Interview with Dr. Kunle Ojikutu
Dr. Kunle Ojikutu, Assistant Vice President for Enrollment and Student Services at Western, serves as the Special Assistant to the President for Diversity. Dr. Ojikutu sat down with us to discuss his current efforts and past successes as Special Assistant to the President for Diversity, and to share some thoughts about the crucial roles of both diverse people and allies in creating a vibrant campus culture of respect and inclusion.
What is your current focus as the Special Assistant to the President for Diversity?
I am continuing to build Western’s relationships with minority communities statewide, including Latinos/Latinas, African Americans, and first generation students from countries such as Ethiopia and Somalia. It has taken diligent, personalized, and visible outreach efforts to cultivate these relationships, which years ago were tenuous at best.
My philosophy regarding diversity is very simple: You can accomplish a lot more through the support of allies who are committed to fostering diversity. The way to build a network of allies is to build trust. In my view, people in the majority who commit to being allies for diversity can be far more effective in resolving issues of insensitivity to other cultures and, when allies help, the burden doesn’t fall solely on those in the minority.
Can you talk about some of the work Western is undertaking to further the creation of an inclusive environment for diverse faculty, staff and students?
Western is doing a wonderful job. Each institution is different and Western is unique in the sense that many people have a stake in promoting diversity on our campus. This work is about improving the experience of minority students, faculty, and staff. It’s not a job that any one person can do by themselves. It requires the long-term efforts of a lot of people doing their part, and having the freedom to do it well.
In my view, Woodring is a leader on our campus, particularly their Diversity Committee, a faculty-led effort to infuse diversity into Woodring curricula and attract and retain diverse students, faculty, and staff. Fairhaven College’s World Issues Forum is a wonderful series addressing global justice issues that my office supports. The President’s Diversity Initiative on which Sue Guenter-Schlesinger and I work is another important effort that supports faculty and staff diversity. Compass 2 Campus, initiated by Cindy Shepard, gives fifth graders from underrepresented and disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to be mentored by Western students. This program is well known throughout the State. The Multicultural Achievement Program is a fantastic scholarship program on our campus that highlights the efforts of Western students who demonstrate leadership skills in the area of diversity. We also have programs to support migrant youth, such as the annual Migrant Youth Leadership Conference. These are just a few examples of the great work being done by individuals and groups across campus that demonstrate how Western continues to prioritize its diversity goals.
In your role as Special Assistant to the President for Diversity, what are you most proud of?
One thing I’m very proud of is the improved relationship between Western and minority communities. It’s a great achievement for Western, but I’m not going to take credit for it. When you look at the retention of students of color on this campus, it is clear that our success is due to the sustained efforts of many over the years. When you look at the numbers of first generation Africans now on campus – Ethiopians, Sudanese, Eritreans – and look at the numbers ten years ago, you see this didn’t happen overnight. Credit should go to the Office of Admissions and other people on campus involved in working with these students, who chose to come to Western by word of mouth recommendations. If a brother or sister comes here and has a good experience, their siblings will come because they see that college is an attainable goal. We now have the third wave of siblings from first generation families coming through Western.
What else can members of the University community do to engage more diverse people with the possibility of coming to Western?
We’ve talked about how to go about bringing faculty and staff of color to campus, but diverse people already working at Western need to be more engaged, particularly in the search process. People of color, people with different sexual orientations, and other diverse populations bring different ways of looking at candidates. We can play an important role on search committees and throughout the search process.
We need to be the ambassadors, not only in reaching out to our colleagues around the world who could be potential applicants for positions at Western, but also to be valuable resources for diverse individuals once they are at Western. We need to help new faculty and staff settle into the community and address needs that diverse employees may have but may not want to raise with their colleagues.
Beyond this, we all need to be visible. I try to attend as many cultural events as possible outside of Bellingham. These events are fertile ground for recruiting students of color. I’d like to see more people from Western being visible in the larger community. We can’t expect diverse people to come to us – we have to go to them. We need to go to where potential job applicants and students are. I enjoy doing this – it’s a labor of love.