath, assistant to the dean of science and technology for strategic initiatives at USM.
Heath is known for the recruitment and retention of minorities in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) studies at the university. In partnership with Ole Miss and UMMC, Heath has worked with the Alliance for Graduate Education to identify graduate students in STEM who were destined to become doctors. Dr. Lakiesha Williams was one of those students.
According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the number of black male applicants to medical school dropped to 1,337 in 2014 (from 1,410 in 1978). The number of enrollees also has declined, with 542 black male students enrolled in 1978, compared with 515 in 2014.
Dr. Juanyce Taylor, the chief diversity and inclusion officer at UMMC, has begun working with the community colleges through their health equity and leadership institute. She also has incorporated pipeline programs to recruit students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
“We’ve taken a closer look at our African American male population and have had much success in getting students prepared (for medical school) and helping them realize which profession they would want to be a part of,” says Taylor.
Generating conversations within conferences such as this impacts most when it leads into deliverables, says Jeff Johnson.
“When we include diversity in everything we do, we will see our state move forward and our university system,” says Marcus Thompson, the system diversity officer for the Institutions of Higher Learning.
Regina Hyatt, vice president for student affairs at MSU, agrees: “Every single day … Diversity is everyone’s responsibility.”
Johnson concluded his address by challenging participants to take it a step further: “The goal isn’t diversity and inclusion. You already have diversity and inclusion to a certain extent. Instead, seek building a community within your institution.”