Southern Miss President Rodney D. Bennett Ph.D announced that he will be hiring a new Vice President for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Strategic Initiatives on July 1. This will be the first time a chief position at Southern Miss will be dedicated to building and upholding a diverse and inclusive campus.
This announcement came shortly after a video released by Dr. Bennett in response to this summer’s protests and the global eruption of anger about racial injustice in society. Many Southern Miss students have been a part of these protests, and have discussed their importance to larger conversations of equality.
Until now, the university has not had a division exclusively set on ensuring that campus upholds a tolerant and diverse community standard.
“I think it’s great timing to hire a position like this and, as a new part of Southern Miss, I’m excited to be here for that.” Sirena Cantrell, Dean of Students, said about the new hire. “I’ve only been here nine months, but I think it takes a great person to come in and figure out what are some needs that each constituency group has, to get help from the community, and to help push new initiatives forward.”
Dr. Hani Morgan, a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, says that this new position has been a long time coming.
“In my experience, it’s moved slower than other universities,” said Morgan. “I came from a different region that tends to focus more on this topic. For example, the faculty at other universities tends to be more diverse [than Southern Miss’].”
When asked what the new Vice President may need to specifically address, Morgan said, “Off the bat, I think that there have been issues involving equity, the way cultural minority people are treated, their salary, promotion and other diversity issues that have been unresolved from previous years that need attention. These need to be taken care of and we need to continue to make progress. Somebody coming in needs to resolve these issues with somebody like me that has been here many years. That will help this university make progress.”
Cantrell also thought that forming a committee with other existing faculty might be a good idea.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for the institution to have that position so there’s someone that will focus on diversity and inclusion for the campus. I think it would be beneficial to form a diversity and inclusion committee or task force that helps that person with those kinds of initiatives,” said Cantrell.
“Students should be exposed more to diversity issues,” Morgan said. “Considering what’s been going on in society, especially this year, I think this topic is more important than ever.”
Some Southern Miss students agree that education is a good starting point for improving how members of the community engage with one another.
“I think that we should see an active move to educate people about cultural things, especially people that may be different or not understand.” Layla Aybare, a freshman English major, said. “A large [amount] of resources needs to go into that because this is a diverse campus and people need to feel included and like they are welcome here.”
Aybare also said she enjoys the feeling of the campus’s community, and would like the new Vice Principal to enhance that feeling through cultural and equitable education.
Ignorance often leads to conflict between peers that may not understand one another’s frame of reference. Jada Brown, a junior social work major, says that, if Southern Miss were to create a new division for diversity and inclusion, she would like to see this gap closing.
“I would like to see everyone come together instead of being apart,” Brown said. “I know some people grow up having to only be with one race and understand that one race. I feel like everyone is human and we need to come together as equals to form a family. […] Some people treat others like they are less than or lower than because of who they are or where they come from. The way people talk to one another needs to change, because that’s how confrontation begins.”
Students also feel that the new Vice President should be aware of their concerns for campus. Khaliah Means, a Freshman entrepreneurship major, said that she would like to see the new Vice President show the community show their similarities while respecting their differences.
“[There needs to be] more events where everyone is merged together, so any and everybody doesn’t feel out of place, or like [they’re] forced to be here,” Means said.
“My vision is for The University of Southern Mississippi to become the model for public higher education across the country in all that we do, but especially in areas which require bold leadership,” Bennett said. “I am committed to a future for USM in which we work together to ensure all individuals who study, teach, research, and work here are offered equal opportunities to succeed.”
Southern Miss is expectant and excited to see how the new Vice President for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Strategic Initiatives begins work. For more information about this division, go to Southern Miss’ Diversity and Inclusion website.