Message from the Chief Diversity Officer: Reflecting on diversity and inclusion at Appalachian

Friday, June 19, 2020

As Appalachian’s Chief Diversity Officer, it is my role to provide the vision, leadership, coordination and strategic planning for improving Appalachian’s campus diversity and inclusion so that everyone in our university community is valued, supported and respected. Let me be clear, that while this is my role, this work is made possible by the commitment of our university’s leadership and hundreds of my colleagues across the campus community. I am the first Chief Diversity Officer of a stand-alone office, which is one of many firsts that have been a foundation for real change through action. With my colleagues, I continually study our campus climate to assess how we value, respect and support members of our underrepresented groups, as well as the general campus community. Are we where we need to be? Absolutely not, but we are committed to ensuring Appalachian’s culture is one that fosters inclusive excellence.

Chancellor Everts has asked me to share, on a regular basis, the work we are doing — including our strategic plan — and the progress we are making for all people. Through this platform, I will shine a light on our shortcomings and the actions we are taking to address them.

In the past weeks, we have witnessed the best and worst of humanity. The anger and frustration expressed through social media posts and in active protests are understandable reactions. It’s not just a reaction to the most recent acts of brutality, but the culmination of centuries of inequalities. Still, in conversations with my colleagues, alumni and friends, I have heard unprecedented support for our faculty, staff and students of color, requests for help in understanding how best to instigate change, what actions to take. I am aware of many personal and institutional acts of kindness and generosity, but I am also aware of the disparities of the Appalachian experience for many people of color in our classrooms, residence halls and other social settings, in and out of our community. In absolute transparency, we acknowledge we have much work to do — at the university, in the community and throughout the world.

On our campus, we have made some significant progress. In 2014, Chancellor Everts charged the Chancellor’s Commission on Diversity to provide recommendations focused on the recruitment and retention of students, staff and faculty from underrepresented groups.

Our 2019–20 enrollment of 17.4% ethnically diverse students indicates a 46.6% growth since 2014 and an 80% growth in first-year ethnically diverse student enrollment, also since 2014. We are proud of these advancements. We also recognize they must continue.

Diversifying our university population is, we know, where progress starts. Our students of color must have the support and resources they need to excel here. Retention rates are an indicator of an institution’s ability to make a good decision at the front end with recruitment and admissions policies; to provide academic choices that are appropriate and engaging; and to offer the guidance and resources necessary for students to excel. Appalachian’s overall retention rate stands at nearly 88%, which is well above the national average. Importantly, our overall retention rate for underrepresented students is 87% and the rate for Black/African American students is 89%. Graduation rates often indicate how well an institution supports students who are struggling both with academics and social adjustment. Our underrepresented student graduation rate of 66% is higher than national average, but we are dedicated to improving it and have many members of our campus working to do so.

Since the spring of 2019, I have visited more than 90% of the university’s academic departments to host training on implicit bias. This holds particular significance during the screening and interview phases of a candidate’s experience, and of course is also key to retaining talented employees. Since 2014 our underrepresented staff has more than doubled, increasing from 60 in 2014 to 124 in 2019. This year, 34% of our new faculty hires are from underrepresented populations. These are solid numbers, and research indicates underrepresented students perform better academically in environments in which they can see faculty and staff who look like them. However, studies also show those faculty and staff often carry a greater burden of service to the institution, and invest more time in mentoring underrepresented students. This imbalance, along with others, requires some hard work and adjustment.

I will share more details about the Faculty Diversity Recruitment Committee and our work with search committee training next week. In future updates, I will provide more information about events and initiatives supported by our underrepresented students; the work of the Chief Diversity Officer Advisory Board, progress on our Diversity Strategic Plan, and other issues and opportunities as they arise. In the meantime, my door is virtually open! You can reach me at flemingwc@appstate.edu or 828-262-2980.

If we are to be a campus of inclusive excellence, it is more critical now than ever that all members of our university community have a voice. I hope this platform will stimulate conversation and engagement toward ensuring equal access to the benefits that foster a socially just and equitable culture. Please feel free to reach out. I look forward to sharing our important work toward building diversity, equity and inclusive excellence.

/s/ Willie C. Fleming

Dr. Willie C. Fleming