The new generation of students is passionate about change. This brings challenges as well as opportunities. No one knows this better than Michelle Cook, Senior Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Georgia, who has played a vital role in promoting the interests of underrepresented students.
Michelle sat down with Kitty Hadaway, GoodCourse Universities Lead, to talk about her career path, her initiatives to support marginalized students, and the issues surrounding free speech and safety on campus.
I have the pleasure of serving as Senior Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion and Strategic University Initiatives and Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Georgia (UGA).
My background is in academia: I have a Ph.D. in History from Duke University. I taught History at Georgia State University before making the transition into administration. My first foray into academic affairs was at Arts and Sciences — the biggest school at UGA, with around 30 or 40% of our undergrads. There I started working in the Dean’s Office, where I was responsible for students’ academic affairs, from orientation all the way through to graduation. After several years, I made the move into central administration, working in the Provost’s office, which brought me to my current role.
Over the years, we’ve implemented a lot of initiatives and programs. For me, recruitment is particularly important: our biggest challenge is attracting students from those underrepresented and underserved communities. In terms of academics, these are high-caliber students who have a lot of choices, so we need to stand out from the crowd. Many institutions are struggling to attract male students, particularly young Black men, so to address that, we’ve developed a program called GAAME — the Georgia African American Male Experience. Once students arrive on campus, GAAME provides them with comprehensive support, whether in academics, social life, or adjusting to college. Some of our alumni have specifically cited the program as a pivotal university experience.
Students really drive the culture and climate of our institutions, so it’s important that they understand our commitment to diversity and inclusion. We try to start early: when students apply to our institution, they receive our Diversity Newsletter, which highlights our efforts to achieve change. All our undergraduates go through an orientation process that includes information specifically about the diversity of our university. It isn’t a lecture; it’s led by Student Orientation Leaders to demonstrate the variety of our community. Once students are on campus, we have an academic cultural diversity requirement which is necessary to graduate. We want to increase cultural competence and give students opportunities to engage with the diversity around them.
We have a First Amendment policy on campus which is sent out to students and faculty once a year. It can be challenging to accept what free speech entails: people can be frustrated when they find out that speech they consider harmful or negative is protected. To educate students, we have hosted forums and brought in First Amendment experts as speakers. Freedom of speech means hearing uncomfortable things or things you disagree with. Although we might not like what people say, we must defend their right to say it. It can be difficult and emotional, but it’s a valuable learning experience.
Freedom of speech means hearing uncomfortable things or things you disagree with. Although we might not like what people say, we must defend their right to say it.
We try to be proactive, although sometimes societal events occur that put us in a reactive position. For example, during the pandemic, we noticed that Asian students were being targeted for harassment. First, we need to be sympathetic and affirm students and their experience. Next, we need to come together and respond as a community. It’s important to listen to students: we need to be aware of their lived experience, not only on campus but in wider society. Building awareness is key — students need to know how they can be allies and support those in need.
More than anything, the new generation is looking for relevance: not only how things affect themselves but society as a whole. This work isn’t done in a vacuum, and we need to bring everyone together if we want to make a difference. More and more people are questioning the value of a college degree — we need to show them why it’s worth it.
I have quite a few, but three people come to mind. First, the UGA President, Jere Morehead. I’ve learned so much from him: he provides an example of authentic leadership and has real loyalty to the mission. Second, Ruth Simmons, who I met while I was an undergrad at Princeton. And last but not least is Freeman Hrabowski, who has worked tirelessly to improve the trajectory of minoritized students in STEM education.
That’s always a hard question. But Michelle Obama’s Becoming really helped me think about myself and my own journey. It made me reflect on how I can make my work more impactful and influential.