Universities are more diverse than ever, but institutions still have some way to go before everyone feels included. No one knows this better than Anthony Jones, the Chief Diversity Officer at Slippery Rock University. His unique personal experience has informed his groundbreaking work in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as well as his support of students from marginalized communities.
GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews met with Anthony to discuss his journey into Higher Education (HE), his efforts to engage students from underrepresented backgrounds, and his initiatives to create a more inclusive campus.
I’m the Chief Diversity Officer at Slippery Rock University. I’ve been in this role for about a year. I like to say our institution is a diamond in the rough: our campus is a little off the beaten path, and it’s in a beautiful location. But you’re unlikely to pass by Slippery Rock unintentionally, so some of our initiatives involve getting people to visit the campus. I’m lucky to be surrounded by very passionate individuals: a large part of my role is providing a platform, and helping to improve collaboration across the board.
I’m very open about the fact that I was a student who didn’t want to go to college. I just wanted to play basketball as long as I could! After high school, I wanted to work for a cement company with my father. But he gave me some important advice: use your mind to make your living, not your body. So I went to the University of Mount Union, really just to play basketball, but to buy time to figure out what to do next. At the University of Mount Union, our Director of Multicultural Affairs, Dr. LaTasha Reedus, took me under her wing; I’d been doing well academically, but I was skipping class, and just coasting through. She was very passionate about her work, and she had a huge impact on my life. I realized that I wanted to help people in the same way she helped me. It’s very important for all students, but young Black men especially, to have someone who understands and supports them.
I try to be open about my own experience: I know what it’s like to feel culture shock, to feel like you don’t belong. Students recognize if you are being honest, so I try to bring that to the table. One of my mottos is, “Put your face in the place” — so I go to where the students are instead of expecting them to come to me. You have to talk to students on a real level and leave all that HE jargon at the door. I never wanted to be a doctor when I was young, because I never saw one who looked like me. So we need to set a positive example, to show students they can keep their identities and still become whoever they want to be.
We need to set a positive example, to show students they can keep their identities and still become whoever they want to be.
We need to be intentional, and we need to stay in touch. It’s important to have your ear to the ground to know what’s going on with students. You have to recognize not all students need the same thing: some need support now, and some will need it later. Whether it’s through surveys or interviews, we are always collecting data so we can know the bigger picture. We’re always consulting with students and faculty to keep our finger on the pulse. We need to allow students to speak, but also allow them to be heard anonymously. To understand how to support students, we must first understand their needs, so listening is key.
We try to create safe spaces for students to have those discussions. We provide moderation and let students do the talking. One thing I’ve learned is that if people feel defensive, the conversation turns into an argument and does not allow either side to receive what the other side is saying. So I use training based on self-reflection to prevent that. If students are allowed to tell their stories, to discuss how they feel, it leads to more productive outcomes. We need to meet students where they are to encourage open conversation, both inside and outside the classroom.
That’s an interesting question. I helped to create a new DEIB office — that’s diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. We are focused on policy review that will provide a more inclusive process for our hiring. More inclusive language and events across campus. We are holding training to teach faculty and staff about bias, microaggressions, and privilege and how that can affect a student’s sense of belonging in and out of the classroom. We are addressing representation visually on campus so that when a student tours or walks across campus they can see their culture or sexuality represented. We are working on creating that sense of belonging for sure.
Don’t expect to be paid a lot! I’m joking, of course, but you need to be in it for more than money. You must have a passion for your work: it’s taxing, and you often need to go above and beyond. When you really care, it’s sometimes hard to say “No,” so you need to be aware of burnout. You need to look after yourself before you start helping others.
Dr. LaTashia Reedus, who was the Director of Multicultural Affairs at Mt. Union University. She got me into this work in the first place and really changed my life in a lot of ways. But there are so many inspirational people — Dr. Roger Cleveland at Eastern Kentucky, and Leon Williams, who worked at Elon University but has now left the field to become a pastor. They taught me things I never knew I needed.
I can’t name just one. Outside of academia, there’s What My Momma Taught Me by Nathan McCall. It was very relatable to my experience as a youth and taught me about the treatment of young Black men in society. Another is Student Development in College, which helped me to develop a theoretical background in Student Affairs.