Texas A&M University President Michael K. Young (left) and Vice President for Diversity Robin Means Coleman (right) discuss her vision for the university. (Gabe Chmielewski/Texas A&M University Marketing & Communications)
By Texas A&M University President Michael K. Young
Earlier this year, Robin Means Coleman joined Texas A&M as our new Vice President for Diversity and we are thrilled to have her aboard. She comes to us from the University of Michigan where she served as associate dean of social sciences and was responsible for the university’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Strategic Plan. Coleman is a nationally prominent and award-winning scholar in communication, and Afroamerican and African studies.
She has received the John Dewey Award for undergraduate education, the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Outstanding Mentor Award, and the Harold R. Johnson Diversity Service Award at the University of Michigan, as well as recognition from New York University School of Education for teaching excellence.
I visited with VP Coleman to see how she has been adjusting to Aggieland, discuss her thoughts on the state of diversity, equity and inclusion at Texas A&M, and learn of her hopes for the future in this critical area.
MKY: How has your time here in College Station been so far?
RMC: I have absolutely enjoyed and appreciated every minute of my time here. The Office for Diversity staff is truly incredible—they are all so skilled, dedicated, and thoughtful! The staff members have done everything to help me quickly settle in so that, together, we can get on with the good, hard work of leading campus efforts in accountability, climate, and equity.
MKY: What did you know about Texas A&M beforehand and what have you learned since you arrived here?
RMC: As large, public institutions, such campuses are often a litmus test for what is happening in our sociopolitical world. Most recently, Texas A&M showed other institutions of higher learning how to navigate some truly difficult racial animus and free speech issues, while working to ensure the safety of its community. Part of what attracted me to Texas A&M is the university’s willingness to work to positively influence inclusion among the Aggie community. Now that I am here, I have met dozens upon dozens of students, staff, and faculty who are wholly invested in working to make this a place where everyone shares a sense of belonging and is treated equitably; and, they have been doing this work for a long time. I have learned that groups such as the Diversity Operations Committee (DOC), which includes representatives from all of the university units, and the President’s Council on Climate and Diversity (CCD), which includes leaders in the community as well as university representatives, are committed to holding Texas A&M accountable for fulfilling its diversity, equity and inclusion goals. These groups also provide innovative recommendations to help us be a national leader in fostering a diverse community in which we are all treated equitably.
MKY: What do you love about higher education?
RMC: Higher education has weathered some difficult attacks, and it continues to be targeted. What worries me most is a sense of anti-intellectualism among certain segments of the population. Access to knowledge—historical, theoretical, political, scientific, technological, artistic, cultural, sociological, mathematical, and the like—is always a corrective to a lack of progress, and leads to growth and success.
Texas A&M is that corrective. As one of just 62 research institutions in the country that belongs to the Association of American Universities (AAU), Texas A&M’s status is secure as an institution that advances and supports our state, national, and global citizenry through research and education. It is an institution of higher learning that is helping address social, political, and economic problems through critical engagement, discovery, innovation, and invention. Importantly, Texas A&M understands that diversity—in experiences, cultures, and insights—is absolutely central to academic excellence and leadership. What is not to love about that kind of influence!
MKY: What is your philosophy regarding diversity and increasing diversity in higher ed?
RMC: Diversity work is particularly demanding. There are the structural challenges that come with large, decentralized universities such as the silos that campus communities operate in. There are definitional challenges: what does diversity mean and do we dilute the term if we say that it is any and everything? There are methodological challenges: how do we “do” diversity? Still, I am confident about what can be accomplished.
Higher education is in a unique position to inform and engage social climate and culture. Indeed, it is worth remembering that researcher-scholars are at the very center of examining and making sense of complex local, national, and global cultural-political events. My role is to work with units to connect their research, creative, pedagogical, and administrative efforts to an understanding of the complexities of culture, to intercultural insight, and to a vision for a diverse and inclusive campus.
MKY: What are Texas A&M’s strengths and what are its challenges in the areas of diversity and inclusion?
RMC: In some ways, Texas A&M’s strengths and challenges are one and the same. Texas A&M is nearly 145 years old. At the same time, it is a rather young institution—only about 55 years old—when you think about its acceptance of practices of inclusion. For example, it was not until 1963 that Texas A&M admitted women, but on a “limited basis.” Likewise, just ahead of the impending Civil Rights Act of 1964, Texas A&M opens admission to African Americans, but they were initially marked as “special students.” We are barely one generation out of what it was 140 years ago. As such, its strength is its long history, and its challenge is that it held on to certain exclusionary practices for far too long. What we all want for Texas A&M is for it to always be at the forefront, to be a leader. That means learn from the past to be a pioneer in cultivating an enlightened, aware, inclusive society for the future.
MKY: What are your hopes for the future of diversity and inclusion at Texas A&M?
RMC: I hope that Texas A&M’s student body will soon come to resemble the population of the state. I hope that everyone will come to understand that our core values—respect, excellence, leadership, loyalty, integrity, and selfless service —are synonymous with an ethos of diversity, equity, inclusion.
MKY: Anything you’d like to add?
RMC: The Office for Diversity quite sincerely wants to make the lives and experiences of Aggies better. We cannot do it alone. Partnerships are key, and we welcome collaborations with those who share in advancing our goals of diversity, inclusion, and equity, and holding us all accountable to meet these goals.