Chief Diversity Officer
Dr. Willie C. Fleming joined Appalachian State University as chief diversity officer in May 2016. A two-time Appalachian graduate, he earned a B.S. in art education in 1980 and a M.A. in student development in 1984. He holds a Ph.D. in counselor education from University of South Carolina-Columbia. Previously, he was professor of psychology at Gardner-Webb University, training school and mental health counselors. He was also program coordinator of mental health counseling at Gardner-Webb’s Charlotte campus.
Q & A with Dr. Willie C. Fleming, chief diversity officer
By Linda Coutant
Dr. Willie C. Fleming ’80 ’84, a longtime counseling professor, became Appalachian State University’s chief diversity officer in May 2016.
Since then, he has been getting to know the Appalachian Community, assessing its cultural climate in order to further engage the tenets of diversity and inclusion to broaden the chances for equal opportunities and respectful treatment of all Appalachian’s students, faculty and staff. Every member of the community should feel valued and have a sense of belonging on our campus, he said.
This is not Fleming’s first role at Appalachian. In the 1980s, he served as director of minority affairs, which is known today as director of multicultural student development.
In February 2017, Fleming shared his thoughts on diversity and inclusion at Appalachian:
- What does diversity and inclusion mean to you?
The term “diversity” shines a light on our differences: such as gender, race, age, socio-economic status, political affiliations, socio-political power or lack thereof. Everyone brings their own uniqueness to any situation or circumstance. However, many members of our community feel there is no room for them at the table or they are unwelcomed. Underrepresented members of our community must know that they have a right to equal opportunities, chance and equitable treatment.
The term “inclusion” says we value, respect and support all of the members of our community. Diversity and inclusion, then, is creating an environment or a community where all individuals feel like they have a right to belong. Personal rights to life and liberty are highly regarded in this great country, and all members of society should be appreciated and their inalienable right to fair treatment must be highly regarded. Inclusion at Appalachian should foster practices and relationships that support a well-rounded student body and workplace in which everyone is esteemed and supported.
As we bring our different experiences and perspectives to the table, the status quo is sometimes challenged, but diversity of thought and perspective fosters the optimum of ideas and innovations. I am an advocate for diversity and inclusion. We are all richer when we have experienced each other. Our best results are often the product of collective work. We all tend to lose whenever “other” positions and opinions are not included or at least considered. I think everyone brings something of worth to the table.
- How would you assess Appalachian in terms of its diversity and inclusion?
I was a freshman student here in 1975. From that time to present day, I feel we have made tremendous strides. But, we have a lot of work to do. We recognize diversity more and we understand that there are differences and I believe we’ve done a lot to show that we value diversity, but the inclusion piece is where our real work is. My charge in May 2016 was to address a list of 14 initiatives that the university feels will assist in creating a more inclusive environment here at Appalachian.
- Tell me about the major initiatives you are working on this spring.
We’ve been excited to begin what we are calling the Inclusion/Infusion Project. First, this involves hosting a series of focus groups this semester to which we’ve invited all faculty, staff, administrators and students to share their perspectives on campus climate and inclusion on our campus. These are led by Dr. Gloria Campbell-Whatley, UNC General Administration’s Fellow for Inclusion. The purpose is to determine the need for and the extent to which inclusion is a part of the curriculum and student, faculty, staff and administrative experience and how these goals can be encouraged. The focus groups have been going very well, with over 150 people registered for the focus groups.
The data gained will, in part, be used to develop inclusion training that will be offered in summer 2017 through an on-campus institute for faculty and staff. The institute will equip them to be more effective in having those hard discussions about gender, race and even the topic of inclusion itself – how do we show others we value them, how do we show others we respect them? We want to give our employees the tools to be more effective. The focus group data also will inform future projects.
Since coming to Appalachian, I’ve been involved with the Chancellor’s Student Advisory Committee for Diversity Recruitment, our student-athletes and other student groups (at their request) for discussions about diversity and inclusion. The conversations have been really in depth, and I’m impressed with our students’ passion to ensure that our campus is a place where all students, faculty and staff are respected and valued. My job also includes one-on-one counseling, as needed.
- As you talk with students, what has been their assessment of Appalachian as an open and welcoming campus?
Our students are diverse and depending on which student or group, the response to this question varies. Students report both positively and negatively about Appalachian being an open and welcoming campus. However, whenever a community is not inclusive, we hear of micro-aggressions. These are the discriminatory actions or language – intentional or unintentional – toward marginalized groups and their forms of identity. Psychologist Derald Sue at Columbia University offers other terms to describe various forms of micro-aggression: micro-assaults, micro-insults and micro-invalidations. Whether Appalachian has an abundance of micro-aggressions depends on who you talk to. Some of our students would say, “Yes”; some of our students would say, “No, not so much.”
I think our campus reflects what is happening nationally in regards to issues around diversity and inclusion. Unfortunately, members of our faculty, staff and students report that they have been subjected to micro-aggressions and other discriminative acts. Therefore, we have the collective responsibility to equip our community with the tools necessary to improve our interactions, so that all know that we are indeed an inclusive campus community.
- Does Appalachian have specific goals related to diversity and inclusion?
Appalachian has not set any specific goals for increasing the number of underrepresented faculty, staff and students, so I like to align with our Enrollment Management office’s approach of a slow and steady increase. I’d like to see “fast and steady” increases, but reality tells me slow and steady increase will be the case with regards to underrepresented faculty, staff and students recruitment and retention. My goal is to improve our community so underrepresented faculty, staff and students feel they’re not only surviving but that they are thriving here – that they truly feel like they belong, with all of the rights, opportunities and equitable treatment.
- Are you open to the campus community’s thoughts, concerns or ideas?
Of course. As a therapist, I listen and am not judgmental, so when someone comes to me with a concern or idea, I am empathetic and use active listening skills. I tell my beginning counseling students of a Chinese proverb that says, “Allow the highest in you to relate to the highest in the other person.” That’s what I always try to do. This rule applies to everyone I come into contact with in my personal life as well as my professional position at the university.
I believe if we are going to build a community, we have to start with a strong foundation. I admit, I have had a few false starts since my arrival as I haven’t always chosen the best words in discussing issues related to diversity and inclusion. Now, I think I better understand the cultural climate at Appalachian than when I first got here. And, in my humanity – as in anyone’s humanity – I took some missteps. What has been an encouraging reminder throughout my life is the adage that whenever you make a mistake, you pick yourself up and carry on. I look to move forward.