Over the past four decades, the field of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has undergone a remarkable transformation, reflecting evolving societal attitudes and priorities. Lonnie Williams, Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Inclusion and Community Engagement at Arkansas State University, has been at the forefront of this shift, working tirelessly to build a learning community that respects a broad spectrum of identities.
Lonnie met with Charles Sin, Co-host of The Interview, to discuss evolutions in the field of DEI, the initiatives undertaken by Arkansas State University to foster cultural competency, and the institution's approach to ensuring student safety while promoting a diverse and inclusive community.
I’m the Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Engagement at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, Arkansas. I’ve been in this position since June 2020.
I’ve been in the game for a while. Before becoming VC, I spent two years as a special assistant to the Chancellor. I came to Arkansas State in 2003 as an Associate VC for Student Affairs. I had previously worked at the University of Arkansas, where I served as an Assistant VC for student affairs and also served as the Director of the Multicultural Center. I’ve worked in the DEI field since 1980, when I became an Associate Director of Minority Engineering Programs at the University of Arkansas. Between 1980 and 2003, my role was almost entirely DEI-focused, so when I assumed my current role, I was happy to jump back into it.
It’s evolved a lot since then. Back in the 1980s, we primarily used the term “Minority Affairs,” and in the 1990s, that changed to “Multicultural Affairs.” From the late nineties, people started looking at diversity and inclusion, and over the last 10 years, there has been an increasing focus on equity and justice. Those aren’t just names or terms: they are powerful ideas that have transformed the field of DEI.
One of our initiatives is a course called FYE, or First Year Experience, which is mandatory for all students. As part of that course, there is a unit dedicated to diversity. The earlier we engage students, the easier it is to educate them about diversity and what makes it work. For students from underrepresented populations, we have a program called INSPIRED. It’s a kind of extended orientation that brings students to campus for a week before the start of the semester, introducing them to the people and resources which will help them succeed.
When I first arrived, there was a special assistant to the President who oversaw our DEI efforts. But since then, we’ve expanded to a Vice Chancellor’s position, widened our focus, and further developed our resources. We deal much more with recruitment and retention, and we’ve been running focus groups for faculty and staff. There are also support networks for underrepresented groups, such as the African American and LGBT+ communities, even at the faculty and staff level. We want to foster a campus climate conducive to building success for all.
Well, my four degrees are all from the University of Arkansas, and I also started the Black Alumni Reunions for that institution. We started noticing alumni returning who had attended the university in the 1940s and 1950s. I thought it was important to record their experiences in their own words. I co-wrote the book with my colleague Dr. Charles F. Robinson: he did the historical research, while I focused on the oral histories. We had about 75 interviews with former students, which we tied in with historical events at the university and across the nation. At the end of the book, we included a timeline with a list of the first African-Americans to reach certain milestones at the institution. We wanted to share those perspectives so people today can see what the past looked like and how far we’ve come or not come.
We’ve had some issues with social media — particularly YikYak, where students can post anonymously. Right now, YikYak is banned on campus — it’s actually even banned on government devices in the state of Arkansas. But that doesn’t stop students from getting on there — so when there is an incident, we send out a campus-wide message to underline our stance that offensive language and behavior will not be tolerated. This past year, we’ve held campus conversations about online offensive behavior; we want everyone to know we do not condone it. If there is threatening behaviour, we need to treat it as an issue of student conduct. People still have a right to free speech even when we might disagree with it or find it distasteful, but there is a fine line between free speech and offensive behaviour.
We try to monitor social media: it’s a good way to discover what’s happening on campus. But we’re not just looking for negatives: we also want to highlight the positives which can uplift our community. In terms of safety, we’ve put a lot of focus on our residence halls. We are using an ID system to make sure only residents and their guests can access those spaces. We’ve also installed more cameras across campus to help increase security. Every year, we produce a report which looks at crimes carried out on campus, and we work closely with students and residential advisors to ensure our campus is safe for everyone.
Don’t be afraid to be your authentic self. You deserve the same rights and freedoms as everybody else. If something happens, don’t suffer in silence — speak up.