New VP of Diversity & Inclusion strives to promote excellence

by Xakota Espinoza / Beacon Staff • September 6, 2012

Spears headshot
Spears joined the Emerson community last May.
Photographer/ Joe Mehling, Courtesy of Sylvia Spears
Spears joined the Emerson community last May.
Photographer/ Joe Mehling, Courtesy of Sylvia Spears

Hanging on the wall of her office, newly-appointed Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion Sylvia Spears  has a large, marker-scribbled flow chart outlining what she believes to be the necessary ingredients for excellence, such as leadership and communication.

Spears was appointed to the position last Spring following the retirement of former Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion Gwendolyn Bates.

“My main initiative is making excellence inclusive,” said Spears. “I want to foster that environment so that our students can truly become global citizens.”

Spears said her top priority in her new position is to facilitate intercultural confidence within the student body through recognition and achievement and create a campus-wide dialogue about what inclusion really means.

President M. Lee Pelton said he is confident that Spears’ background, experience, and knowledge will help move Emerson forward in issues related to diversity and inclusion.

“The overall goal [of Spears’ position] is to ensure that diversity and inclusion are valued as essential and core elements of teaching, learning, living, and working at Emerson,” said Pelton in a phone interview with the Beacon at the time of the announcement in May.

Spears said that despite having dreamt of attending Emerson while in high school, she began her higher education at Rhode Island College — where she majored in speech communication with a minor in theater. Her interest in performing arts then led her to France, where she spent a year studying acting at the Marcel Marceu Paris International School of Mimodrama.

“I came into higher education nearly 20 years ago with the express purpose of supporting the academic and personal success of all students, with particular emphasis on students from historically underrepresented and marginalized groups,” said Spears in a phone interview in May. “Regardless of role, I have worked to help create educational environments in which all members of the educational community can thrive.”

Spears said her days in Paris were filled with activities in the creative arts from morning to night, something she sees mirrored at Emerson.

“Emerson is such a creative and talented community, much more than I even realized,” said Spears. “It feels very much like coming home.”

Upon her return to the U.S., Spears earned a masters degree in human development with a focus on college students, followed by a Ph.D. in education with a focus on educational environments from The Rhode Island College/University of Rhode Island Joint Doctoral Program in Education.

Spears said her goal was to educate herself on the types of environments that best facilitate learning, which she hopes to bring to the college.

“No educational environment is neutral,” said Spears. “It either has conditions that support and facilitate growth, or conditions that hinder growth. The connection between inclusion and institutional excellence has an effect on everything we do.”

Spears said that while she is impressed with the efforts the college has made to increase diversity and inclusion, there is still work to be done.

“Emerson has a great reputation, but there are things beyond representation in the student body,” said Spears. “The faculty and staff should be just as diverse as the student body, to enable students to see reflections of themselves in their professors.”

Last Fall, Pelton and the chair of the board of trustees Jeffrey Greenhawt elevated the title of Associate Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion to Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion.

Bates, who retired at the end of October after four years at Emerson, was appointed to the position in 2009 in an effort to increase diversity at the college.

“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.

Spears said she also plans to promote diversity of thought through community outreach, as she believes social justice acts as the underpinning for all of her initiatives.

“I want to tie our reputation to how we contribute to our local community, and help students recognize the power and responsibility of giving a voice to other people,” said Spears.“I think we can lead. Emerson has the talents and skills and vision to be a leader.”