One of President Damián Fernández’s biggest goals is to increase the diversity of faculty and staff at Eckerd, and create an environment where every student feels valued and represented in the community.
Since he started at Eckerd in the summer 2020, Fernández has taken steps toward a tangible diversity action plan. Over the last 9 months, some of these steps have included holding listening sessions with Alina Wong from Pennsylvania State University, identifying “Inclusive Excellence” as one of four pillars of his strategic plan, working with the Board of Trustees to hire a Director of Inclusive Excellence, starting a fundraising initiative for scholarships for students of color and developing a recruitment plan to admit more students of color.
“Based on national tension over race happening across the United States when I arrived on campus in July, I took very quick steps to address some of those concerns,” Fernández said.
In the fall semester, Wong held a series of reflections and community conversations and reported her findings and ideas to Fernandez. She met with the Board of Trustees in February to discuss the recommendations based on her conversations, and Fernandez is using her suggestions to inform his Inclusive Excellence plan.
Fernández has implemented a new position called the Director of Inclusive Excellence, applications for which opened a few weeks ago. Students will be invited to take part in the selection process. According to Fernández, that person will report directly to the president, and will facilitate the college’s plans on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging.
Another new development is the Board’s Diversity Committee which was established in July 2020. This is the first time the board has had a Diversity Committee. The committee is aligned with the college’s plan to diversify both student and faculty representation.
To increase diversity in the faculty, the Board of Trustees hopes to soon announce the recipient of the first Pre-doctoral Fellowship for scholars from marginalized communities. This fellowship is supported by donors and provides funds for an emerging graduate to join Eckerd’s faculty for a year as they complete their doctoral dissertation. Fernández said they would hope to hire them for a long-term position after the completion of the program.
For the student body, the Office of Admission is working on a Diversity Recruitment Plan to admit more students of color. The Innovation Fund Fernández first identified in October has also resulted in $280,000 in gifts to support scholarships for students of color such as the Dr. Walter Walker scholarship and the Diversity Leadership scholarship. These scholarships are awarded to students of minority groups who are in good academic standing and demonstrate leadership qualities.
“I asked the Vice President for Enrollment Management [John Sullivan] to develop a data-based plan as to where the metropolitan areas are across the United States where we can go tell the wonderful story about Eckerd, and bring additional Eckerd students from different communities to learn and live here. This is the kind of place we are,” Fernández said.
Fernández has also taken into account concerns of students of color in terms of microaggressions against them on campus and in the classroom.
As a result, faculty have been incorporating equity-minded materials into their teaching and mentoring, Eckerd is joining the St. Petersburg Higher Education Consortium of Racial Justice and Eckerd’s Human Resources team is reviewing hiring practices to adopt and implement best practices.
“Eckerd College can and will do better, and there is a generalized agreement that we need to take real steps in that direction because diversity enriches education for everyone,” Fernández said.
Vice President for Marketing and Communications Valerie Gliem, an active participant in Fernández’s diversity initiative, said she likes to integrate students’ concerns into her job and listen to their voices as much as possible.
“We’re always wanting to know what the buzz is amongst students...We want to make sure that we’re learning as much as we can about the student experience and what’s being said out there,” Gliem said.
Additionally, Athletics Diversity Action Committee has partnered with Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE.) RISE is a national nonprofit organization that works to eliminate racism in the sports community, and is delivering a series of workshops for student-athletes and staff to develop plans for future educational programming.
These initial steps are contributing to what Fernández hopes will be an overall more diverse future for Eckerd. Fernández hopes to raise the population of students of color at Eckerd to 30% over the next few years. Currently, Eckerd’s student body is 77% white.
“30% is the minimum...We still have progress to make,” Fernández said.
In a recent article in The Current, students identified that it can be discouraging to see that the majority of their professors are white while the only Black representation they have is with the employees in dining services and housekeeping. And because these employees are on staff, they do not get the same benefits for their families as faculty do.
To address this, Eckerd has partnered with Sodexo, the company that maintains Eckerd’s facilities, and Bon Appetit, which provides Eckerd’s food services. Eckerd established a scholarship fund for the children of their staff who are admitted to Eckerd.
“I care deeply about this because it’s also my experience. I’m a first-generation college graduate and a minority. I went to school thanks to the generosity of others,” Fernández said. “These are important first steps, but much good work needs to be done.”