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One of the first sessions scheduled during Missouri State University’s two-day Collaborative Diversity Conference is titled, “Are we there yet? The struggle to recalibrate and rebrand DEI.”
To Daniel Ogunyemi, director of global engagement and opportunity at Ozarks Technical Community College and a panelist for that session, the “there” he and others will discuss on April 27 is the sense or feeling that everyone can see themselves in the concept of diversity.
“By true nature of the definition of the word, diversity is everybody,” he said. “Regardless of background, regardless of color, regardless of religion, regardless of immigration status. Diversity is literally every individual that’s on the face of this planet. ‘There’ would mean everybody feels like they’re seen, they’re validated, they’re represented in that. And if and when it comes to creating opportunities for dialogue or discourse or whatever it is, that we can respect everyone’s values and respect everyone’s perspectives and still move forward towards whatever the common goal becomes.”
As for the recalibration part, Ogunyemi heads an office that recently went through a realignment and renaming similar to what other Springfield-area public education institutions are either undergoing or considering.
Ogunyemi was hired in 2021 to serve as OTC’s first director of diversity, equity and inclusion. The office isn’t named that anymore. Springfield Public Schools recently renamed its Office of Equity and Diversity, and MSU President Clif Smart recently told KSMU the university would consider different names for offices and programming, noting that a change in language could better reflect the meaningful work being done to help all students and faculty.
“We would still have a multicultural center,” Smart told KSMU. “We would still have people dedicated to student success and employee retention. We might have to talk about them in slightly different ways.”
Smart was responding to questions about recent legislative efforts led by State Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs, to prohibit state funds from being spent on “staffing, vendors, consultants, or programs associated with ‘Diversity, Equity, Inclusion,’ or ‘Diversity, Inclusion, Belonging,’” according to the Missouri Independent. That language did not make it past the Senate Appropriations Committee, chaired by Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield.
The debate picked back up in the Missouri Senate during budget talks that stretched into the evening on Tuesday. And on Wednesday morning, Smart invited people to come learn more about potential legislation and its impacts on DEI programming at an MSU forum at the PSU Union Club this afternoon at 3:30 p.m.
At OTC, Ogunyemi said the Office of Global Engagement and Opportunity is a merger of operations that continues to “fall right in line with what I signed up for,” while also better connecting him with international students “as well as, literally, everybody who walks through our doors.” The office “supports the college mission of transforming lives and strengthening communities by facilitating an equity-minded culture that values the inclusion of diversity, access, belonging and success for all college community members,” according to OTC’s website.
Conference theme is ‘Connecting Citizens and Fostering Community’
The conference at Missouri State is being held at a time when several Springfield DEI offices have undergone or considered new names, but renaming DEI is one of many topics up for discussion. The annual conference, hosted by MSU’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, takes place April 27-28 at the DoubleTree by Hilton at 2431 North Glenstone Ave. (Registration information is available here.)
Ogunyemi said he’s looking forward to a discussion on interfaith inclusivity that includes his pastor, T.J. Appleby, among the panelists. And he said he wouldn’t miss “Women Empowerment: Blueprint for Success,” a discussion that will be led by SPS Superintendent Grenita Lathan and MSU Executive Vice President Zora Mulligan.
Smart, in his Tuesday edition of Clif’s Notes, encouraged everyone to register for the event, which has the theme, “Connecting Citizens and Fostering Community.”
During his monthly “Engaging the Community” interview on KSMU, DEI was the top subject, but not as it related to the conference. News director Michele Skalicky was asking Smart how Richey’s proposal could affect MSU if it became law, given that about a third of MSU’s budget is tied to state funding.
Smart said the university offers dozens, if not hundreds, of initiatives designed to attract and retain employees and students and help them be successful at MSU. “Almost all of them are broader than race,” he said.
“We want to have programs that are not based on ideology, not based on race, but that are open to all and help people be successful,” Smart said.
While the university is engaging and working with legislators on this, “it’s not with our hair on fire,” he said. He added: “It’s, how do we change language to make sure the things that we do that are meaningful are able to continue on, no matter what is passed?”
Smart pointed to MSU’s Inclusive Excellence Scholarship Program, which is run through the Multicultural Services unit of the Division of Student Affairs, as an example.
“That’s not just open to people of color,” he said. “It’s open to people of all backgrounds. First-generation students. Pell-eligible students. You know, a lot of it would just be how we talk about things and how we work on things.”
During the interview, Smart pointed to the SPS decision to rename its Office of Equity and Diversity as the Department of Student Access and Opportunity. He said the decision made it clear SPS is focused on success for all students.
“That’s the kind of thing we would do,” Smart said. Whether or not such a recalibration happens at MSU remains to be seen, but it’s a topic of discussion these days.
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