By Andrew Wayrynen

Dr. Steven D Parker, Western’s new VP of inclusivity.

To boil water, you need a heat source, water, and a pot capable of handling the heat. To shift the culture of a university to become more diverse, equitable, and inclusive, you need a student body hungry for change, a campus willing to host, and a high-ranking team or officer dedicated to overseeing the ensuing process of transformation. 

While all of this is true, it’s also blind to the harder-to-see elements at play in a highly complex system, such as a university.  

Oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen are hidden components of boiling water, just as xenophobia, bigotry, racism, and sexism are pervasive but often hidden components of institutions of higher education.

If you are not forced to, it’s easy to forget to look closely at what’s truly — often subtly or even silently — going on around us.

Introducing Dr. Steven D Parker

Dr. Steven D Parker, Western’s first-ever vice president for inclusivity, traces a long legacy of exclusive and harmful social codes within universities back to the first institution of higher education in the country.

“Harvard, whose marginalizing policies still proliferate in ever more subtle ways, did not accept our queer siblings… did not accept our black and brown and other siblings… they did not accept women,” notes Parker.

Nearly four hundred years later and two thousand miles west, Western Colorado University continues to reckon with deep-seated social narratives that are more powerful than any one individual can overcome alone.

In the words of Parker, “There was a clear exclusionary clause in policy of who was let in and who wasn’t.”

The exclusivity of the past shapes the present in often unseen ways, but we are not powerless — and there is hope for Western’s future.

The appointment of Dr. Parker as the first-ever vice president of inclusivity is one of the most direct and promising strides taken by Western Colorado University to promote diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility on campus.  

In conversations with Western students whose skin colors, sexual orientations, and physical limitations confront intolerant and sometimes violent truths about life on campus, the new VP brings energy, perspective, experience, and humility to our social environment. 

“All people were born on this rock and when they were born on this rock, they were born to it,” says Parker. “They want to embrace it, they want to travel [on] it, and they want to engage [with] it.”

Surveying Western’s culture

Steven’s appointment encourages us to consider this precise moment in time on our shared rock: Who are we, and who are we becoming?

Let’s start with the present.

You don’t need to conduct a deep dive to discover that campus skews mostly male (58 percent) and white (70 percent). Indeed, Western largely attracts a certain kind of person — the same faces frequently seen skiing Mt. Crested Butte or mountain biking Hartman’s during golden hour in promotional photos on the university’s website and social media accounts.

This blindside appears to not only reinforce ableist infrastructure around campus, with many buildings failing to meet the needs of disabled students, but also tells students outside of this mold that they are not fully welcome.

“[When we’re] talking about white, male, hegemonic, patriarchal ways of being,” Parker offers, “We begin to see that now people can control the land … that control over this rock is important because even if I wanted to get off of this rock, I can’t.” 

Students relate to this tension and are desperate for change.

“The culture of Western Colorado University is outdated and stuck in the 1990’s,” says Western student and campus activist Graham Molinaro. 

Molinaro directs us to the disproportionate budgeting between sports programs and the university’s Disability Services department, which he believes indicates a deeper issue with the priorities of Western’s leadership.

“My biggest concern related to students with disabilities is the lack of support Cheyenne Terry of the Disability Office is receiving. She is a one-woman show,” Molinaro relays.

But to see that things can indeed change, look no further than the controversy and fallout over former president Greg Salsbury’s comparison of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot to racial justice protests just two years ago, which set off a series of events that ultimately culminated with his resignation in May 2021.

The composition of leadership is often a good indicator of an institution’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, and Western’s is broadly homogenous. Faculty represent the least diverse group on campus at 93 percent white, followed by graduate students at 86 percent.

Women, Black, Brown, queer, disabled, and other folks have been largely excluded from meaningful spaces at the table since Western’s founding back in 1911. 

Rays of hope shine through

This is exactly why the appointment of a vice president of inclusivity like Dr. Steven D. Parker is so significant; his high rank means that an unwavering (but also responsive, caring, and ever-listening) advocate of DEIJ+ issues possess unparalleled power in Western’s history to hold Western’s leadership and the institution as a whole accountable. 

This also demands that students, staff, and faculty must work together to demand transparency and justice from one another and leadership alike, elevating diverse groups and programs like the Multicultural Center (MCC) — with its, Amigos Club, Asian Pacific Islanders Club (APIC), and Black Student Alliance (BSA) student groups. Mountaineers in these groups need to know they are being heard and backed up by the new powers that be. 

