Interview by George Mauzy
Brian K. Bridges has been on the job as Ohio University's new vice provost for diversity, access and equity since early January, and he sat down with Outlook recently to share his thoughts. Bridges served most recently as associate director of the American Council on Education's Center for Advancement of Racial and Ethnic Equity in Washington, D.C. At Ohio University, as a member of the Executive Vice President and Provost's Office, Bridges directs the offices of Multicultural Student Access and Retention, Institutional Equity, Disability Services, Women's Center, LGBT Programs and Multicultural Programs.
What made Ohio University an appealing career destination for you?
OU seemed like a place that was ready to move forward and become a leader in embracing differences. Its rich legacy also was appealing -- from John Newton Templeton to Martha Jane Hunley Blackburn to the first international student enrolling in 1890s to the hiring of Roderick McDavis. The fact that my graduate research was on black presidents at predominantly white universities and getting the opportunity to work for one also made the job appealing.
Diversity may mean different things to different people. How do you define it?
I define diversity as the presence and interaction of a broad array of differences that don't just focus on skin color. I'm talking about diversity of race, gender, sexual orientation, mental and physical ability, religion, and regional and national differences. All of those things make this melting pot or "salad bowl" we live in that much more interesting.
Why is diversity so important in a university setting?
Research shows that students who interact and live in a diverse environment have greater learning outcomes, particularly in civic engagement. They become better citizens who are more involved in politics, community service and social justice. Additionally, given the changing world order - the rise of growing economies like China and India - we need to prepare our students to interact more effectively in a diverse world.
What led you down this career path?
I grew up in rural South Carolina in an all-black community and didn't have classes with white kids until seventh grade. That led to my intrigue with differences in people and the power of race. Working on behalf of people of color and helping all populations see the benefits of interacting with each other is something I enjoy.
Is there a growing trend in higher education to hire chief diversity officers?
Yes. Higher education tends to copy the corporate sector 10 to 20 years later, and the corporate sector realized 20 years ago that the world was changing and diversity was important. In the past five to seven years, universities have hired at least 80 to 100 chief diversity officers to improve diversity and retention.
You are a member of the university's executive staff, which also includes vice presidents and other top-level officials. Why is that important?
Being a member of the president's executive staff is extremely important because having the ear of the president and provost allows you to look at diversity from a macro perspective and coordinate efforts more effectively.
How do you hope to build on the university's past diversity efforts?
When I've talked to people on campus, they all refer to past diversity task forces and committees and say those efforts haven't been as consistent as they would have liked or addressed diversity in a holistic, complete way. My main task is to put those previous efforts together with some new ideas and craft a comprehensive diversity plan that will accomplish our goals through Vision OHIO and beyond.
What is a common misconception about diversity?
That diversity is anti-white. We have to figure out how to let the majority know that they contribute to diversity, and we need their contributions to move forward in an effective and comprehensive manner.
What are your long-term goals for diversity at Ohio University?
To infuse diversity into everything we do so seamlessly that it doesn't seem like an add-on. It's going to take some time and hard work, but that's my overarching goal.
Have you planned any key initiatives?
I'm currently on a "listening tour" around campus and haven't started any key new initiatives - yet.
You came here from Washington, D.C. How has the transition to Athens and Ohio University gone?
Good. People are friendlier here than in D.C. Athens has a slower pace to it. In D.C., everything had to be done yesterday. There is also less traffic and food options, and housing is less expensive. The decentralization at OU was surprising. At my previous institutions, departments were more centralized and shared more services. Overall, I really enjoy being back on a college campus and in the thick of the intellectual enterprise.