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Randolph College's new chief diversity officer aims to ensure every student, staffer feels safe

Randolph College's new chief diversity officer aims to ensure every student, staffer feels safe

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LYNCHBURG — As the new chief diversity officer of Randolph College, Keesha Burke-Henderson is working to ensure the culture on campus is inclusive to everyone within the red brick wall.

Burke-Henderson assumed her role as chief diversity officer and director of the college’s Office of Identity, Culture and Inclusion last month and is all ears. Before she gets to setting goals and working to analyze policies and practices on campus and how they affect students, she said she must first understand the current reality of the college.

“It’s my responsibility right now to learn and to pay attention and to understand the institution,” she said. “My job is not to come in and completely command and take action without understanding the current culture.”

That current reality, she said, is much different than it was a year ago. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Randolph College moved classes online last spring and did not reopen campus for the fall 2020 semester. Now, some of the college’s roughly 600 students have returned to campus, but others still are completing coursework remotely. Some staff members also are working remotely, Burke-Henderson said, so the campus culture has been changed this year.

As the chief diversity officer, Burke-Henderson said she will work to engage with students, staff and stakeholders to ensure the college is inclusive and representative to all groups on campus.

Bradley Bateman, president of the college, said ensuring inclusivity on a campus where people are learning, working and living is one of the most important tasks a higher education institution has — and he thinks Burke-Henderson will play a pivotal role in making Randolph College a more inclusive environment.

“We’re very excited to have Ms. Burke-Henderson as part of our Randolph family,” Bateman said in a statement. “She brings a wealth of experience that will aid her in her work as chief diversity officer and as head of our Office of Identity, Diversity and Inclusion. Even in the short time she has been here — and while dealing with the unique challenges brought by the pandemic — she has been able to make incredible progress meeting members of our community and finding her place at Randolph.”

Steve Willis, special assistant to the president and secretary of the board of trustees, said he works closely with the president’s senior staff and looks forward to working with Burke-Henderson.

“She has the ability to open up a space where people can ask questions and come to the table and say, ‘I don’t understand this,’ or ‘Can you help me with this situation,’” he said. “I think she’s going to be an excellent resource to faculty and students.”

Willis said he has a passion for diversity and inclusion work and is eager to see the expertise and knowledge Burke-Henderson is bringing to Randolph.

Burke-Henderson said she’s ready to begin unpacking the word “diversity” and what it means at Randolph College.

“We use ‘diversity’ to sort of blanket a lot of things,” she said.

Burke-Henderson has a long career in education and in the nonprofit sector; she brings 17 years of teaching and research experience to the college.

Most recently, Burke-Henderson served as the director of diversity and international students for Mount Mercy University in Iowa.

Burke-Henderson said her work has centered around creating opportunities for and engaging with disenfranchised groups.

She has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the New York Institute of Technology, and is working toward her Ph.D. from Kennesaw State University, according to a news release.

In her work, Burke-Henderson said she uses workplace diversity pioneer Roosevelt Thomas’ definition of diversity.

“He always talked about managing similarities and differences of people within the organization for the benefit of some desired outcome,” Burke-Henderson said in an interview. “Really, from an organizational standpoint, that’s what diversity means.”

Burke-Henderson said she will work to examine how the institution reflects the cultures of those within it so everyone feels safe and welcome.

“Everyone should feel like that space is theirs,” she said.

Burke-Henderson said one of her first steps will be to create a standing committee dedicated to culture, justice and diversity that will help her analyze the college’s traditions, policies and practices and work to develop ways they may be adjusted to best serve the campus community.

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