Master’s in Environmental Management (MEM) student Cheyenne Ford is “optimistic” about the appointment, however cautiously, alongside concerns that steps in the right direction could devolve into lip service and tokenism.

Ford understands that change will not happen overnight, and notes that “people have to want change.” Whether Western wants change enough to actively create it, rather than remain stubbornly complicit, will become clearer as the years go by.

So, when Parker arrived at Western in mid-March, he began listening for Western’s heartbeat, its inner thoughts as well as its loudest cries. 

“I am listening to learn. I am listening to feel,” Steven says as he gestures to his heart. “And I am listening to be.”

“If I can listen in all of those forms and more, I’ll begin to understand the culture, the climate, the needs, the challenges, and the successes of [this] institution.”

While Steven’s professional journey has led him to similar work across the county at Bemidji State, Northwest Technical College, Bates College and more, he appreciates that every social environment has its unique challenges and complexities.

Western, of course, is no exception. 

Impacting real change on campus

So, what has Parker found in his first few months on campus?

“I have found that we have a willing leadership and pretty involved student, faculty and staff populations that are really ready to do the work,” he reports.

In fact, the change has already started. Since Dr. Parker’s arrival in March, his worked has resulted in:

  • The approval of the development of the inaugural Division for Justice and Inclusion.
  • The formalization of the DEI committee for the university’s faculty senate.
  • The adoption of the formal acronym DEIJ+ (rather than DEIA+; the J is for justice rather than accountability) to clarify work regarding the work of social and racial justice.
  • The hiring of an inaugural interim director for restorative justice and Title IX. coordination. 
  • The elevation of positions in the Division for Justice and Inclusion division to build capacity to tackle issues that continue to plague the institution and limit its diversity.

These high-level promotions, hires, and initiatives are shifting the very power and decision-making structures that have perpetuated white, male, hegemonic, patriarchal ways of being throughout Western’s history. 

These are exactly the powerful spaces that students, and DEIJ+ initiatives, have never been able to meaningfully penetrate. If these stubborn cogs begin to in the right direction, student efforts and imaginations will begin to matter more, carrying much greater weight on campus.

We can have hope that, starting from the top, these changes can amplify DEIJ+ causes across campus in a real, tangible way, maybe even spilling over into the larger town community. That being said, students must also hold leadership accountable, and ensure that changes are not limited merely to title and symbol.

And so, as students of Western, we too must seek answers to what Western is, and where it is going.

“A place to start is listening, listening to hear, listening to feel, listening to learn … to recognize that we are all inherently worthy,” says Parker.

He reminds us that we cannot forget the history of higher education that brought us here, beginning with Harvard, with its exclusionary policies and codes. 

Rather, we must focus on the past we seek to leave behind, empowering groups whose worthiness on this Earth has been shamefully unrecognized, marginalized, and persecuted. And it all starts with that seemingly simple yet stunningly profound realization.

“Instead of breaking things down into the -isms and the biases and those things, let’s start off with just acknowledging that all of our siblings are inherently worthy without doing anything other than existing,” concludes Parker.

Update: On Wednesday, Aug. 30, Western president Brad Baca sent the following e-mail to campus:

Last fall, through a successful search process, we hired Steven D. Parker, to be our inaugural Vice President for Inclusivity. With Steven’s guidance, expertise, and leadership, our aim is to advance Western’s capacity and commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, justice plus (DEIJ+).

Since bringing Steven to Western in March of 2023, he has worked with faculty, staff, students and community members to better understand resources, capacity, and needs related to DEIJ+. This past summer, Vice President Parker championed the establishment of our new Division for Justice and Inclusion.

This milestone is critical for the advancement of DEIJ+ at Western. The Division has already made significant transformations to Western in partnership with Finance and Administration, Marketing and Enrollment, Student Affairs, and Academic Affairs. Through a unified approach, we are dedicated to learning and acting in order to ensure that our students, faculty, staff, and visitors are welcomed and steeped in the feeling of belonging.

We acknowledge the inherent worth of all, and we are committed to doing the work that it takes to advance the mission of Western. More information regarding the work of the Office of Inclusivity will be forthcoming over the next couple of weeks. 

We encourage students, faculty, and staff to get involved in the inclusive change that is Western!

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