New vice president for diversity begins her duties

Karen A. Jones brings three decades of experience in higher education and corporate diversity programs to Binghamton University.

Karen A. Jones began her duties as Binghamton University's first vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion at the end of June. Image Credit: Casey Staff.
Karen A. Jones began her duties as Binghamton University's first vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion at the end of June.
Karen A. Jones began her duties as Binghamton University's first vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion at the end of June. Photography: Casey Staff.

Karen A. Jones has joined Binghamton University as its first vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion. Most recently, she was chief diversity officer at SUNY Buffalo State College. Prior to that, she held positions as executive director for equity and access at Virginia Tech, corporate director for diversity at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, director of the CONNECT Program at St. John Fisher College, cultural relations specialist for Global Crossing, and director of leadership and community development as well as coordinator for students with disabilities/ADA at SUNY Brockport.

She recently spoke with BingUNews about her extensive experience with both higher education and corporate diversity programs, and what she hopes to bring to Binghamton University.

How did your experiences growing up help shape the work you do today?

If we think about my childhood, I grew up in a very diverse community in White Plains and Ossining (N.Y.). It was very diverse, so that’s the only thing I knew. Italians, Greeks, Spanish, Jewish, Jamaicans, and Blacks. And because that was my environment, I assumed that it was everyone’s environment. I came from a strong Pentecostal family but had a close childhood friend who was Jewish and I became aware of celebrating Hanukkah because she celebrated it and that was my introduction to Hanukkah.

I also learned what it meant to have friends with different family structures, which ultimately led to my experience of different cultures (i.e., foods, religions, experiences). One of my Italian friend’s mom stayed home; the parents of my Greek friends worked outside the home along with my parents. My Jewish friend’s parents were divorced so I was able to observe what it meant to have a friend living in a single-parent household. My father passed when I was 12, and I saw my mom become a single parent.

Growing up in that environment, diversity was all I knew — Ossining, White Plains — we moved from one diverse community to another. We represented multiple ethnicities, lifestyles and situations, so that was my upbringing. Then I went away to Buffalo State for my undergraduate degree where I encountered being called out of my name for the first time. It struck me because I’m thinking that I grew up middle class and the term didn’t resonate in terms of race; I took it to an economic situation: “How dare you call me this word when you’re sitting in a house my mom wouldn’t let me live in as a college student?” That was my deflection.

After earning your bachelor’s degree in criminal justice at SUNY Buffalo State College, you received a master’s degree in counselor education with a concentration in minority groups at SUNY Brockport. What came next?

After graduate school, I was working at Brockport and the director of advisement services reached out and said one of your colleagues is leaving who has been coordinating disabled students’ services. Was I interested in managing it? I knew nothing about disability services, but it was 1990 when the ADA legislation became effective and I attended my first, what is now referred to as, AHEAD conference for accessibility services. It was the best conference I ever attended and which talked about identity, learning disabilities, physical disabilities, ADA compliance, building accessibility and the use of Braille. For me it was, “Oh, my gosh!” This is what making sure students have access to reasonable accommodations looks like. It was my first foray into diversity. Five years into this role, my then vice president for student affairs says, “Hey, Karen. What about managing the Multicultural Resource Center and ADA services because you’re the only one sufficient at this — and also international student services and also create this leadership program.”

It was wonderful because now my eyes were exposed to so many things, but I realized I had been there for 13 years and only interviewed once. Folks were complimentary about my skill set, but how did I know if I was employable outside of higher ed? How do I expand my portfolio and diversify my experiences?

So you left higher education and were hired by Global Crossing, an international telecommunications firm, as a cultural relations specialist. What happened next?

I worked for Global Crossing on how we could change the culture of the organization because it had merged with several other companies. Within a year after my arrival, they filed for bankruptcy. The challenge for me was, they knew they were filing for bankruptcy and many longtime employees, who retired a month prior to the company’s announcement, lost their retirements. In that instance, it helped me to understand that for corporate America, the bottom line is the bottom line. It was three and a half years before they eliminated my role, but I was working on my dissertation, had unemployment, a severance, and I lived below my means anyhow. This was an opportunity for me to finish working on my dissertation proposal.

I completed my dissertation at the University at Buffalo and my former supervisor at Global Crossing left the corporate diversity director position at BlueCross BlueShield and told me to apply for the job and see what happens. I got the job.

They have five regions and I helped their employee resource groups unify under a common name, reached into communities to address healthcare disparities and learned about literacy issues. For example, we changed our brochure to reach the people in the community to make certain healthcare was accessible as well as understanding of how each region had its own unique perspective. We needed to make certain the community understood what the company was doing to address healthcare disparities and to diversify our employees. We looked at the Affirmative Action plan and examined where the gaps were and worked to create employee pipelines through things like after-school programs and partnering with the Rochester City School District to increase the high school graduation rate. We created an after-school employment opportunity that had 80% attendance and if the student maintained at least a C average, we would pay them and hire them in the summer and support them with college tuition. We created a mentoring program and partnered with UB’s MBA program to bring in MBAs with the result that they secured employment with us. We also partnered with several HBCUs.

