Yasmeen Shorish, special adviser to the dean for equity initiatives, said the factbook and other instances of JMU’s diversity efforts should be more transparent and accessible to the community.

UPDATE (4/28/22, 11:10 p.m.): The Breeze requested comment from JMU but did not receive a response before the print edition's April 27 deadline. The online version of this article has now been updated with a statement from David Owusu-Ansah, associate provost for diversity and executive director of faculty access and inclusion.

Beginning with the 2020-21 school year, JMU adopted its Anti-Racist and Anti-Discrimination Agenda. The adoption of this agenda appointed diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) leaders who work with Heather Coltman, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, to specify goals and initiatives within their college or program. 

Along with this agenda, JMU publishes a yearly factbook, which has been published since 1973, that breaks down the demographics of students and faculty members. 

JMU is classified as a primarily white institution (PWI), and the numbers in these factbooks reflect that. In fall 2019, the year before the anti-racism agenda was adopted, out of 1,714 instructional, library, administrative and professional faculty members, 247 — 14.4% — were people of color (POC). 

The recently released fall 2021 factbook revealed the number of faculty members who are POC increased to 251 instructional, library, administrative and professional faculty members out of 1,689, a slightly increased proportion at 14.9%. 

Also in 2019, University Studies, the College of Health and Behavioral Studies (CHBS) and the College of Visual and Performing Arts (CVPA) had the lowest rate of POC faculty members with 15.2%, 11.6% and 19.2% of faculty members being POC, respectively. The colleges with the highest rates of diversity were the College of Arts and Letters (CAL) and the College of Business (COB) with 25.7% and 24.5% of faculty members, respectively, being POC. 

Compared to 2019, the data in the fall 2021 factbook shows that diversity at JMU has slightly improved. The colleges with the lowest rates of diversity are still University Studies, CHBS and CVPA but the numbers have gone up with 19.2%, 14.5% and 19.6% of faculty members being POC, respectively. The colleges with the highest rates of diversity also stayed the same with 27% of CAL’s faculty members being POC and 23% of COB’s faculty members being POC. 

While these numbers show change from previous years, DEI Faculty Fellow for the graduate school Deborwah Faulk and Special Adviser to the Dean for Equity Initiatives Yasmeen Shorish agreed there’s still progress to be made when it comes to diversity efforts at JMU. 

Room for growth 

Since Faulk came to JMU in 2021, she said there have been many efforts to make the school more diverse such as the appointment of DEI leaders and the future vice president for DEI position as well as a cluster hire in CAL that appointed diverse faculty members. While this is a great step, Faulk said there is always more that can be done in regard to diversity.

Faulk alluded that cluster hires aren’t happening in other colleges, but CAL recently announced the hiring of a Latinx cohort. The cohort will bring six scholars to JMU in the fall. 

Faulk said these cluster hires are a step in the right direction when it comes to making JMU more diverse. She said these hires allow students of color to be taught by someone who looks like them and, she hopes, makes JMU seem more welcoming. 

“I think hiring groups of faculty is going to be really useful for not only quickly visually diversifying the faculty here but also for providing support for those faculty once they arrive on campus,” Faulk said. “If you’re arriving in a group, then you have a lot more connections and people who are starting at the same level as you, and I think that could be a really powerful move in the future.” 

Arthur Dean, a candidate for the vice president for DEI position, presented to audience members from the community on April 26. In his presentation, Dean emphasized recruitment of people of color from conferences and national organizations.

“We need to take advantage of that and be present,” Dean said. “If we can’t recruit faculty from those spaces, we can meet experts, bring those experts to our campus [and] allow them to speak and present on our campus. And when those experts leave, they are the mentors and coaches of the future generation of faculty.”

David Owusu-Ansah, associate provost for diversity and executive director of faculty access and inclusion, said in an email that he's been working with JMU's human resources department to attract more diverse faculty and staff.

“It is our goal that our job advertised positions reach a larger pool of applicants, especially applicants of color,” Owusu-Ansah said. “Our work is to discuss the importance of diversity in the academe and its contributions to educational excellence, share strategies for expanding the pool and ensure all candidates understand our commitment to diversity and its learning attributes. We have seen positive results in the past three years, and we are committed to expanding our reach to more applicants to make them aware of the welcoming work environment at JMU.”

When it comes to undergraduate students at JMU, out of 19,743; 4,860 — 24.6% — are POC. While this is higher than the faculty rate of 14.4%, these numbers from the 2021 factbook show that students of color aren’t as represented on campus as white students with POC making up less than a quarter of the undergraduate student population at JMU.

Shorish said another way to improve diversity is through having conversations about it. She believes that by having conversations about diversity and explaining exactly which diversity initiatives are taking place around campus, JMU can become a more diverse campus. 

“I feel like the phrase ‘diversity initiatives’ conjures up a reactive response for people, like they already have a predisposition to what it means,” Shorish said. “I think we can provide more fruitful conversation if we’re thinking about how our campus best reflects the population of the country. History shows that without intentionality behind these conversations, things revert to the status quo.”

Agreeing with Faulk, Shorish said the best way to visually show diversity at JMU is through hiring more faculty members who are POC. She said appointing DEI leaders has been a step in the right direction but, as the factbook shows, there still needs to be a more proportional balance between faculty members who are POC and those who aren’t. 

A first step 

Shorish said these DEI leadership positions — like her own — are a great first step in making JMU more diverse but that the DEI leaders’ actions could be more public. She said that a lot of the time, people are unaware of the DEI initiatives JMU is trying to implement because they aren’t always public knowledge. By being more open with students about its diversity efforts, Shorish said, JMU could show the work it’s trying to accomplish. 

“I think [the appointment of the DEI leaders] has helped with creating a shared understanding within and across units as we learn from one another,” Shorish said, “but these things aren’t always visible because it’s a lot of conversations and relationship building and those things don’t always have a public figure at the front of them.”

When it comes to the statistics in the 2021 factbook, Faulk said JMU could make them more accessible. She said many students may not realize the gap between faculty members who are white and POC because they don’t know how to access the factbook or other diversity resources. 

She said while the factbook is available online, many students aren’t aware of it in the first place. 

“It’s tough to look at these numbers, so I’m not sure what JMU could do better,” Faulk said. “I think having sessions around diversity at the orientation level would be a great first step. We need to have continuing conversations with students as well as being transparent with new students during orientation about DEI initiatives that are currently in progress.”

Although these numbers in the 2021 factbook are difficult to digest, Faulk said the conversation about diversity at JMU needs to continue to happen if the university hopes to become a more diverse space. 

“The world has always been diverse and colleges have a responsibility to reflect that diversity,” Faulk said. “I think that it’s important to put DEI at the forefront because it’s already a part of our world. I think it’s important to improve inequality in our society and we can do that by addressing it. If we want JMU to be a great place, we have to embrace the diversity of the world around us.” 

CORRECTION (4/28/22, 11:10 p.m.): Heather Coltman was misidentified as the "senior vice president for student affairs." Her position is the senior vice president for academic affairs — the current version of the article reflects that.

Contact Morgan Vuknic at vuknicma@dukes.jmu.edu. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.