Chief diversity officer ready for NIU journey

By Satta Kendor

NIU’s first chief diversity officer said her educational and professional experiences as an African American woman helped prepare her for her journey at NIU starting Aug. 1.

Vernese Edghill-Walden will infuse diversity throughout the curriculum and help students attain cultural competency, among other duties, said Lisa Freeman, executive vice president and provost. Edgill-Walden, who attended Howard University, is the provost and chief academic officer in the district office for the City Colleges of Chicago.

“Throughout my educational career, throughout my professional career, my race and my gender and class in many ways has played a role in the work that I do,” Edghill-Walden said. “It’s a part of the fabric of who I am and I think it helps me understand the work that I do better as well.”

Q: How have your experiences at Howard University helped you understand diversity and inclusion?

A: Well, I think Howard being a historically black college is a very diverse institution. There are people from all over the world that attend Howard and so it actually gave me a different perspective.

Q: What do you like most about NIU so far?

A: I really like the people so far that I’ve met. I think that students seem really engaged and committed to the work around diversity and inclusion. I love the many commissions, committees, groups, centers that exist there. I think that there are just a lot of different ways that NIU tries to promote diversity and so for me it’s exciting to be able to come to a place that has established some history around diversity and inclusion and then working to improve and do better and to coordinate those efforts. It’s something I really look forward to.

Q: How [has] your experiences as the Provost and Chief Academic Officer at the City Colleges of Chicago prepared you for this position?

A: City Colleges is a very diverse institution, as well. I think the information — or the knowledge I would say — that I’ve gained there was more so around the academic instruction side of higher education. So two things: I think that it helped me understand the Chicagoland landscape and its connection to Northern as a four year institution. Northern is one of our partners and so I learned about Northern even when I was at the City Colleges and worked at providing opportunities for students to transfer or even faculty development opportunities. We established some connections with that so knowing the need for curriculum and faculty development and the role that the city colleges plays in terms of transfers to NIU helped me understand Northern better and I think that all the work that I did as provost really helped me to better understand Illinois, Chicago and the students that we serve.

Q: Why do you think the Chief Diversity Officer position is important to NIU especially [during] a hiring freeze and potential funding cut?

A: Well, I also know that — having been to Springfield and hearing the House and the Senate express their concerns for the budget cuts in the state of Illinois and higher ed — I know that at the time that there’s also been an interest to make sure that Northern meets the needs of all diverse students and faculty and staff so I think it’s important because even though we’re looking at minimal resources or reduced resources there’s still a need to make sure that the community that you’re involved in is inclusive and equitable and still has community engagement, and that’s important to students, faculty and staff. So yes, there’s budget cuts but there’s also definitely a need to make sure that we’re preparing students for a global society and so making sure that this role is a part of the community is why I would say it would be important.

Q: Can you tell me about at time in your life where you felt your race, gender and/or ethnicity played a role in unfair treatment towards you and how that experience will help you as a leader for NIU?

A: So even when I was in high school and in college, I attended small predominantly white institutions and it’s the work that I did, it’s the experiences that I had in high school and in college that impacted me, that really actually helped me want to go into higher education and to work in diversity and inclusion. So I’ll just tell you a little bit. When I was in high school I was one of four black students in my high school class — maybe even three — and I was class president. And I was constantly challenged, overtly, about me not being good enough, me not representing my class and even the night before I had to give the high school speech I got an anonymous letter in the mail that basically said “we are ashamed of you because you’re black and we don’t want you to be our keynote speaker,” and I had a lot of friends who were appalled by that; you know, white friends, and they told me that that was not the majority perspective or feeling about me. And so it was clear that there were people that had a problem with my race, my gender as class president. So I left high school with that, that was my senior year experience, one of them, one of few but pretty impactful. And then I went to college at Bucknell University and there were 60 African American students out of 3000 students and there were very limited support services, and resources and recruiting and retaining students of color was a challenge for the institution. … I wrote a research paper which was part of a fellowship that I was a part of and …one of the recommendations was that there be a cultural center established to help kind of be the home away from home the safe haven for students of color, African American student in particular. It was a multicultural center so it was for all diverse students and they actually took that recommendation and that cultural center’s been in existence for more than 25 years at Bucknell.

Q: Last year in Chicago you were a key speaker at the School of Learning Forum on Race. Briefly explain what you spoke about exactly and will you do anything, action-wise, that you spoke about at the forum to improve NIU in terms of diversity and inclusion?

A: So one of the things that I absolutely love doing is working with students. My masters degree is in higher education and student development, so I absolutely love working with students and I love helping them … to reach your potential, your leadership potential and how I’ve done that in that past, I would love to do that at NIU to really help students understand that you are your brother’s keeper, you have a responsibility not only to yourself and your immediate community, but the larger community as well and that social justice and advocacy around community development is absolutely what should be a part of anyone’s life, even if you are an executive in a Fortune 500 company you should still have a sense of responsibility to your community.

Q: It has been noted that some key things that could improve NIU when it comes to diversity and inclusion is diversifying the faculty and staff and figuring out an effective way to hire to achieve that, as well as infusing more diverse courses with multicultural lenses. How do you plan on doing so as the Senior Associate Vice President for Academic Diversity?

A: I think that part of it, part of what I need to do when I get there is to listen to a lot of different constituents, understand what their needs are, understand what their strengths are, what the weaknesses might be, challenges, where are their opportunities, and where are their opportunities for improvement, and then develop a plan and a strategy on how to attract and retain faculty — diverse faculty — as well as to recruit and retain students from all backgrounds.