April 25, 2024
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Questions and answers with Karen A. Jones

Diversity vice president leads the effort to make Binghamton University a welcoming place for all

Karen A. Jones is Binghamton University's first vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion. Karen A. Jones is Binghamton University's first vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion.
Karen A. Jones is Binghamton University's first vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion. Image Credit: Casey Staff.

For Karen A. Jones, two guiding principles can lead the way to greater diversity at Binghamton University: opportunity and community.

As the University’s first vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, Jones brings a wealth of experience from both academia and the private sector. Most recently, she was the chief diversity officer at her alma mater, SUNY Buffalo State College; the executive director for equity and access at Virginia Tech; and the corporate director for diversity at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield.

Diversity and social justice issues once again moved to the forefront this summer after the death of George Floyd during a police arrest in Minneapolis — and the worldwide protests that followed — but Jones sees embracing our differences as a necessary foundation for higher education and society as a whole.

“If we think about the founding of SUNY and Binghamton University, it was to create access. That’s who we are,” she says. “More importantly, we need to continue to capitalize on the strength of diversity. That’s the founding of our country.

“We’re the state of New York, the home of Ellis Island — we’re acting as if diversity is new for us, but it’s not. First and foremost, we’re a country of immigrants, and I think sometimes we forget that.”

Q: What do you see as the role of the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion?

A: Our role is to help with setting the strategic direction of the diversity initiatives taking place on campus, which includes the recruitment of faculty and staff as well as students. But beyond that is helping to create an environment where everyone who comes to our community can feel welcome.

Q: What initiatives do you see as your main focus in your first year at Binghamton?

A: I’m doing meet-and-greets across campus with divisional vice presidents, deans and students. One priority would be, for example, to bring the divisional/college diversity officers all together to strategize, to move the institution forward and to make certain that the work someone is doing in engineering is reflective of what’s going on in nursing, even though they have different content areas. Another is to examine our campus climate.

Q: What do you feel are the biggest lessons that you bring to Binghamton from previous roles that you’ve had in your career?

A: Sometimes we have hidden jewels sitting right in front of us, but we’re too used to seeing them. Someone new can recognize the beauty of the work that’s going on. We take things for granted because we’ve just been doing them for a while, but someone like myself, who has years of experience in other institutions and the corporate world, recognizes that the work we’re doing here isn’t the norm.

If you look at our SUNY peers, you’ll see that not every institution has divisional or college diversity directors. We have many graduate scholarships and the new George Floyd Scholarship for Social Change. Nationally speaking, we’re leading the way in relation to our peers.

What makes us similar to other institutions is that we’re all grappling with the same concerns about how we make certain that we’re not only recruiting but retaining diverse talent. How do we make certain that those folks who we invite into our community have a sense of welcoming?

I think about it like refrigerator rights. When you invite someone into your home, you tell them, “Make yourself at home.” One of the elements of “making yourself at home” is allowing them to go into your refrigerator without asking for permission. That’s symbolic of what we need to do as it relates to a community.

Q: What do you see as some of the obstacles to overcome to bring a richer diversity to campus?

A: A dear friend wrote a book called Only Wet Babies Like Change. Going through change is challenging because it stretches us beyond our normal comfort levels. It’s asking us to trust the process — and the process, more often than not, is unknown. There’s this sense of vulnerability because we’re not in control.

I tell folks: If you allow yourself to go through the process and be flexible, oftentimes you’ll find that change is good. And if you concentrate again on the mission of the institution, rather than “me” as the individual, we’ll be good if “we” get “me” out the way.

Q: Are there strategies to recruit not just more underrepresented students, but also faculty members?

A: First, we have to recognize that, nationally, everyone is struggling with recruiting and retaining diverse faculty and staff. We have to create a pipeline that encourages folks to not only graduate high school, go to college, complete college, go on to a master’s degree, and complete a master’s degree and doctoral program, but also to recognize that not everyone who completes a PhD wants to teach. Teaching is a gift. Not everyone has that gift.

The second thing is that those who are interested in joining the teaching ranks are a hot commodity. If there’s one offer from a college or university, there are probably two or three offers sitting on the table for one person of an underrepresented population. A lot depends on the institution and whether or not it has the resources to recruit and retain faculty.

If the environment is not supportive of diverse faculty and staff — or any faculty and staff — that’s also counterproductive to what we’re trying to do. We need to understand and examine the cultural nuances of our institution to say: What is the experience here? How are we treating our colleagues, and are we creating a sense of welcoming?

Even when we think about our student population, students are retained in part because they have great relationships with faculty and staff. They feel a sense of welcome. Students feel as if their advisors or faculty members are invested in them when they hear, “Hey, great paper — have you thought about going to grad school?” Or, “Have you thought about presenting at a national conference?” These are the things that encourage students to persist.

We have to invest in our faculty and our students so they understand that we see something special about them.

Q: How can alumni help us improve diversity at Binghamton?

A: Since joining the Binghamton community, friends have reached out and said, “Oh my gosh, Karen, I’m an alum of Binghamton.” One of the first things I do is ask, “Are you a member of our Alumni Association? Are you contributing to the institution? Because there’s funding that’s needed. And please encourage your kids to come here.”

If they’re not in a position to fund financially, they can fund through their time and their energy as mentors to our students or other roles.

Q: It’s fair to say that you’re stepping into this role at a less-than-optimal time, because of COVID-19. What are some of the extra challenges?

A: I think of it as reinventing ourselves. I can’t meet students or faculty and staff in person, so how do I create that sense of relationship through the screen? How do I convey who I am through two dimensions? My entire interview process for this job was through Zoom. I physically have met [President] Harvey [Stenger] maybe two to three times because of this.

I’m someone who’s very affective — I’m relational, I’m student-centered and I come from a very strong student affairs background. Having opening week of the fall semester and not being engaged in saying hi to the students and their parents is strange to me.

Nonetheless, there’s still this excitement about the students returning to campus. As different as it is, it’s also creating an opportunity for us to rethink the ways in which we deliver programs.

One of my conversations with folks is how to transmit a sense of authenticity and warmth in just two dimensions, and part of it is creating a conversation.

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