Q&A: Meet Katrina Caldwell, UM’s new vice chancellor for diversity

Katrina Caldwell became the University of Mississippi’s first-ever vice chancellor for diversity and community engagement Jan. 1.

Named to her UM post in October, Caldwell was previously assistant vice president for diversity and equity at Northern Illinois University.

The Memphis, Tennessee, native is widely recognized in the field of diversity and inclusion in higher education. She holds master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a bachelor’s degree from Spelman College. She was also a Diversifying Faculty in Illinois fellow.

Caldwell served eight years at DePaul University, where she created cultural programs that celebrated the values of the university’s diverse communities. As director of the Center for Intercultural Programs, she also served on the President’s Diversity Council.

At the University of Illinois at Chicago, Caldwell served as assistant dean of minority affairs, developing and successfully implementing a strategic plan to increase outreach to prospective students, improve retention and graduation of graduate fellowship students, and expand professional development programs.

She recently answered some questions for Inside Ole Miss about her new role.

IOM: Tell me about your background and how you got into this kind of work.

Caldwell: I was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, in the 1970s and ’80s. I attended Spelman College, a historically black women’s college, which is where I was introduced to diversity and social justice work. I learned later that our curriculum was a lot like any curriculum you would find at other institutions, because they wanted us to be able to compete postgraduation; however, many of the professors and staff had been involved in social movements in the 1960s and ’70s. They were willing to integrate their lived experiences in their teaching, research and service. I learned many of the foundational concepts that I use today in my work.

I became interested in professional diversity work while in graduate school. I had planned to become an English professor, which is why my three degrees are in English literature. During the summer after my first year in graduate school at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I got a job teaching English composition to students in the TRIO/Bridge program. I used the skills that I had been taught at Spelman to make my course relevant to the experiences of these first-generation, low-income entering college students. The course title was “Representations of Race, Gender and Class in American Media.” After this experience, I was hooked. I knew that I wanted to work in multicultural student affairs in some capacity.

I have had 20-plus years of experience in diversity, equity and inclusion work, and I have watched the field evolve and progress in positive ways during that time. The increased demand for chief diversity officers in institutions like the University of Mississippi is a key indicator of the need for strategic diversity leadership and the value of diversity in higher education.

IOM: Talk about your role as the university’s first vice chancellor for diversity and community engagement and your vision for the job.

Caldwell: The University of Mississippi is in a unique position to serve as a leader in the strategic diversity movement in higher education. The institution’s complicated history is an intriguing backdrop to its current commitment to coordinating and elevating its diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. The university could serve as a campus for innovation where other local, regional and national institutions come to create, develop and test best practices that will move the needle on diversifying higher education.

I plan to continue and expand the bold steps towards repositioning the university as a place that will generate new perspectives and approaches to addressing the individual, structural and institutional inequities that continue to deny access to marginalized groups in the state and region. My vision for the position includes reclaiming the past by acknowledging, in very tangible ways, the harm and pain that was created, restoring confidence in the commitment to move beyond that past and reinforcing UM’s promise of creating sustainable change.

IOM: Tell us who in the campus community that you serve and who you’ll mainly be working with.

Caldwell: As a member of the university’s executive team, my job will be to serve everyone on campus and all external partners and stakeholders. Diversity, equity and inclusion work is expansion and can cross program, departmental and divisional boundaries. It can also cross local, state, regional and national boundaries.

IOM: What kinds of services will your office provide to the UM community?

Caldwell: Beyond the general language in the job description, we are still working on these details. Most of the specifics will not become clear until after I have been on campus for at least six months.

IOM: People might wonder about whether they should come to you with an issue. Is there anything you could tell people when they are considering whether they should come see you that might be helpful?

Caldwell: People should feel free to approach me to discuss any issue. I am always willing to listen, offer advice when appropriate, brainstorm solutions, share resources and my story, connect people to the office or program that might help them address the issue more directly and inform the executive leadership when an issue might need to be addressed campuswide.

IOM: What made you decide to come to Ole Miss?

Caldwell: As a native Southerner, I was extremely intrigued by the steps that the University of Mississippi has taken towards reconciliation and healing, which is an important and necessary process to help position the campus to contribute to the contemporary discourse underscoring the strong correlation between educating an increasingly more diverse student body and excellence in local, regional and national leadership.

The vice chancellor for diversity and community engagement position highlights three important criteria that I look for when evaluating a new professional opportunity. First, the demonstrated mission of the institution is extremely important. There must be evidence that the campus values diversity as essential to its success. The University of Mississippi could have continued to thrive and grow without developing a chief diversity officer position, so the commitment to this effort is impressive and signals its readiness to make significant progress.

Second, I look for fit with my experience and interests. I have had a 20-plus-year professional track record of building the type of strong, impactful diversity initiatives and programs that are outlined in the job description.

Thirdly, the decision to elevate diversity to the VC level will ensure that the individual has the visibility, resources, access and symbolic and institutional impact she will need to be successful.

IOM: What are some immediate goals you hope to accomplish?

Caldwell: In the short term, I will spend a lot of time listening and learning about the various communities that are represented on the campus, in the city of Oxford, the region and the state. I want to better understand the histories, unique needs, challenges and opportunities for collaboration. In the first few months, I will develop a transitional plan that is transparent, inclusive and adaptable so members of all communities – both internal and external – can follow the progress that we are making as we build a strong diversity portfolio.

IOM: Is there anything else you’d like to say to the Ole Miss community?

Caldwell: I am extremely excited about this opportunity, and I want to thank everyone involved in this process for trusting me to serve the Ole Miss community in this way.

This Q&A originally appeared in Inside Ole Miss, an e-newsletter for UM faculty and staff, on Nov. 28, 2016.