Missouri State University’s chief diversity officer, H. Wes Pratt, is retiring in August, leaving a gap in the school’s leadership after 14 years on staff.
Pratt has held the role since 2016 and has worked for MSU since being hired in 2008 as the coordinator of diversity, outreach and recruitment. He has supported diversity and inclusivity efforts since he was a teenager in Springfield at the height of the Civil Rights movement. In the 1960s and 70s, Pratt spoke out against the very university that would later employ him for its lack of Black faculty and integrated curriculum. After a career spent predominantly as a public servant in California, Pratt said he was drawn home when he heard the MSU’s former president, Michael Nietzel, speak about the value of diversity during a state of the university address.
On Friday evening, as he drove to the wake for Denny Whayne, Springfield’s first Black city council member, Pratt talked to the Daily Citizen about his time at MSU, saying he focused on work that enhanced cultural consciousness and helped people develop skills to negotiate cross-cultural differences.
“That’s critically important, particularly in a nation like the United States, who’s never adequately dealt with the issues of racism, or sexism, or xenophobia or homophobia,” he said. “So I think it’s critical that we continue to develop cultural consciousness around these issues. “
Pratt said it’s important for people to understand that the word “diversity” means different things to different people and organizations.
“(When) I say diversity, somebody might think quotas, preferences for this group, or that group. No. I’m talking about creating the value of the inclusion of diversity,” Pratt said. “I’m talking about developing the awareness and the knowledge and the skills that allow us to effectively negotiate our cross-cultural differences.”
Pratt was only planning to serve for 18 months when he was promoted in 2016 to chief diversity officer and assistant to MSU President Clif Smart. But he stayed in the role for six years. Smart praised Pratt for his efforts after his retirement was announced Friday.
“Wes has been a leader of change at Missouri State and in the community as a whole,” Smart said in a news release. “He has served the students, faculty, and staff, facilitated tough conversations, and fought for progress. We will miss his wisdom and guidance at MSU.”
Leaving a legacy of action
At Missouri State, Pratt instated and reinstated programs that touted the values of diverse and inclusive leadership, saying in a 2020 interview with entrepreneur Parveen Panwarit that those values are a benefit to — and responsibility of — business and public sectors alike. At MSU, Pratt reinstated the Facing Racism Institute, which brings Springfield leaders together to better understand racism and examine its impact on people in their workplaces. The teachings are centered around the value of inclusivity, Pratt said. He added that while right-wing, white nationalist groups have turned diversity, equity and inclusion into wedge issues across the country, the Facing Racism Institute was well-received by everyone who took the time to participate.
“We never had one complaint,” Pratt said. “We’ve had probably over 700 people — leaders, influencers, shapers — go through the Facing Racism Institute. Never had one complaint.”
Working with MSU’s Division for Student Affairs, Pratt and MSU’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion office helped to create the Bears LEAD program. LEAD is an acronym for Leadership, Empowerment, Achievement and Diversity, and the program offers mentorship, book stipends and other assistance and opportunities to diverse and first-generation Missouri State students.
H. Wes Pratt’s background
Pratt graduated from Central High School and then Drury University before making an unsuccessful run for a Springfield City Council seat at age 25. Pratt then left Missouri to get his law degree at the University of San Diego.
“I was a young kid in Springfield, Missouri, who ran for office, who lost and decided to go to law school because I wanted to know when politicians and when policymakers were lying to me about what the possibilities are,” he said.
He worked in state and local government in San Diego while growing his public service efforts. Pratt was elected to San Diego’s City Council in 1987, and continued his career in California up until 2004, last serving as director of the California Conservation Corps. He said that, while people might not remember that he was ever in San Diego, there are programs he helped develop that still help people from low socioeconomic backgrounds to this day.
“That’s the reality of being engaged in the political process,” he said.
He returned to Springfield in 2008 to take a role at MSU. He has served as coordinator of diversity, outreach and recruitment, interim equal opportunity officer, and director of institutional equity and compliance/Title IX coordinator/ADA coordinator before becoming MSU’s chief diversity officer and assistant to the president in 2016.
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Asked by Panwarit for a favorite quote, Pratt chose two.
“‘No one can make you feel inferior without your consent’ is one that I always share with young people who have been marginalized or under-valued by others,” he said. “The other quote that has been relevant to my life’s work is the motto of the County of San Diego, ‘Public service is the noblest good.’ I have tried to live by the messages in both quotations and that is why I have little tolerance for so-called politicians who serve their personal ends when they should be servant leaders for the people they represent, whether they are elected or appointed.”
‘A pillar of our community’
Along with expanding diversity and inclusion efforts on campus, Pratt has helped establish or reinvigorate programs across the community. He helped establish the Student African American Brotherhood chapter in Springfield and worked to bring the organization’s headquarters to MSU. He also helped revitalize Springfield’s NAACP chapter and establish The Gathering, according to a news release.
“Wes Pratt is a pillar of our community,” Springfield Mayor Ken McClure said in a news release. “His strong voice and clarion call has served as our collective conscience as well as a guiding light in our constant efforts to make Springfield a welcoming city for all. I congratulate him on his well-deserved retirement and look forward to the next chapter of his life.”
During a speech in 2021, Pratt said he planned to write a book after he retires. On Friday he said that’s still one of his post-retirement plans, along with learning piano and Spanish and maybe taking a stab at standup comedy. The book, he said, would be about his journey, from facing barriers because of the color of his skin to being part of the change occurring at institutions that he once led protests against.
“To me, that’s an interesting story,” he said.
An internal search for an interim chief diversity officer is underway at MSU, and the person chosen will serve a one-year term, according to a news release. After that time, university leaders will determine if a national search is needed to find a replacement.