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Newly Named Vice Provost
To Address Diversity Issues
October 4, 1999

When Ron Taylor sees a group of black students sitting together in a dining hall, he understands why.

Although some have criticized non-white students for what they see as self-imposed segregation, Taylor knows - from his years of experience as a faculty member, from his scholarly research on African American youths and families, and from his own experience of growing up in the South - that these students face extra pressures when they go to college.

director of University Communications. Many minority students at UConn come from urban areas that are still highly segregated. "In those environments they were in a majority," Taylor says. "When they come here, for the first time they are outnumbered."

Although white students often can avoid dealing with any student of color, the reverse is not true. "The requirement to adjust is significantly greater for students of color than for anyone else," he says. "As an institution, we need to recognize and be sensitive to that, because from that flow a lot of other difficulties. Anything we can do to minimize the alienation students may experience on campus will increase the probability that they will stay, graduate, and go on and do great things in life."

As the University's first vice provost for multicultural affairs, Taylor will head the University's efforts to address issues affecting students of color and other minorities.

Citing a 1985 study, Work 2000, that suggested 85 percent of those entering the labor force between 1985 and 2000 would be women and people of color, Taylor says, "Someone must take on the responsibility of preparing these students for that reality. None of us is well served by ignoring it, by pretending that it's not an issue."

Besides, he says, coming to terms with difference has educational value in itself. "Education is about coming to terms with the unknown, and assimilating what you've learned."

He says embracing diversity is an imperative, not only for minorities but for everyone in the University community. "We all will be involved with diversity at one level or another," he says. "How well or badly we cope with it is critical."

A Broad Portfolio
Taylor will have a broad portfolio, encompassing a multitude of issues, from curriculum planning to recruitment and retention.

One of the first things Taylor, who assumed the position August 1, plans to do is to conduct what he terms an environmental scan, an assessment of how the University is faring with respect to racial, ethnic, sexual and other diversity and which areas need attention.

He has begun to lay the ground work for several initiatives. He has already identified a group of faculty and students interested in developing a curriculum that emphasizes diversity, and he plans to put departments in touch with appropriate networks across the country, in order to support efforts to recruit faculty from various backgrounds. As director of the Institute for African American studies, which has a number of joint appointments with academic departments, he has a solid track record.

He also will develop strategies to help the University retain these faculty. Taylor has long served as a mentor to younger faculty members. "Part of my role is to tell them, 'here are what I see as the pluses and minuses.' It would be naive to think there are no problems," he says, "but I can explain the compelling reasons that keep me here, such as colleagues who are supportive."

Extensive Experience
The position is so multi-faceted it might appear daunting, but Taylor brings extensive experience to the job. A member of the UConn faculty since 1972, he served as head of the sociology department - the University's first African American head of department - from 1981 to 1986, is a past president of the AAUP (1993-94) and a long-serving member of its executive committee, and is a seasoned member of the University Senate.

"He has a unique capacity to see the institution from a variety of different constituencies and is strongly committed to furthering the goals of the position," says Mark Abrahamson, a professor of sociology and a former associate provost.

He also has the stature to make people listen. "Knowing how to get doors to open and people to listen to you is something Ron is especially good at," says Ed Marth, executive director of the UConn chapter of the AAUP.

Taylor, who has been listed in both Who's Who in America and Who's Who in the World, reports to Fred Maryanski, interim chancellor, and serves on the Chancellor's Cabinet. "I will remind my colleagues at every turn," he says, "of our obligation to remain sensitive to issues of diversity."

He says he sees his new role as being a point man to assist the University in realizing its goals for diversity and multiculturalis m. But while his office will play a leadership role, he says, "the actual work has to be carried out by people across the spectrum. Everybody has a role in this."

Defining Multiculturalism
Although multiculturalism has meant different things to different people, Taylor chooses to define the term broadly. "For me it involves sensitivities to the differences and similarities that exist that are racial, ethnic, and gender-based. Sexual orientation, even disabilities, are also included in what I understand to be multiculturalism," he says.

"People come to us with experiences that are in part shaped by certain attributes to which our society has attached great meaning. While race, for example, may have no ultimate scientific validity, our society has given it great meaning and people's lives have been shaped by it," he says.

A multicultural approach is not without its detractors. Yet Taylor's colleagues are confident he will be able to overcome the challenges.

"If there was ever any appointment here at this University that could deal with different kinds of views on diversity questions, Ron would be the best possible candidate to deal with it," says Marth.

Although Taylor's own experience and scholarship has focused on African Americans, he is mindful of the needs of a broad range of different groups.

"The concerns of all will be treated with the utmost respect," he says. "Part of my job is to sensitize others about the needs of someone who's different, and that applies to this office as well."

Changing Attitudes
But isn't it hard to change people's attitudes? Ever the scholar, Taylor looks to his background as a social psychologist for an answer. "Changing attitudes is easy," he says. "It's maintaining the change in attitudes that's hard. What's key is to get people to behave differently, and they will think differently. That's generally what the research shows."

And that's where Taylor will devote his energies: to changing the environment.

"College is an exciting time to have new relationships with different people," he says. "I would like to see black students sitting down with white students and Latino students. But if we don't encourage students to do things differently, it won't happen."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu