Department of Education Officials Praise UM Diversity Efforts

Ole Miss students share their efforts to recruit minority students and promote understanding

UM students meet with U.S. Department of Education officials to talk about how the university is creating a culture of inclusiveness. Photo by Robert Jordan/Ole Miss Communications

UM students meet with U.S. Department of Education officials to talk about how the university is creating a culture of inclusiveness. Photo by Robert Jordan/Ole Miss Communications

OXFORD, Miss. – “Impressed and moved” is how Undersecretary of Education Ted Mitchell described his reaction to a Thursday (Sept. 15) visit to the University of Mississippi.

Mitchell, a part of the U.S. Department of Education’s seventh annual back-to-school bus tour across the country, spent the morning learning about UM efforts to increase inclusion and identify the challenges universities face in creating opportunities for all students. He made his comment after talking with student leaders on the Ole Miss campus.

He met with Ole Miss administrators before joining the students for a panel discussion, which was moderated by Brandi Hephner LaBanc, UM vice chancellor for student affairs.

“It was a great honor and opportunity for Ole Miss to host the Department of Education and showcase how our administration and students embrace the tenets of the UM Creed in our diversity and inclusion efforts,” Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter said.

Following the group of students sharing their stories about the work they do on campus, Mitchell said he plans to take lessons from Ole Miss with him to pass on to other universities and also to education leaders in Washington. One particular aspect of the university’s approach stood out to him.

“One of the reasons we are here is we think Ole Miss is a place where really tough issues of race, class and gender and all kinds of identity formation are not ignored, but embraced as part of what one needs to learn as part of the college experience,” Mitchell said.

The university made news in 1962 after a deadly riot ensued following the enrollment of James Meredith, its first black student. A statue of Meredith stands near the Lyceum, where the team met Thursday.

The university’s past and its efforts to deal with issues head-on makes it an example others can follow, Mitchell said.

“We’ve been struck throughout the morning at the intentionality of the institution to be able to have eyes open, humility about the history of the institution and to build on that humility and that acknowledgement of a dark and troubled history of the institution to create an opportunity for frank dialogue,” he said.

Mitchell was joined by Kim Hunter-Reed, who serves as deputy undersecretary of education; Jaye Espy, chief of staff for the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities; and Elyse Jones, confidential assistant for the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

The group heard from Mississippi students from different backgrounds. They talked about working to recruit and mentor minority students, facilitate open dialogue on sensitive topics and promote understanding and tolerance.

Dylan Lewis, a senior journalism major from Tupelo, shared his story of telling family he is gay and being kicked out of his house during high school. During that difficult period, he came to Apex Leadership Summit at Ole Miss, which is for rising high school seniors.

“The love that I received from the other students that were in the program, the admissions counselors and the faculty and staff here was so great,” Lewis said. “Throughout my senior year, dealing with everything back home, they just reached out and gave me so many opportunities to get here and feel loved again. I had kind of lost that.”

Lewis became immediately active on campus once he arrived. He serves as director of student ambassadors and was an orientation leader, among other campus leadership roles. He said he’s worked to remind LGBTQ students and other minority groups that they can be heard and play important roles on campus.

“Throughout those roles, I knew what it felt like to feel unwanted and to not have a voice,” Lewis said. “Serving in those roles, I’ve tried to ensure that incoming students who are minorities know that they have a voice. You have to put yourself out there.”

Clay Wooley, a senior mechanical engineering and general studies major from Jackson, is president of Sigma Chi Fraternity and is involved with Rebels Against Sexual Assault. He talked about his fraternity’s involvement with an incident during its “Derby Day” event last spring where offensive remarks made during the program were directed toward female participants.

The incident made news and prompted public backlash against Sigma Chi.

“Most of us thought, ‘Why didn’t you do something,” Wooley said. “…. If you’re going to be part of a fraternity that has higher ideals and a part of the university that has the creed that we have, we are supposed to be different. We’re supposed to be the ones that do something.

“We failed once and we decided not to fail again.”

The university accepted the fraternity’s offer during its sanctions process to use the event as a tool to educate members, Wooley said. That approach has helped, he said. “We want to empower our men to learn and grow from this.”

The chapter is working to redesign the event and will seek input from sororities and the community.

A continuing theme of the students’ remarks was how they’ve seen campus leaders address tough issues such as the removal of the Mississippi state flag, which contains the Confederate battle flag, from campus.

They note removing the flag, which they said doesn’t embody the values of diversity and inclusion the university wants to convey, was entirely student-led. The Associated Student Body voted to remove the flag and its recommendation received the support of Faculty Senate and Staff Council before administrators followed their wishes in 2015.

Eloise Tyner, a senior public policy major from Oxford, is also an intern with the university’s William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation. One thing the university gets right when about dealing with controversy is making sure those who support the losing side of a decision aren’t marginalized, she said.

“What I love about (WWIRR’s) work is, and this is reflected at Ole Miss as well, they are very concerned with making sure the whole group moves forward, that no one is left behind, that even if you feel like your ideological argument has lost, you’re not excommunicated from the community,” Tyner said.

There’s still room for improvement and new challenges to tackle, the students said.

Aurielle “Sunny” Fowler, a sophomore psychology major from Clinton, talked about her efforts to mentor and recruit students through the university’s Mississippi Outreach to Scholastic Talent program for prospective African-American students. She was joined by her mentee, Arielle Hudson, a freshman English education major from Dundee.

The two talked about the connection they’ve formed through that program and how they believe it is crucial to bringing in the best students to the university.

Clarksdale native Espy, who serves on the Obama administration’s HBCU panel, received her bachelor’s degree from Howard University and a master’s degree from Ole Miss.

She came away impressed with the university’s climate of continuing dialogue on difficult issues.

“Ole Miss has a very storied history and past, and to share it in an honest way that the faculty, the administration and students have takes courage and a willingness to just be who you are,” Espy said. “That’s amazing to have that willingness to come from your past and create your future.”