Since his arrival on campus in July 2018, President Richard Helldobler has voiced his commitment to combat bias and advance the causes of social justice, equity, and inclusion. President Helldobler spoke to WP Magazineto discuss his vision for diversity and inclusion efforts at William Paterson University as well as several key initiatives in this area for the 2020-21 academic year.

WP Magazine: What is being done at William Paterson to combat bias and advance social justice, equity, and diversity? Are we making progress?

President Helldobler: We are certainly making progress. In just the past year, we have opened the Center for Diversity and Inclusion (CDI) and the Black Cultural Center (BCC). Their director, Yolany Gonell, and chief diversity officer David Jones are doing great work on these issues. And this year, I have made diversity and inclusion a priority. Of course, it must—and will—always be a priority, but the goal in proclaiming it one now is to promote a host of new initiatives. First, we are forming a standing Diversity Council of students, faculty, and staff to develop a diversity statement and a diversity-specific strategic plan. We are launching a Community Dialogue Series and a President’s Diversity Lecture to facilitate the difficult but critical conversations we need to have on campus. And we will participate in training through the nationally recognized Race and Equity Center at the University of Southern California, through which senior staff, along with some faculty leadership, will participate in training that identifies and addresses the challenges that undermine racial equity on our campus. They will then be able to share this knowledge with the rest of their colleagues and help ensure it guides our policies, practices, and procedures. So, we’re busy, but there is much more to do, and this work doesn’t ever really end.

WP Magazine: If, as you say, the work doesn’t ever really end, how can we know if our efforts are having an impact?

President Helldobler: You raise an important point. You can launch a million initiatives, but what are they worth if every member of our community doesn’t feel valued and heard? If our students don’t feel that their histories are being taught or if faculty and staff don’t feel that they are being fairly recognized and supported? Like everything we do as a University—both in and out of the classroom—we will have to measure the effect of our efforts. In this case, we will do that through a Campus Climate Report and the ongoing work of the Diversity Council. Of course, this work needs to be done to some extent by every person all across our campus. These initiatives are not ends in and of themselves. They are means of creating a more just and equitable William Paterson for all.

Achieving social justice and equity and eliminating bias require educating our own community while also fighting for broader social change. Of course, education is an ongoing mission with each new class of students and for all faculty and staff. As an educational institution with a community of students, faculty, and staff who come to these efforts in good faith with a sincere desire to learn and grow, we can get our arms around these challenges—as difficult as they can be. The bigger knot that we must unravel is the systemic racism and injustice that pervade so much of our society. William Paterson, like all colleges and universities, is not immune, partly because most were built to serve very different populations than we do today. But we are well-positioned to continue making progress, thanks, in part, to the groundbreaking work William Paterson has been doing for decades through the Social Justice Project (see story on page 21). The project traces its roots to 1982, when we were one of the first colleges in the nation to first offer, then require of all undergrads, a course dealing with issues of racism and sexism.

WP Magazine: What is being done to increase the diversity of faculty and staff at WP?

President Helldobler: That’s an important question. Student access and retention is a big piece of our mission, and it is best accomplished by having a curriculum that acknowledges the diversity of our students and the world they live in. Another key piece is the faculty members students see in front of their class and the staff members they encounter everywhere from academic advising to registering to getting a meal. So not only recruiting, but also maintaining a diverse faculty and staff makes us a stronger, more effective University.

One thing we are doing toward that end is launching a Pre-Doctoral Fellows Program, which will support doctoral candidates who aspire to careers at institutions like William Paterson, which emphasize teaching quality and encourage multiple forms of scholarship. The program will invest in the success of advanced pre-doctoral fellows from underrepresented backgrounds, either at the institutional or disciplinary levels.

We are also working with our department chairs and College deans to strategize on recruitment and hiring of diverse tenure-track and adjunct faculty, though that’s just the beginning. Once we successfully recruit more people from underrepresented backgrounds, we have to make sure that we create and sustain an environment here on campus where they, along with everyone, feel like they can build a rewarding career and a full personal life so that everyone we recruit will want to remain here.

WP Magazine: What has been the impact of the CDI and BCC? Are other similar centers also planned?

President Helldobler: Both Centers have had an impact from the moment we cut the ribbons on their spaces, which is a testament to Yolany Gonell and the team of student ambassadors she has assembled. They are passionate about their work and committed to serving their communities. One measure of the quality of these student ambassadors is that, beyond this work, they are leaders in other ways across campus. Working with our student affairs staff, they have developed a very action-oriented strategic plan to foster appreciation for the importance of social justice and increase cultural awareness and competency. They have conducted trainings, hosted online events, and reached out to student, faculty, and staff groups across campus, as well as alumni. I am very encouraged by the level of energy they all bring to this important work. It shows that our students were craving places like these to help give shape and direction to their activism. And, yes, we are looking to expand on their success with the addition of a Latinidad Center, hopefully by next fall.

WP Magazine: What new programs are underway and/or planned for this academic year?

President Helldobler: Going a bit deeper on some of the key initiatives I mentioned earlier, I think we’ll see a lot of great things from the Diversity Council once it really kicks into gear. In the meantime, people can expect to see more information on the development of the Community Dialogue Series and the President’s Diversity Lecture. There will be a lot of difficult but useful conversations, and only by engaging in them directly can we grow in the ways that we need to in order to ensure that we are making William Paterson the best place to learn, live, and work for all of our students, faculty, and staff.