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Diversity, inclusion, equity efforts at NIU move forward despite pushback across the country

Ivo Shandor - Wikimedia

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Recently the Supreme Court ruled against universities using race as a factor in their admissions decisions, just as some states seek to get rid of programs promoting diversity in higher education, such as Florida and Texas.

Despite this pushback, universities and colleges across the country have been working on improving diversity in higher ed.

“I think we live in a global world, which requires that we learn to talk with each other, work with each other, and to bring varying perspectives together, experiences, and cultures,” said Dr. Vernese Edghill-Walden, Northern Illinois University’s first vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion. Edghill-Walden is leaving NIU at the beginning of July.

Even before her arrival on campus eight years ago, the vice president said the university leadership and the faculty senate were delving into these issues.

“I think that we've completely transformed our culture where everyone feels like they are heard, seen and valued- No, not 100 percent,” Edghill-Walden said. “But I think we're on the right track.”

Regarding racial diversity of faculty, she said that’s a hard nut to crack.

“In 2013 the number of Black professors was about three percent, and the percentage of Hispanic professors was near three percent. A decade later and the number of Black professors went up only by two percent, while the number of Hispanic professors went up less than a percentage point.

“If we're talking about racial diversity, I think that there's opportunities to grow across the university,” she said.

The vice-president said one of the strategies they’re adapting to diversify staff is through cluster hiring. That’s when professors are hired as part of a cohort with similar research interests across different disciplines.

“So, it's not just bringing a faculty member and introducing them to their colleagues in their department,” she said, “but it's trying to understand what else does that colleague need to really feel like they have a sense of belonging.”

And she says there may be a lag for those in position to hire to grasp that.

“If you don't share the same lived or similar shared experience, from that faculty member, you might not think it's important enough to know that that person of color may need a community outside of NIU to thrive,” she said.

Like other universities, she says NIU is working on expanding the criteria for tenure to include scholarship, like the development of patents, and community engagement work. The aim is to improve their ability to hire diverse faculty members.

Another strategy they’re implementing is called “growing your own.” Students of color are hired to do research after they’ve completed their doctorate in hopes that they’ll stay on as faculty.

“This is not like a magic bullet,” Edghill-Walden said. “It takes time to do that, but I do think that those strategies are promising.”

And diversity can mean a lot of things – gender, sexual orientation, and religion.

She said depending on where you are in the country, it may be easier or more challenging to talk about various identities and experiences.

“I think that we live in a society where having conversations about race is extremely hard,” she said. “And so I think we have to acknowledge that there's still racial discrimination, as there is gender discrimination and homophobia.”

She said talking about diversity, inclusion, and equity can only go so far.

“What's the point of having a conversation with students and seeing that we have this really rich dialogue, but they can't return to school, because they cannot necessarily afford to come back to school because we set this artificial barrier," she said.

That artificial barrier she’s referring to is the financial hold policy. Students who had a debt of $500 and above weren’t allowed to register for classes.

Since January the threshold has been lifted to $1,500 dollars and above. She said it has helped with the re-enrollment of students.

Edghill-Walden said another change in policy is the elimination of standardized test scores as a criterion for admissions, scholarships, and the honors program.

“We noticed standardized test scores are not a predictor of student success. High school grades are,” she said.

She said it has vastly improved the access that students of color have to scholarships and the honors program.

Leaving NIU

Edghill-Walden is heading to her alma mater, Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania for the role of chief diversity officer.

She said she’s most proud of her commitment to equitable practices and outcomes. Also, she’s proud of the university’s courage when seeking different paths forward.
“We're not afraid to think about what it could look like if we, if we tried something different,” she said.

Dr. Carol Sumner is expected to take her place as Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and chief diversity officer in mid-July.

U.S Supreme Court's Decision

Northern Illinois University President Lisa Freeman said NIU’s General Counsel, the Illinois Board of Higher Education, and the governor’s office are reviewing the ruling and assessing the possible impact on public universities.

In late June, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruled that colleges and universities use of race as a factor in student admission policies is unconstitutional.

In a statement Freeman said:

“NIU does not use race as a factor in undergraduate admissions and the university is currently reviewing all of our academic programs to ensure that students are being admitted on the basis of their complete academic profile. NIU will always remain compliant with the law; however, our mission, vision and values remain unchanged.”

A Chicago native, Maria earned a Master's Degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield . Maria is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America. RFA is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. It is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit journalism organization. Un residente nativo de Chicago, Maria se graduó de University of Illinois Springfield con una licenciatura superior en periodismo de gobierno.