By RAKEL JOHNSON
Diversity has always been a hot topic on college campuses, especially at predominantly white institutions and in light of recent events. Why is there a lack of racial diversity in 2017 among faculty members and students? Are the colleges themselves to blame? In this interview, Dawn D. Bennett-Alexander, Associate Professor of Employment Law and Legal Studies at the University of Georgia, shares her thoughts about diversity in higher education. As the first African-American woman to be a faculty member in UGA’s Terry College of Business, she reflects on her own first-hand experiences and why diversity is essential.
Rakeel Johnson: Is it true that you were the first African-American female faculty member in Terry College of Business?
Dawn D. Bennett-Alexander: Yes. I’m also the first and still the only black female tenure track and tenured faculty member in Terry College of Business.
Johnson: What was that experience like, coming to the University of Georgia? Where were you coming from?
Bennett-Alexander: I originally came from D.C., so I grew up in D.C. and left there to go to Jacksonville, Florida for five years, at the University of North Florida. It was the same sort of thing, you know, a predominantly white institution. I was the only one, but it was on a much smaller scale, so this wasn’t a huge change, except that this was really like coming to the South. You know, they say Florida is really not like the South, and it was very scary, especially since I had just built the house I thought I’d stay in forever. I had to get tenured all over again in the state of Georgia…but I persevered.
Johnson: The University of Georgia is a predominantly white institution, and less than ten percent of students here are African-American. African-Americans make up around 30% of Georgia’s population. What factors do you think contribute to such a small number represented at the university?
Bennett-Alexander: There are a lot of factors, and I guarantee you that most of them don’t have to do with the university. That’s why dealing with the systemic issues is so important. If you’re in a school that doesn’t offer certain kinds of things, if you’re in a neighborhood that doesn’t have the same sort of tax base that supports schools, if you are from a family or social setting where education is not encouraged, achievement is not encouraged, or even thought to be possible, then you’re simply not going to get the kinds of students who go to the University of Georgia. They may be able to go somewhere else, but this is the flagship university of the state, so the competition for it is stiff. If you don’t have folks that are competitive, then you need to go deeper into that pool. Start getting them in elementary school, or high school, or junior high school, and letting them know, “We’re a possibility for you!” You open up a whole new world of possibilities. In the last 4 or 5 years, the outreach has been tremendous. That’s a huge piece of it, just exposing people to stuff and the campus!
Johnson: Similarly, there’s less than 10% of faculty here that are African-American. What do you think contributes to that side of things?
Bennett-Alexander: That has a number of factors too. One of the things across the years that has been an issue, for UGA in particular, is our location. We’re close to Atlanta, but if you’re not trying to make that trek, then that doesn’t look like a good place for you. Also, from the outside, if you came to interview, you might think, “Eh, I’m not feeling it!” It took more than just the place for me, it took literally thinking about Martin Luther King….Martin Luther King said, “If not you, who? If not now, when?” The [university’s] president has been extremely aggressive about this. Money’s not going to stand in the way…we want those people to be here; we don’t want anything we do to make them think that they can’t come. The numbers have changed, the percentages just look like they have not changed much at all.
Johnson: How important do you think it is for minority students to have at least some teachers who have the same racial identity as them?
Bennett-Alexander: It matters for students. Being the only one, you can do it. It’s like swimming upstream, you can swim upstream, but it takes a lot more effort and energy. I think you can be so much more productive if you don’t have that energy going out to that, as opposed to something else. It doesn’t even have to be somebody that looks like you, they just come off in a way that makes it so you really feel them. It’s almost visceral as opposed to spoken, you just feel it!
Johnson: Why do you think diversity is important in both the workplace and in school?
Bennett-Alenxander: In terms of a practical thing, the world just does not look the same anymore. For students, it’s extremely important because they end up learning so much from other people. It absolutely makes a difference. You may choose who your groups are now, but once you get into a workplace, I need you to know how to work with whoever is in that workplace.
Johnson: If you had to give one piece of advice to a someone here who’s a minority navigating this space, and to someone here who’s a clear majority, what would your advice for their interactions be?
Bennett-Alexander: For the first, I would tell them to absolutely be who they are, to bring their whole selves to that situation. You’re not going to change it by being something you’re not, you’re just going to teach people that you have to be like them.
For the other person, I would say be open, that’s the biggest thing you have to do. If you’re open, and not judgmental, you end up being able to take in so much more.