As a key part of its mission to transform the Cougar experience for students, Washington State University is focused intently on improving the campus culture and climate at all university locations.
While this type of work has been underway for many years at the unit and departmental levels, students have been passionate about their expectation for university leaders to weave equity and inclusion into every aspect of university life. This includes everything from the way we approach recruiting faculty and staff to providing more gender inclusive facilities across the WSU system. Faculty, staff and students are seeking unprecedented change in the institutional culture and climate.
Five working groups
WSU whole-heartedly accepted the challenge and created five campus culture and climate working groups to help lead the way in identifying the gaps and making meaningful change. The groups are managed within the Division of Student Affairs in an area called Community, Equity, and Inclusive Excellence. Jaime Nolan, the associate vice president for Community, Equity, and Inclusive Excellence, works closely with each of the groups, which are made-up of diverse faculty, staff, and students from all over the WSU system.
This past year group members have been busy assessing, realigning, redefining, and restructuring programs and services, some of which are being piloted and implemented this summer.
“We are on the cusp of introducing substantial changes that will move us forward as an institution that welcomes, honors and respects each member of our community,” said WSU President Kirk Schulz. “I am delighted with the plans coming from our working groups.”
Mary Jo Gonzales, vice president for Student Affairs, said the involvement and support by the WSU administration has been a crucial element leading to the successes of the working groups.
“From the president, provost, vice presidents, deans and department chairs, WSU leaders have been all-in on the work being accomplished,” Gonzales said. “Their commitment has been amazing.”
A broader lens
As many of WSU’s services related to equity and inclusivity are evolving, so, too, must the way they are managed. Nolan has broadened the scope of responsibilities for what was known as the Office of Equity and Diversity, giving it a new name, the Office of Outreach and Education, to better reflect the work it does.
For example, one important program it manages, Navigating Difference, has for some time attracted statewide and national interest. Developed in partnership with WSU Extension and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the workshop, consisting of five modules addressing cultural awareness, understanding, knowledge, interaction and sensitivity, is one of the nation’s most comprehensive training programs of this type. It is a popular workshop for extension professionals across Washington State, and demand for this training is growing among other state agencies and private industry.
José García-Pabón, Latino community studies and outreach specialist for WSU Extension, has even expanded offerings to include workshops such as “Why don’t they come? Increasing Latin Participation in Outreach Programs,” and a three-day workshop called “Facing Racism in a Diverse Nation.”
“Extension has been working on equity and inclusion for a while and welcomes the systemwide focus on this important work which will allow for deeper partnerships throughout WSU,” he said.
The change in the office’s name also reflects its expanded views on diversity, not only looking at it from a race and ethnicity perspective, but recognizing that students, faculty and staff often identify with several groups including gender and sexual orientation.
Sutton to lead outreach and education
To help lead the transformation and take the office to the new heights, Allen Sutton has been hired as the executive director for outreach and education in Community, Equity and Inclusive Excellence. He will begin his new duties on July 15.
A long-time leader in the work of inclusion and community building, Sutton was selected following a national search that involved faculty, staff, students, and community stakeholders from across the WSU system.
He served five years as director of the Cross-Cultural Center for Excellence at Auburn University where he advised 21 active student organizations and provided student advocacy, dialogue, academic support, and mentoring. His duties included developing programs, practices, and policies to reduce structural inequities, and create a more inclusive, egalitarian, and collaborative learning community.
“Allen’s leadership and expertise will elevate our work in this area,” Nolan said. “He has a lot of experience in equity and outreach, having built the programs and services at the Cross-Cultural Center for Excellence from the ground-up.”
Sutton said it is the opportunity to join a team that is making transformational change that motivated him to apply for the position.
“It’s an opportunity for me to come and help build something special, bring exciting change, and make sure WSU is a national leader in equity and inclusion,” he said.
A voice for students
When asked to describe Sutton, 2019 WSU graduate and member of the search committee A’Jenae Hardwell used three words: confident, open-minded, and easy going. She said each of these qualities will play an important role in helping him connect with students and be successful in the position.
“Students from diverse populations have high expectations for this position,” Hardwell said. “He will not only give more voice to student needs, he will help keep us informed about the progress being made and add transparency to the communication process.”
Prior to working at Auburn, Sutton served in several different roles at Texas A&M University and Texas Tech University. They include assistant director for Student Engagement and Leadership in the Department of Multicultural Services, assistant director for Multicultural Greek Life, assistant director of Student Diversity Relations, and residence life coordinator for Housing Services.
Sutton will receive his doctorate in higher education administration in August from the University of Alabama. He earned both his bachelor’s in science and master’s in education degrees from the University of Southern Mississippi.