Carroll strengthens diversity, equity, inclusion efforts on campus

Author: Linda Spice '89, M.Ed. '19

Published Date: 8/2/2020

Categories: Alumni Diversity Equity and Inclusion Faculty and Staff Students


Carroll University students at sign

Carroll President Dr. Cindy Gnadinger started her teaching career at age 22 inside an elementary school in Memphis, Tennessee. It was here that the city sent some of its poorest children to a place where they could see their breath on cold days because there was no heat. Ceiling tiles fell as she was teaching, bullet holes riddled the windows, and pupils became wet on rainy days as water came into the building, which didn’t meet fire codes the last 10 years it was open.

“My students had so many strikes against them before they ever stepped into school,” she said. “They didn’t have near the opportunity for success and learning that students at other schools had. It taught me that access to fair and equitable education is not there for all kids.”

Of the 500 students, faculty, and staff at Grant Elementary back in Memphis, only six people were white. She was one who strived daily to learn about the lives and cultures different from her own. She learned about her students’ rich culture but in this particular school she also learned about the culture of poverty. She now reflects on those experiences to drive her work and initiatives with faculty and staff at Carroll to strengthen the university’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) for all. Important to the president is that the work aligns with Carroll's ethos of respect, integrity and stewardship.

“We have free public education in America. However, students do not have equal access to education. I lived it first-hand. It was such an eye-opening experience for me. You’re struggling day by day to teach. You don’t have adequate resources,” Dr. Gnadinger said. “We had almost nothing. Our families were frustrated day after day in their environment.”

When Dr. Gnadinger became Carroll’s 15th president in July 2017, one of her earliest initiatives was to establish Carroll’s Opportunity Scholarship Fund to provide support for students from diverse backgrounds who are traditionally underrepresented in higher education, including first generation college students. She carries the lessons she learned as a teacher in Memphis and recognizes that there are students in nearby Milwaukee living in the same struggling conditions, as her students in Memphis, with the potential to hinder their opportunities in higher education.

“Our cities are failing so many of our children with inadequate schools, with inadequate funding for our schools,” she said. “If there’s something we can do on our end to help them out, then we need to do it to level the playing field."

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Leveling the playing field through DEI are just one part of Carroll’s strategy. The end goal of these efforts is for all Carroll students to have a better appreciation of people different from themselves in myriad ways.

“I think our end goal is to have a campus community that looks more like our society, and then to have developed experiences over four years for our undergraduate students that depends on their understanding of people who are different than they are, for people who think differently, who pray differently, and have different views. We want our students to value and respect those differences. We aren’t there yet,” Dr. Gnadinger said. “So, we’ve got work to do.”

Dr. Gnadinger’s commitment to DEI increased initiatives while energizing those already in place at Carroll. Dolores Ocampo Brown ’99, M.Ed. ’10, former director of cultural diversity at Carroll for more than 11 years and now senior director of Alumni Engagement since 2012, has been at the forefront of DEI efforts at the university. Through her role in alumni engagement, Ocampo Brown in 2016 launched Cultural Diversity Discussions with alumni interested in enhancing and strengthening diversity on campus. The university’s goals in recruiting alumni to help support diversity initiatives include helping to recruit a more diverse pool of students; helping to retain underrepresented students at Carroll so they graduate; and engaging more alumni to help build a network and support the university with its diversity efforts.

Ocampo Brown said that Carroll is striving for a better representation of a more global and diverse campus community, stressing that diversity encompasses not only racial backgrounds, but also religious, socio-economic, sexual orientation, and other differences among students that should be explored as part of a Carroll education.

“The world has become more global. There are facts to prove that. There is technology to support that. We’re able to connect very easily globally. Inevitably, our students will come across diverse perspectives and diverse backgrounds. We’re doing them a disservice if we do not prepare them to work with all people,” Ocampo Brown said.

Ocampo Brown said that Carroll is capable of building on a progression of change she has witnessed over the last 25 years. With the support of Dr. Gnadinger, the university’s board of trustees, and the commitment of faculty and staff, Carroll has slowly made improvements in different pockets in building a campus climate to support diversity over those years, she added. And now is a time to engage in the “more challenging, aggressive changes,” she said.

