December 6, 2023

Reimagining higher education with empathy, equity and belonging are key components for success, says Purdue Global chief diversity officer

Tiffany Townsend engages faculty, staff and students in quest for increasing higher ed access for all

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Tiffany Townsend grew up with the dream and goal of changing people’s lives.

She believed becoming a clinical psychologist would be the best way to bring help, healing and understanding to others.

As she continued her journey through academia, she wondered how she could make a larger impact, especially for underserved student populations and scholars of color in higher education institutions.

“I started asking, ‘How can I increase access? What can I do to have a broader impact?’ During the COVID-19 pandemic we realized that we don’t have to be in the same place to work together,” says Townsend, who serves as Purdue Global’s chief diversity officer and vice president of organizational culture. “I started thinking differently about my work, work environments and ways technology can help to increase access.”

Those different ways of thinking — and doing — are paying off.

Additional Information

A dream and a clinical journey across the U.S.

Townsend, originally from the Washington, D.C., area, earned her undergraduate degree from Spelman College in Atlanta and her doctorate in clinical psychology from George Washington University.

Her first faculty appointment was in Pennsylvania State University’s clinical psychology program, where she trained students to be researchers and clinicians. Townsend was at Georgetown University’s School of Medicine when she received an offer that intrigued her.

Townsend was approached to manage the American Psychological Association’s Office of Ethnic Minority Affairs.

“At first, I did not think I would be interested,” she says. But she soon reconsidered. “I wanted to explore and learn more about the administrative side of academia and nonprofits. I had started doing applied research in communities of color and appreciated how impactful that was and how there were very few scholars of color, especially those that were doing research. While working with APA, I had a much broader reach. The position gave me an opportunity to impact more lives and help more people.”

In her new role, Townsend was able to open the door for more scholars and researchers of color.

But academic administration kept calling.

“I missed higher education,” Townsend says. “I saw myself as a researcher as it was part of my professional identity.”

Townsend returned to academia as Augusta University’s chief diversity officer and associate professor of psychological sciences.

Building an online presence based on empathy and belonging

tiffanytownsend-family Tiffany Townsend and her family at a recent community event. (Photo provided) Download image

As the COVID-19 pandemic marched through 2020 and 2021, Townsend watched the shifting landscape of higher education as administrators and society struggled to ensure equity for all students in all settings.

And then a job posting caught her eye.

Purdue Global, which is Purdue’s online university for working adults, was hiring a chief diversity officer. Its student body was the type of population for which Townsend was wanting to increase access to higher education and upward mobility. Purdue’s strong connection to the online school also impressed her.

Purdue Global’s student population currently comprises the following:

  • 59% of students are 30 or older.
  • 40% of students are from underserved populations.
  • 52% of students have a child or other dependents.
  • 50% are first-generation college students.
  • Approximately 10,000 are military-affiliated students, a population that includes uniformed personnel, veterans and eligible dependents.

“That’s what excited me about Purdue Global — I could do this work and reach many more students, specifically nontraditional students,” Townsend says. “If equity is really what I’m wanting to do, what better place to do that than in an institution whose mission is focused on serving traditionally underserved students.”

From the beginning

In addition to establishing a vision, Townsend has a goal of building inclusive excellence, which involves being thoughtful and intentional in everything that is done for students, staff and faculty. Focusing on equity improves the quality of the institution as a whole.

“We are creating something new. Purdue Global felt like an opportunity unlike any in my career to put my footprint down and help to structure and change things from the beginning,” she says. “My team is helping develop this excellence in the culture of the institution from the very beginning so it is part of the fabric of the university.”

Several initiatives led by Townsend are underway exploring collaboration and community building. Purdue Global recently received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a plan to ensure equitable access and support the success of Black, Latino, Indigenous and low-income students. Key to this plan are strategies that will help to create a sense of community and foster the persistence and ultimate graduation of all students, regardless of their background.

Purdue Global was also announced as a member of the Gardner Institute’s first cohort of 11 institutions across the U.S. that will transform the first two years of a student’s college education to help them be more successful on their path to earning a degree.

“We have to look at the full student journey and identify pain points or points of opportunity and then work with the areas to identify strategies to address those points,” Townsend says. “We are making data-informed decisions. The best practices involve using data and analytics to inform our efforts and then produce research and original scholarship based on this work so we can disseminate our findings to other professionals in this field.”

Another goal is to build community, which can be challenging for an online higher education institution.

Townsend and her team are looking for new ways to engage with students and learn together, especially in building connections.

“It will help students feel more engaged with the institution and also help build community and relationships,” she says. “This is critical if we want to make sure our students feel supported, that as an institution we are rooting for them to be successful.”

The future is now

Townsend continually monitors the present while planning for the future. Townsend is on the go with her two kids, participating in as many activities as she can. She is an active member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. and Jack and Jill of America Inc. She and her husband enjoy reading, as well as spending time with her father.

But many of her activities have her thinking of her children and their ability to access higher education and careers in the not-so-distant future.

“We are here to support students’ success. If we can make sure that they feel like they belong, we know that they’re going to be more successful. Our focus is how we are creating fertile ground where success can grow,” she says.

Student success to her is when a student achieves their goal of earning a degree that could lead to increased employability and upward mobility that improves outcomes for their families and communities.

Townsend relies on data to make decisions, and one data point she is monitoring is the enrollment cliff and demographic shift in higher education.

“The traditional student no longer looks like who we typically think of as a college student. We are going to have to shift the way in which we structure the university to support students,” she says. “We have to rethink higher education from the ground up. We need to structure it with diversity of students, their needs, competitive marketplace and the global economy in mind. It’s going to make us think outside the box.”

One highlight for her is attending Purdue Global’s commencement ceremonies, where students and their families are celebrating those comebacks.

“You feel the emotion; you know how important this is. And you say, ‘This is all worth it. This is why I do it. This is why I feel this work is important,’” Townsend says.

And of her own comeback?

It was when she made that leap from academic faculty to administrator with the American Psychological Association.

“It was important for me to help train the next generation of leaders and to open the doors for underrepresented students because I understand how important education is to their quality of life,” she says. “I know what education has meant for me. I want to make sure other students have that opportunity also.”

About Purdue Global

Purdue Global is Purdue’s online university for working adults who have life experience and often some college credits. It offers flexible paths for students to earn an associate, bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree, based on their work experience, military service and previous college credits, no matter where they are in their life journey. Purdue Global is a nonprofit, public university accredited by the Higher Learning Commission and backed by Purdue University. For more information, visit

Writer/Media contact: Matthew Oates, 765-496-6160,, @mo_oates

Source: Tiffany Townsend

Purdue University, 610 Purdue Mall, West Lafayette, IN 47907, (765) 494-4600

© 2015-23 Purdue University | An equal access/equal opportunity university | Copyright Complaints | Maintained by Office of Strategic Communications

Trouble with this page? Disability-related accessibility issue? Please contact News Service at