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Advancing Diversity and Inclusion

May 24, 2016

An interview with Professor Janet Steverson, Lewis & Clark’s first dean of diversity and inclusion.

Last fall, at many colleges and universities across the country, students took action to voice their concerns about racial injustice on their campuses and beyond.

Against a national backdrop of discord—fueled by police violence against unarmed black men and anti-minority political rhetoric—students organized protests, engaged in sit-ins, and submitted lists of demands to college administrators.

At Lewis & Clark, students joined the chorus for change, pressing for rapid action on issues of diversity and inclusion as well as student safety.

“It should come as no surprise that our students have been among the primary catalysts for change,” said President Barry Glassner. “I share their goal—as must we all—to make Lewis & Clark a safe, welcoming, diverse, inclusive, and equitable place.” 

Toward that aim, Glassner appointed Janet Steverson, Douglas K. Newell Professor of Teaching Excellence at Lewis & Clark Law School, as the college’s first dean of diversity and inclusion in January. Reporting to the president, she will work closely with the college’s other deans, the provost, faculty, staff, and students across the institution. “Janet is uniquely qualified for this new position,” said Glassner. “Her commitment to working with students and her experience on matters of pedagogy, curriculum, admissions, and hiring will allow her to hit the ground running and increase the pace of our efforts.”

The Chronicle reached out to Steverson to learn more about her background and her new position.

Q. This summer, you will become Lewis & Clark’s first dean of diversity and inclusion. How do you interpret your charge?

A. I think of it as a combination of leadership around structural initiatives and relationship building. Right now, I’m working with the Committee on Diversity and Inclusion (see next page), which I chair, to finalize an action plan around diversity and inclusion. We’re thinking about these issues across all three schools at Lewis & Clark.

Q. “Diversity” and “inclusion” are both in your new job title. How do you think about those terms? How are they different yet related?

A. We’re defining a diverse community as one that is characterized by the presence and participation of people who vary from each other in many ways, including age, color, ethnicity, gender/gender identity/gender expression, embodiment (e.g., body type and/or appearance), language, national origin, race, religion/ spirituality, sexual orientation, ability status, and socioeconomic status/social class. Inclusion encompasses the transformation of a community from one dominated by only one or a few perspectives to one where all perspectives are respectfully engaged. It’s important to note that inclusion doesn’t mean that the diverse perspectives are assimilated into a dominant perspective.

Q. Why is it important to dedicate a dean-level position to this work?

A. Lewis & Clark’s mission statement makes it clear that diversity and inclusion are at the core of our work. As a result, diversity and inclusion need to be thought about and incorporated into everything we do—from development to hiring to curriculum to campus climate. President Glassner recognized that the only way to really do that is to have someone who is on the same team as those implementing institutional policies. At Lewis & Clark, that team is the Executive Council—which includes the deans in conjunction with the president, the provost, and the general counsel.

Q. What aspects of your career in higher ed have best prepared you for this position?

A. I believe you need someone in this position who understands not only diversity and inclusion issues, but also how a college works and the issues affecting those who do the work. Without such knowledge, you run the risk of creating structures and implementing policies that will be ineffective because, for example, you do not know how professors teach. I have experience working in many areas of the college—teaching and curriculum, pedagogy, faculty and staff hiring, admissions, mentoring and advising. I’ve worked to promote diversity and inclusion in all of those areas.

You also need someone who knows that diversity and inclusion only work if everyone is on board with the goals. You need someone who can talk and work with people from all walks of life.

Janet Steverson Profile

Hometown: Brockport, New York

Education: J.D. 1986, Harvard Law School; B.A. 1982 (political science), magna cum laude, SUNY College at Brockport

Scholarship Areas: Steverson teaches contracts, commercial law/sales, children’s rights, and family law. She has published on the issues of interspousal tort immunity, children and the law, contracts, drug-addicted mothers, consumer warranties, and the Voting Rights Act. She has also presented at several conferences on the school-to-prison pipeline.

Positions:

  • 2009–present, Douglas K. Newell Professor of Teaching Excellence, Lewis & Clark Law School
  • 1990–2009, professor of law, Lewis & Clark Law School
  • 1986–90, associate, Steptoe & Johnson, Washington, D.C.

Awards:

  • 2013, Leo Levenson Award for Excellence in Teaching
  • 1992, Burlington Northern Foundation Award for Outstanding Teaching

Activities:

  • 2015–present, chair of Lewis & Clark’s Committee on Diversity and Inclusion
  • 2014–15, chair of Lewis & Clark’s Bias Policy Committee (to review and improve the college’s policies and procedures on hate/bias-motivated conduct)
  • 2006–present, advisor to Lewis & Clark’s Black Law Student Association
Q. How does your legal background come into play?

A. Like all attorneys, I’ve been trained to persuade. We are also trained to know when to compromise and when to stick to our guns and fight for what is right. The job of diversity and inclusion requires all of those skills.

