Kevin McDonald settles into the role of UM Chief Diversity Officer
David Russell, interim chief-of-staff for the UM System: “He’s having a significant impact, I think, on the University of Missouri system, at all four of our campuses.”
Nov. 09, 2016
When Kevin McDonald began law school at Ohio State University, he thought he was studying to go into sports and entertainment law. However, after hearing criminal appeals as an appeals officer with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation Corrections during a summer internship, he changed his path.
McDonald said after noticing the disproportionate number of people of color being incarcerated by the system, he realized his passion for civil rights advocacy.
Now, 20 years later, he sits in his third-floor office in Jesse Hall that overlooks Traditions Plaza. He wears a bow-tie and sleeve cufflets emblazoned with the UM System crest, serving at the UM System’s first chief diversity officer.
“He’s having a significant impact, I think, on the University of Missouri System, at all four of our campuses,” said David Russell, interim chief of staff for the UM System. “He seems to believe that diversity, inclusion and equity aren’t just issues that we can relegate to a classroom experience, devoid of context. He’s working really hard to include diversity and inclusion as a part of our curriculum, as a part of our total learning experience.”
McDonald, who also serves as the MU interim vice chancellor for inclusion, diversity and equity, started his position on March 1. He is the first person to serve in this role in his role at both the system and university levels.
After the historic events of last fall, Russell said interim UM System President Michael Middleton established the role of chief diversity officer to begin addressing diversity issues within the universities through tangible changes.
“The hiring of Kevin McDonald was absolutely the key to that whole approach,” he said.
A Background in Diversity
After getting his J.D. at Ohio State University, McDonald took a position with the U.S. Department of Justice investigating complaints under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“To me, it was fulfilling,” he said. “Anything that connected me to these diverse populations, for some reason, I just felt a feeling of satiation. I wanted to see what I could do to build upon that.”
He then worked in dispute resolution in the private sector with Network Solutions, a domain name registration and web services company. McDonald said he did not consider working in higher education until his spouse saw a job opening in the Washington Times for a position at University of Maryland investigating instances of discrimination and harassment. He began working there in 1999.
“I love the constituency… I felt so alive while working with [students],” he said. “Or even just hearing the passion in faculty and staff members’ voices or the pride in alum or the energy in a community member's eyes who wanted a stronger partnership with the institution to create pipeline opportunity for young people. To me, that is what it was supposed to be about. It made me feel every day that I was waking up with the opportunity to make a difference.”
From 2001 to 2005, McDonald served as the associate director of Compliance and Conflict Resolution at Johns Hopkins University. He said that is when he began finding ways to implement diversity measures into institutions.
“I started thinking about not just reacting to and investigating complaints, but also figuring out how we can prevent them and start being proactive,” he said. “I think that led me more into more proactive diversity efforts. I started thinking for it as more conflict resolution and looking at that through a social justice lense.”
McDonald’s took his first diversity-specific job as vice president of equity and inclusion in 2005 at Virginia Tech. There, he dealt with racial controversy and implemented the Presidential Scholarship Initiative, a scholarship for in-state students from high schools with the highest free-and-reduced lunch rates in Virginia.
In 2010, he became the vice president and associate provost for diversity and inclusion at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.
Road to MU
After the UM Board of Curators announced the search process for a chief diversity officer last November, McDonald made his first campus visit in February.
At first, McDonald said he was unsure about coming to MU. He said the media coverage of last fall’s events made the state of campus support for diversity efforts unclear.
“It was hard, because I think the media controlled a lot of the narrative in regard to the system.” he said. “But when I came and I was able to meet with faculty, staff and students to feel a level of energy, a collaborative spirit, a will collectively to move forward. That is when I really felt like this was a place that I could come and partner with others to try and make a difference.”
During his initial visit, McDonald said he spoke with students who had different outlooks on how the administration could make changes on campus.
“Some of the students I met with, they were skeptical of this position and members of administration,” he said. “I felt that there were others that really wanted to give it — and potentially me — a chance if it was chosen. I just felt called to come and participate and collaborate and I was excited about that.”
On March 23, Middleton announced McDonald as the UM System’s first-ever chief diversity officer.
The job so far
McDonald said he worked with other administrators to get input from students this semester after members of Delta Upsilon Fraternity allegedly yelled racial slurs at members of the Legion of Black Collegians in September.
Russell said McDonald talked to students during the controversy in an attempt to form an appropriate administrative response.
“Kevin was one of those individuals who is out there early and often, talking to protesters and student who were still concerned about those issues, and bringing back those concerns to folks who can actually take action and do something about it,” Russell said. “I think that is why the response was so much more vigorous this time around.”
At the System level, Russell said McDonald gives other high-ranking administrators insight for better including diversity in their decisions.
“He is making us aware of the perceptions our student and faculty and staff [that] perhaps we aren’t aware of,” Russell said. “In doing that, he ensures that the policies that we are discussing are going to be much better developed and that we are including other folks and their perspectives.”
During McDonald’s February visit, he said he was inspired by the activism of Concerned Student 1950 and would try and respond to both their demands, as well as the LBC demands published in 1969, which CS 1950 brought back up during protests last fall.
So far, McDonald said he thinks his office is beginning to address some of those points.
“When I think about the notion of increasing recruitment and retention of diverse faculty, particularly in this case African-American faculty, I’m just pleased that our chancellor has come out and said that he wants to double our percentage of our faculty of color to 13.4 percent from 6.7,” he said. “This is exciting.”
McDonald said the university will put money toward specific programs to make faculty more diverse. Included in this is the creation of a post-doctoral student hiring initiative that will allow the university to pay for three to four post-doc students per year to come and study at the university, and then have their positions aligned with future open faculty positions at the university.
He also said the university will be putting an additional $500,000 – $600,000 toward faculty recruitment.
McDonald, who has been at the UM System for about five months, is looking into additional steps to further diversity initiatives on campus.
He said one way to increase diversity within an institution is to ensure there will be a financial framework in place to give assistance to students who need it.
“We often hear one of the number one reasons students will decide [on a college], particularly from diverse populations and particularly across socioeconomic lines, will be financially,” he said. “So how do we, in an era and an age when bordering states will try and be more competitive with [financial] packages, how do we create stronger financial packages to increase the diversity of our students here.”
He also said the university needs to create an accepting environment for diverse population.
“There is a lot of research now that talks about the notion of creating a sense of belonging,” he said. “This notion of a sense of community, of itself, it seems like it’s been boiled down into simplistic terms. I think we need to do that in ways that are action-based…that students believe that they belong here, that they can succeed here, that people value their experiences, their skills, talents and abilities.”
To make students feel included on campus, McDonald said engagement is key. He said LBC came to the administration after this September’s racist incident to establish a hate speech policy. While he said he doesn’t know what the outcome will be, he said the office will look into it.
“We need to engage them and report back what this could look like and what are the implications and what does that mean, and I think that just being grateful for them to value and entrust us enough to engage us in that process,” he said.
Edited by Emily Gallion | firstname.lastname@example.org