The Interview USA
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Chief Diversity Officer

Leah Cox

Cultivating a sense of belonging among Higher Education (HE) students is crucial for their personal growth, social adaptability, and academic success. Creating a community is even more important for colleges with diverse student bodies, but it also poses some unique challenges. Leah Cox, Vice Provost for Equity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, faces these challenges head-on. 

In conversation with Co-Host of The Interview, Max Webber, Leah delved into the common obstacles her team encounters, and how they foster a vibrant and inclusive community among Chapel Hill’s 40,000 students.

Leah's Journey

Max: Let’s start with a brief introduction… 

I’m Leah Cox, the Vice Provost for Equity and Inclusion, and Chief Diversity Officer at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I’ve been in this role for just over two and a half years, and I’ve been in the field for 30 years. 

Max: What drew you to a career in diversity and inclusion in Higher Education?

I started my career in rehabilitation and counseling, working with individuals with disabilities. I was offered a job at Gallaudet University in Washington DC, the only HE institution for students with deafness or hearing impairments. I learned that, though all Gallaudet students had some form of hearing impairment, they were still segregated throughout elementary and high school. That pushed me to consider inclusion measures, and I noticed that the university didn’t celebrate cultural holidays or events despite having students from across the world. I started developing programs that helped students feel a sense of belonging at Gallaudet, and after a while I was asked to set up the university’s first Office of Minority Student Affairs. I got sucked into the work, and I still do it today.

Max: How do you go about creating a sense of belonging at Chapel Hill?

Our students are young people who may be struggling with their identity, and they’ve come to an institution with 40,000 other students in the same position. Finding a space on campus that celebrates them as individuals can be very difficult, so we need to bring students in, listen to them, and allow them to tell us what will help them feel a sense of belonging. We also recognize that it’s not just about creating spaces for communities to thrive, it’s also about ensuring behavior among faculty and staff aligns with our efforts. We provide a variety of training sessions for our staff to teach them how to create communities in their classrooms and across campus, so students can feel welcomed, included, and know that we care about them. 

Max: How do you engage such a large student body in diversity and inclusion initiatives?

Students often gravitate to initiatives that relate to their existing interests, so our job is to help them learn more about themselves and others by exposing them to opportunities they’ve never thought to engage with before. We make sure that our diversity and inclusion initiatives touch all of our students by placing a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) professional in every school from science to business. Those individuals provide programming, outreach, advising, training, and education tailored to their school’s students, ensuring diversity and inclusion are present inside and outside of the classroom. It’s a lot of work, but we have a very capable team that’s eager to engage our community in the important initiatives we create.

Max: Amid a polarized political landscape in America, how do you prepare students to converse across difference?

First and foremost, we train all our faculty and staff to navigate dialogue across difference among students, helping them facilitate conversations without contention. That training program was developed two years ago, and we’ve since rolled it out to graduates, and student leaders in our fraternities and sororities. We also have a Civic Life and Leadership School that runs discourse and debate programs, exposing students from across the university to potentially difficult dialogues, and the correct ways to converse. Those events help students learn to listen and engage with an open mind before sharing their own views. We also work closely with our Student Affairs teams to make sure that we’re constantly promoting our intergroup dialogue training sessions, retreats, and two-day educational sessions.  We don’t tell our students that they have to change the way they think, but we do teach them that it’s important to listen to people who may have different opinions. 

Max: Did the pandemic change how your team approaches diversity and inclusion?

During the pandemic, our students were deprived of a community for three years, so our current DEI work is focused on mentoring, and mental health and wellbeing. We’re pushing students to relearn vital social skills by engaging face-to-face rather than using virtual means, and we regularly hold activities on our quad to draw students out. For example, we held a Thanksgiving event where we encouraged students to call someone they were grateful for. The surprise on students’ faces when the recipients were overjoyed that they’d reached out led to a lot of happy tears, and it helped reinforce students’ need to engage with those close to them.

We’re also pushing students to get involved in their communities as active citizens, especially now that it’s voting season in America, since that was impossible during the pandemic. We’ve not shied away from approaching challenging political issues like abortion, DEI, or January 6th, and we’ve developed programs across campus to bring in panelists and speakers, and promote discussion among students. We also allow students who’ve met with a professor and done their research to lead these important conversations, helping them engage others in the community issues that they’re passionate about.

Max: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received during your career?

As a younger professional, when people would ask me to take on different roles or projects, I’d always say yes. For example, when Title IX was passed into law, the president of my university offered me the role of Title IX coordinator with the caveat that I wouldn’t have to deal with too many cases. I was duped, and I had to do a lot of work. However, that propelled me to my next job because they were looking for someone who had Title IX experience. No matter how much of a challenge the work might be, every yes will lead to the next step, so try to say yes as much as you can. 

Curious to see what the future of training looks like?
Max Webber
Max works closely with people leaders and change-makers in our professional services markets. If you're looking to feature on The Interview, or simply want to learn more about GoodCourse, then get in touch at

The future of training is here, are you ready for it?

Tired of chasing your learners to complete dull training? Let's speak today👇
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.