“We can have the most beautifully represented campus from a numbers standpoint but it’s also about the environment. If we don’t have the environment that supports all students, all faculty, staff, regardless of background, then we will not be successful. I define that as communication, open-mindedness, and also having the campus climate that supports diversity,” she said. “It’s challenging to change and it does take time but I do think it’s the right time.”

Ocampo Brown and Vanessa Topczewski (Pérez), M.S., associate dean for Carroll’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, co-chair the Task Force for Institutional Inclusion that Dr. Gnadinger established in November of 2019. Pérez highlights the rapid growth and expansion of DEI initiatives under Dr. Gnadinger’s leadership over the last two years since Pérez started at Carroll in October of 2018.

Said Pérez, “We’re looking at dismantling oppressive systems and structures that have been deeply embedded in the fabric of higher education. The work is ongoing. As Rep. John Lewis once said, ‘Ours is not the struggle of one day, one week, or one year…ours is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe even many lifetimes, and each one of us in every generation must do our part’."

Initiatives put in place over the last two years include:

  • Creating specific DEI goals in Carroll’s Strategic Plan, Pioneer Driven, to include enhancing, elevating and increasing the accessibility of the CCE program so that all students are immersed in cultures different than their own; expanding pathways for access and success; creating a vibrant and engaged campus climate, culture and community; and educating and developing all faculty and staff to lead change in an ever-evolving, complex world.

  • Establishing the President’s Task Force on Institutional Inclusion to study and address various areas of DEI, including the creation of an Institutional Inclusion Statement for campus.

  • Distributing a campus climate survey to students, faculty, and staff on DEI experiences, perspectives, policies, and practices. The results are intended to guide the actions of the task force and serve as a foundation for on-going DEI conversations.

  • Establishing the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, formerly the Office of Multicultural Affairs and Global Engagement, co-locating four offices and 10 full-time staff members. As a new department, emphasis has been placed on creating a joint mission, vision and goals, identifying areas of strength and challenges within the department and working with staff to gather data, best practices research, as well as student, staff, and faculty feedback, according to Perez. She notes that the role of the office is to provide holistic student support and advocacy, lead efforts that cultivate a welcoming and inclusive campus community, and to creating cross cultural experiences that foster meaningful interactions between individuals of diverse cultures, social identities, perspectives and experiences.

  • Transitioning the National Health Careers Opportunity Program (HCOP) Academy into DEI to complement existing academic programs and develop healthcare professionals skilled in holistic and culturally-sensitive care.

  • Launching the Inspire program through Admissions to support college access and retention for students in partner organizations who serve primarily first-generation and low-income students.

  • Dedicating campus space to encompass a DEI Student Lounge where students can connect and build community.

  • Re-establishing the university’s Black Student Union (BSU) group while also supporting other student groups to include LASO (Latin American Students Organization), Indian Student Association (ISA), and Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA).

  • Engaging students, faculty, and staff in Carroll’s first DEI Summit, featuring week-long seminars, speakers, and discussions.

  • Providing faculty and staff with the book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and opened up book discussion groups that began last spring and are continuing into the fall with conversations.

As students prepare to return to campus in August of 2020 for the 2020-'21 academic year, DEI efforts will be ongoing with new initiatives that include an “Antiracist Speaker Series,” which will be an extension of the learning, training and development taking place during the DEI Summit, featuring internal and external speakers, as well as student workshops focused on leadership and social justice through a “Lead the Change Series,” in partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, according to Pérez.

“We're grateful for meaningful cross-campus collaboration and support," Pérez said. "We've had folks from academic affairs, student affairs and really, most areas on campus saying, ‘I want to join this work. I want to help cultivate and sustain an equitable living, learning, working environment. I may not have all of the answers but I want to help.’ This energy accompanied with action and resources has helped facilitate tangible progress and growth on campus."

Learn more about the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

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