LIBERTY — Rodney Smith took on the newly created role of vice president for access and engagement at William Jewell College last fall. His responsibilities include leading the college’s inclusivity efforts, which include strategies to recruit and retain students, faculty and staff of color while forging relationships with communities of color in the Kansas City metropolitan area.
“I see diversity within the context of equity and inclusion as a means to help us as a society to live better together,” he explained. “For me, that’s hopeful. In my role at the college, I say that I am ‘chief hope officer’ because I believe that hopeful people are people of action. Hope is steeped in action.”
Smith said understanding diversity means acknowledging there may be discomfort, but that people have what it takes to get over barriers and challenges.
“We have made so many subjects taboo. ... We have to start having some of those difficult dialogues,” he said.
Humanity is diverse and that fact shouldn’t be ignored, the college vice president said.
“We have gotten into trouble when we choose homogeneous environments,” he said. “We have to push past the discomfort and seek a diversity of thought and background. Why not have those conversations? I would hazard a guess that the killing of George Floyd might have been a first step into these conversations for some. However, these difficult dialogues and crucial conversations are so important.”
Smith likened inaction to the effects of second-hand smoke.“Think about racism and those taboo issues as second-hand smoke. Even if you are not a direct target, you are affected because we are interconnected. The pandemic has taught us that,” he said.Smith said an intellectual setting like William Jewell should be a safe space to have dialogues on race. The school is actively seeking a diverse student population.
“We are a college that aims at critical thinking and engagement,” he explained, “so why not have those civil conversations? It’s OK for us to have a different opinion. We are having these dialogues at Jewell on how. It’s OK to have opposing views. It’s a bit like the agitator in a washing machine, it’s the pull and tug that eventually brings out those ideas that help others by your understanding.”
William Jewell has seen overall enrollment grow by 3% this year and 12% in the fall 2020 class. The entering class of fall 2020 was the most diverse class in Jewell’s history at 31% students of color.
“We believe in fostering an environment that is inclusive and welcoming,” said Elizabeth MacLeod Walls, president of William Jewell College. “Our team has been thoughtfully and intentionally working to ensure an inclusive environment that reverberates throughout the campus and beyond. This includes the hiring of Dr. Rodney Smith. And with his leadership, William Jewell is committed to creating opportunities without barriers for students, faculty and staff.”
“I know that when I was a student, I looked for role models and I hope that I can be that role model here, especially for those of color on the campus,” Smith said.
Smith added his efforts at Jewell aim at moving from cultural competency to cultural humility.
“Culture is dynamic and competency insinuates completion, but we are never done. Competency has also turned into a taboo and we don’t engage. Humility insinuates that I am humble enough to know I don’t know and I am seeking cultural reciprocity and a growth mindset. I want to believe that people will join me in a place of love and relationships. People can sense sincerity and that notion of hope. I like to believe that most are inherently good.”