This summer, Robin Kelley was hired as Gonzaga’s associate chief diversity officer for the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (ODEI). The search to fill this position came amid a hiring freeze due to the pandemic, but President Thayne McCulloh and Provost and Senior Vice President Deena González authorized the hiring because of GU’s belief in the importance of this position.
“She has expertise and the knowledge and she has the organizational background,” said Naghmana Sherazi, the office and communications coordinator for the ODEI.
The ODEI office works to educate GU on the values of diversity, equity and inclusion, not only through compliance and economic perspectives, but through moral and ethical reasons.
“Gonzaga started as an intercultural encounter 133 years ago, this university is here because of the Black Robes, the Society of Jesus and their relationship with the Interior Sage Plateau Indian people in this area. It’s just a contemporary expression of it now,” said Raymond Reyes, the associate provost and chief diversity officer.
Kelley holds experience working at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Iowa State University and North Carolina State University at Raleigh.
She has worked as an employee of labor relations, been on diversity committees and has conducted strategic planning work around diversity, inclusion and cultural competence, priming her for this position.
“She’s a great writer, great analytic thinker, but it’s her experience working in larger systems,” Reyes said.
Kelley began her journey because of what she saw while working in the employee relations office. She saw that biases affected employee discipline, who would receive training or who had good rapport with their supervisors. She noticed that often times, the leadership team didn’t reflect the demographic she was a part of.
She also faced encounters of bias herself, where supervisors couldn’t believe her articulateness and how good her English was, despite being a native English speaker.
As the associate chief diversity officer, her role is to focus on workforce development, diversifying GU’s workforce and working on equity and inclusion.
Key initiatives she’s working on include a campus wide training program on diversity and creating common language among faculty and staff. She strives to build deeper understanding through facilitated discussions, workshops and courses.
“Robin Kelley is going to assist me in being able to support faculty to reevaluate what, how and why they teach what they teach,” Reyes said. “Is their implicit bias or unconscious incompetence perpetuating structural racism by the very nature of what our syllabi are about, how they're designed, how they're structured, the content itself, the assignments and the learning objectives?”
Her first month and a half at GU has been focused on an underrepresented minority postdoctoral program, which diversifies faculty, pairs postdocs with mentors and allows them to teach at GU for two years and eventually attain tenure.
Not only does the program attract postdoctoral researchers to GU, it helps build relationships between GU and other Jesuit institutions, historically Black colleges or universities, Hispanic serving institutions and tribal colleges. Kelley also plans to revise the faculty handbook for faculty diversity recruitment and to add intentionality to attract and retain diverse faculty.
She also works with affinity groups, the bias team and cultivates relationships between faculty and the office so that difficult conversations can take place on campus in a timely fashion concurrently to emerging issues.
To cater to contemporary times, the ODEI office has talked about expanding their presence on social media.
“I want to affect change," Kelley said. "I want to make places, especially predominately white institutions, more welcoming, more safe, more supportive environments where people can actually build community."
Authenticity is a key tenant in her leadership style, as she advocates for others to be themselves in the work environment, an act that allows diversity to be tangible.
Kelley chose to come to GU to create structure and support faculty, students and staff to work collaboratively. Having never worked at a Jesuit institution, she found its principles aligned with values of social justice, diversity, equity and inclusion.
She also cites a personal touch during the hiring process influenced her decision. Phone calls with the chair of the search committee, the provost and Reyes allowed her to ask about the surrounding area, the challenges of the position, support that’s offered to the position and the vision for the office.
Having never lived in the Pacific Northwest, she has started integrating herself in Spokane.
“If you're a large higher education institution, you have some obligation to the surrounding community to reach out to different populations. Your role is bigger than just what happens on campus,” Kelley said. “If you have a better connection with the surrounding community, you're able to attract more people to your institution because of that connection that you have with the community.”
Her hiring has come at a time where issues surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion are amplified because of the outrage over police brutality against Black Americans.
“Over the years, it was an individual problem or situation," Kelley said. "It was put in a way where a person may be dealing with discrimination, harassment, or some microaggressions or implicit bias in their own work environment. It wasn't an effort that looks more systemically at things. And I think right now, people are starting to look more systemically and people want to be involved.”