After 4 years at Emerson, spearhead of diversity effort to retire

by Beacon Staff • September 15, 2011

strongXakota Espinoza, Beacon Staff/strong

In her four years at Emerson College, Gwendolyn Bates oversaw a sizable increase in the diversity of freshman applicants, the heightened awareness of the need for multiculturalism on campus, and the welcoming of a black president.

Now, the associate vice president for diversity and inclusion has her eye on a golf club and a flight to Florida as she prepares to retire at the end of October.

She was appointed to her position  — created in 2010 in an effort to increase diversity at the college  — after three years at Emerson spent serving as associate vice president of human resources and affirmative action. The name change, and the promotion, reflected a sharpened focus on adding to multiculturalism on campus.

In an interview, Bates said she will be returning home to the Sunshine State, where she looks forward to playing golf and a life with no alarm clocks.

President M. Lee Pelton said he considers Bates’ retirement to be a tremendous loss for the college.

“She provided enormous leadership,” Pelton said in an interview. “She was well respected at the college and she’s someone whom the college community had great confidence and trust in. She will be missed.”

Bates said that her time spearheading the diversity effort was challenging, but she said she feels her tenure was a success.

“Have I done everything I want to do? No. But I am proud of the things that I have been able to accomplish,” said Bates.

She organized a variety of campaigns, events, and other initiatives, ranging from the creation of a diversity council, to a reevaluation of the curriculum’s multiculturalism, to the long-running Campus Conversations on Race and various other workshops.

“We have tended to think that differences don’t have value,” said Bates. “All these differences are what makes us better. Not only diverse cultures but diverse thoughts. Diverse ways of looking at things to make things the best they can be.”

Senior Chris Hyacinthe, the president of Emerson’s Black Organization with Natural Interests (EBONI) said that a more diverse student body will come with time, but he appreciates Bates’ initiatives.

“The number [of diverse students] has certainly increased in the time that I’ve been at Emerson,” the marketing communication major said. “Gwen definitely put her work in.”

According to the Strategic Plans for Racial and Ethnic Diversity released in September 2008, and an annual follow-up report from 2010, the number of non-white students climbed during her tenure.

Statistics show that the number of multicultural full-time faculty rose from 6.5 percent in 2000 to 13.8 percent in 2008. The number of multicultural first-year freshman also increased from 12.8 percent in 2005 to 18.1 percent in 2008.

According to the 2010 report the number of first-year freshman who identified as Caucasian decreased  approximately 25 percent from 2007 to 2009.

“Diversity isn’t just race and ethnicity,” said Bates. “It’s socioeconomic status, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation. Our country is becoming more diverse, and we have an obligation to prepare our students to be able to work in a world that’s going to be diverse.”

Pelton said that while progress has been made, he compared the diversification process to a three-legged stool.

“The first leg is leadership, the second is resources, and the third is strategic plans. All three must be in place in order to move forward successfully,” said Pelton. “Remove one of the legs and the stool can’t hold you. My expectation is that we will develop strengths and capacities in all three areas.”

Recently, Pelton and the chair of the board of trustees made an executive decision to elevate the title of associate vice president for diversity and inclusion to vice president of diversity and inclusion.

“It was my belief that given the scope of responsibilities [of the position], and what we’re trying to achieve in diversity and inclusion, that a vice president-level position that reports directly to the president was appropriate,” said Pelton.

Bates said an ideal candidate for the newly advanced position requires thorough understanding of culture, the institution, and of colleges in general, but also creativity, innovation, and patience.

“[He or she] needs to be able to develop a collaborative vision of what diversity and inclusion is,” said Bates. “[He or she] has to be an agent of change, because diversity and inclusion and the programs that make up that position are about change.”

Bates said she hopes to see the college continue working toward the established goals and upping the number of minorities in the faculty, staff, and student body. However, she said what’s truly important is inclusion, not numbers.

“We have to make sure that everyone that comes to this campus feel like a part of the community,” she said. “Nobody should feel like they aren’t an important element of the campus. We can do more to value differences.”