Q. This sounds like a difficult job. Why did you agree to do it?

A. When I came to the law school in 1990, I was the only faculty member of color. It didn’t bother me a lot because I was welcome. The law school was very supportive. I did recognize, however, that not all students felt welcome. I also recognized that students needed exposure to more professors from diverse backgrounds. I wanted then—and I want now—to help Lewis & Clark move forward on these issues. It comes down to the fact that I care deeply about Lewis & Clark and the well-being of all our community members. I believe that creating a welcoming environment for everyone is vital to the health of the college.

Q. How does your personal experience inform this work?

A. My parents taught all of us to work hard and well at whatever task we were given or took on, whether it be a project, a job, our education … anything. We were to treat all people with courtesy and respect. Everyone. We were not to assume that bad actors were racially motivated, but if we had evidence of racial motivation, then we were to fight for our rights or the rights of others who were affected.

This “fighting” might take a form as simple as letting someone know that what they said is unacceptable and then walking away. Or it might require a different form of action. My dad was the first black state trooper in New York. One day, when I was still in grade school, my mom picked us up in her station wagon and said, “We’re going picketing.” And we all wondered, “What the heck is picketing?” We knew about picket fences, but we didn’t know about picketing.

She said, “The New York State Police is discriminating against your father because he’s black. We’re going to picket them. There are signs in the back.” My dad wanted to be a detective, but the state police kept denying his promotion even though he had completed all the required steps. For a couple of hours after school, we marched up and down in front of the administrative offices. Others joined us because it wasn’t just my dad against whom the state police was discriminating. Eventually, the complaints led to a class-action suit. My dad was one of the named plaintiffs, and we won. And the New York State Police changed.

In high school, we brought a discrimination suit because, at my graduation, I was the only student in the top 10 of my class who did not receive a single award. Coincidentally, I was the only black student in the top 10. We lost that fight, but bringing attention to the issue was not futile. If we fast-forward 30-plus years to the graduations of my daughters, we see two black students in the top 10 of their respective classes, each receiving plenty of awards. As children, my siblings and I learned that, if you can, you work within the system, you do the best that you can. But sometimes you have to take it outside the system. Sometimes you will win, and sometimes you will not, but you continue to try to bring needed change.

I hope to put in place mechanisms for our students to obtain the strength, resiliency, and confidence that my parents’ teaching gave to us if students do not already have such things. But I also want students, faculty, and staff to be able to talk to people, listen to differing viewpoints, and not demonize those with whom they disagree.

Q. What are you currently working on?

A. The Committee on Diversity and Inclusion is soliciting feedback from the campus community on its draft action plan. The plan is based on feedback from surveys, gatherings, and initiatives, as well as from the collective knowledge and experience of committee members. At President Glassner’s request, this plan lays out short-term action items that can be completed in the coming academic year. The plan also envisions longer-term items that will require one to three years of effort.

Q. What’s next?

A. During the upcoming academic year, an independent organization will conduct a campus-wide climate survey, and the Committee on Diversity and Inclusion will create a diversity strategic plan. These steps will help us better understand the exact nature of the issues that need to be addressed as well as establish concrete goals and timelines. In the meantime, we will implement the short-term action items contained in the action plan.

Q. How can alumni support these efforts?

A. Alumni can serve as valuable mentors to all of our students. A robust alumni network can enrich students’ time on campus and help them connect to future career opportunities. In addition, alumni can support the new Lewis & Clark Diversity and Inclusion Fund. The money raised will be used to support specific initiatives and opportunities, such as helping us cover the expenses associated with attracting and retaining students and faculty from underrepresented groups.

Committee on Diversity and Inclusion

The Committee on Diversity and Inclusion, formed by President Barry Glassner in 2014 and chaired by Professor Janet Steverson, is tasked with reviewing and recommending initiatives across the institution to promote and improve diversity and inclusion in the college’s programs and practices. This 21-member group is composed of faculty, staff, and students from the undergraduate college, the law school, and the graduate school. It represents those who work on programs and initiatives relating to diversity and inclusion in all aspects of life at Lewis & Clark.

At present, the committee is gathering campus feedback on its action plan, which identifies recommendations organized around these topic areas: data collection, analysis, and sharing; diverse perspectives in curricular and cocurricular areas; communication and transparency; diversity in the hiring and retention of faculty and staff; diversity in the student body; improving the student safety net; professional development; and creating a culture of collective resistance to insensitive and/or oppressive actions and a culture of empowerment.

During the 2016–17 academic year, an independent organization will conduct a campuswide climate survey, and the committee will create a diversity strategic plan. This plan will establish concrete goals and timelines for addressing the diversity and inclusion issues the college community has identified. The strategic plan will incorporate many of the items contained within the action plan. Longer term, the committee will help Steverson implement these plans. It will also continue in its advisory and educative role for the new dean and the entire Lewis & Clark community.

Diversity at Lewis & Clark
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