Your next position was with Virginia Tech as executive director for equity and access. Tell us about what you learned there.

At Virginia Tech I supervised ADA compliance, reasonable accommodations, Affirmative Action, employment, and conflict and mediation services including Title IX, partnering with learning, organizational development looking and leadership development programs. We looked at how we change the culture and how can you change an organization unless you are partnering, so that’s what we did.

After that, Buffalo State was looking for a chief diversity officer and I still have family in New York, so I took the job and was there for eight years, responsible for Title IX, professional development, diversity programming partnering with others and building relations with the community to make sure they understood the work we were doing. Even though I grew up in a diverse community, the challenge is thinking everyone grew up the way I did. That was a learning lesson for me, understanding that not everyone grew up as I did.

What specific experiences have helped you develop an understanding of how to bridge differing perspectives and needs?

My own experience was as a student growing up in a fundamental Pentecostal family. Folks are doing the best they can understanding the gospel the way they do, then they come across someone else’s tutelage and learn it is much more liberating. My roommate was a lesbian and created fictitious names for her girlfriend because she worried about how I would perceive her. It was her need to protect herself, but I needed her to know that I wasn’t there to judge her — I wanted her to be happy.

I know first-hand what it means for someone to live in the shadow of others — knowing that my brother was gay and having him die of AIDS. There were times I would call him and he wouldn’t respond because he was in the hospital and didn’t want us to worry. We could have been available, but he didn’t want us there — he would create an excuse for being unavailable.

These stories are so unfortunate and that’s why this work is so important. I often tell folks, when you think about the ways the perception of alcoholism has changed, the perception of AIDS has changed, the perception of addiction to drugs is changing — they’re only changing because we now have to deal with them personally unlike we did before. For AIDS, the notion only changed from it being a gay white man’s disease because Ryan White contracted it. It could be me, my child, someone I know. Until it hits you personally, it’s abstract. And that’s similar to race relations. Until it hits you personally, it’s always going to be abstract.

Another poignant message for me was when I learned that the board of regents of another institution where I was working wanted to rescind an offer letter to an employee when they found out she was gay and had a partner. Who the heck are you? Things like that. Those instances, where you’re striking against the core of humanity—that’s why this work is important.

You have a lot on your plate now. Do you have any specific goals for what you want to accomplish at Binghamton?

My hope is to showcase the work that’s being done because a lot of work has been done. Binghamton was one of the first institutions to create the chief diversity officer title, and many of the colleges and divisions have diversity directors. You have the graduate scholarships, the SUNY PRODiG work, the Road Map strategic plan has included diversity for some time. The Presidential Diversity Postdoctoral Fellowships, in addition to other many things individual faculty are doing with published books, work in the community to address and partner with some of the community-based organizations. There’s work that’s being done and my role is to showcase that.

And I hope to continue to highlight the relationships that we’re building in addition to partnering with the diversity officers so we can strategize and utilize our resources as one as we understand the uniqueness in perspectives of each school but speak as a collective.

I know that this position is one of limelight, but my role is not to focus on me. It’s what am I doing to help position the institution to be viewed as an institution that continues to value diversity and is well-respected for continued work to address diversity. Nothing is broken here, but how do we mend and further position the work that’s being done.

In addition to your extensive experience, you hold a PhD in educational leadership and policy from SUNY Buffalo State College and your dissertation was titled “Black Males and Persistence to Degree Completion at a Predominantly White Institution.” With all of the skills you have gained during your career and in today’s climate with calls for true equality, how do you plan to help Binghamton move forward?

I’m doing listening tours, meeting with my staff, the vice presidents, deans and students to get a sense as to what they want, how do we partner strategically and how we move forward. I keep thinking about “a house divided cannot stand.” I think it’s important for us to focus on the mission. If we think about the mission of this institution and focus on that, that’s how we come together; recognizing we each have a unique perspective — that we each have a role to play in contributing to making the University a welcoming place for everyone — where faculty, staff and students can have a sense of belonging; where everyone feels valued. What is important is that we recognize we each contribute to one another’s success.

I want Binghamton University to be viewed as an institution that continues to value diversity and is well respected for its continued work to address diversity. Nothing is broken here, but how do we further position the work that’s being done? If we think about the mission of the institution and focus on that, that’s how we come together.

Finally, why was Binghamton a place where you wanted to be?

Adding on to the University’s commitment to diversity was the opportunity to engage with students. I am a student affairs professional at heart, and I savor my relationships with students.