Intersections; A Conversation with the new Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion
John Gates, a Gary native and associate dean at the University of Virginia, this month joined Purdue as its inaugural vice provost for diversity and inclusion. At UV he was responsible for diversity, inclusion and engagement strategy in its School of Engineering and Applied Science. Previously he was associate dean for administration and finance at Harvard College, Harvard University, and served as special assistant to the president and provost at the University of Vermont. He received a bachelor’s degree from Morehouse College, a master’s degree from New York University and a Ph.D. from the University of London.
Please tell us more about your background and your family.
I grew up in Gary and graduated from Lew Wallace High School. I was the sixth of seven children. Most of my family still lives in Gary. I was a nontraditional student, as I started college at age 23 and finished at age 30.
As you were growing up in Gary, did you ever imagine you would end up at Purdue?
Actually, Purdue was the first university I came to know as a child. One of my older sisters who was the first in my family to go to college, graduated from Purdue in ‘80s. She inspired me to go to college. In a sense, with me being at Purdue now my family’s higher education history has come full circle.
Q: If you were a super hero, what special power would you want to have?
Wow. I’ve never thought of myself in the role of a super hero, but if I were a super hero I’d want to have the powers for good. I’d blink my eyes and make it possible for every kid to go to college. I’d wipe out hunger, too. I wouldn’t change the world. Instead, I’d ensure everyone could thrive in the world we all share.
Q: What is a favorite book or movie? Why?
My favorite book is Toni Morrison’s “Sula”, which was the first novel I read that transported me into the lives of people I cared about. Sula presents an African American experience with such profundity that it has stayed with me from my childhood. Of course, I have lots of other favorite books, with James Baldwin being my favorite writer, but Morrison’s “Sula” is at the top of the list.
Q: What did you mean by this quote, that appeared in the UV student newspaper: "You look at me and you say ‘Dean Gates is diverse because he’s black.’ I’m diverse because I’m black and I’m male and I’m gay and I’m a father and I’m a grandfather and I’m a social activist, an intellectual, and I’m a globalist and I’m a nice guy,” he said. “You can’t see that — you have to experience it.”
I was talking about the intersectionality of identity. Many people think diversity is about nodes of human representation. It isn’t. Diversity is about everything that makes us who we are. It’s more than race, gender, sexual orientation or religion. Instead, diversity is our essence. My diversity is not consummated in my race; it’s consummated in my being.
Q: In your previous positions your duties have included oversight of diversity. But you also have been responsible for areas such as engagement, strategic management, finance, budgeting, human resources and communications. How does this mix of experience inform how you approach your work?
I’ve worked in most major areas of universities—faculty development, academic affairs, student affairs, global education, management and human resources—all of which are important to my understanding of the work of universities. These experiences provide critical insights to ways I consider the unique concerns of various areas of the university.
Q: Through the New York-based company you lead, Criticality Management Consulting, you speak publicly on a variety of issues, including topics such as "Inclusion is Not Enough" and "Pimping Diversity." Could you elaborate on these?
My writings have been intended to educate others about the true intentions of diversity and inclusion by evidencing how search committees, hiring managers, corporations and people who ostensibly believe in diversity and inclusion routinely fall short in their execution of diversity and inclusion strategy. I provide examples, such as including representationally diversity on the front end of searches and systematically excluding it on the backend for reasons of “fit”. When this happens, we use diversity to get searches approved without any real intention to change our cultures or jettison our own biases about what excellence looks like. In doing so, we foster climates of exclusion under a mantra of inclusion.
I’ve written that inclusion is not enough in order to delineate the exclusionary properties within inclusion frameworks. When inclusion excludes human essence, let alone entire categories of people, such as straight white men or conservatives, it is harmful to the goals of diversity. Many frameworks also regard inclusion as an end rather than a means to an end. We know from years of research that while inclusion gets people into the stadium of possibility, it is insufficient to foster excellence. Excellence is a contact sport. To win the game, we need everyone on the field of play. There are no fans in this game--only players, coaches and referees. Inclusion yearns to unite with engagement in order to be whole.
Q: Although you are stepping into a newly elevated position here, diversity and inclusion efforts have been ongoing at Purdue for decades. What have we gotten right so far, and where should we strive harder?
Purdue’s dedication to diversity goes back to the nineteenth century when the university graduated its first African American student. Its commitment was further burnished during segregation as an institution that welcomed African Americans in its graduate programs, helping to train a generation of scholars, some of whom would become professors at Historically Black Colleges and Universities and train another generation of trailblazers. Today, Purdue’s leadership in organizations like the Math Alliance, a consortium of institutions based at Purdue dedicated to increasing the number of underrepresented minority students earning Ph.D.s in the mathematical and statistical sciences, continues access and equity as hallmarks of the Purdue way. Purdue Promise is another example of this commitment, along with the Purdue Disability Resource Center. It goes without saying the work of the staff of the Division of Diversity and Inclusion represents a major University commitment to progress in the area.
Of great interest to me is faculty, student and staff success, recruitment and retention efforts, and education and training. I look forward to working with everyone to take giant leaps in these areas.
Q: What initial steps do you plan to take to get to know Purdue and the Greater Lafayette community better? How can we help?
I’m meeting lots of wonderful people as I get to know the university and Lafayette by attending some of the many events taking place as we near the end of the academic year. I’m immersing myself in understanding the issues, along with the concerns and hopes people have for our efforts in diversity and inclusion. I encourage departments to invite me to a departmental meeting in fall. Everyone should feel free to stop by my office or request a meeting. Lastly, I want people to be of good cheer as we reframe diversity and inclusion at Purdue to unleash the promise inherent in each of us.