John Blue has been named the first executive director of diversity, equity and inclusion at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. He will begin Jan. 19, and be a member of senior administration, providing vision and counsel on diversity and inclusion initiatives and reporting to UAFS Chancellor Dr. Terisa Riley.
Blue is the director of student life and multicultural affairs at the University of Tennessee at Martin, Tenn. He has a 15-year history in higher education including student affairs, multicultural affairs and diversity, equity and inclusion.
“One of my first questions upon arriving at UAFS for my interview to become the chancellor was of the status of the university’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts,” Riley said. “Over the past year, our university – much like our country as a whole – experienced turmoil that shined a light on the need for this work and the importance of the initiatives that will make UAFS a welcoming campus where all students, employees and guests feel valued and respected.”
Riley formed a diversity, equity and inclusion committee in fall 2019 to “review, unify, and strengthen UAFS’s diversity and inclusion efforts,” the university’s website states. Membership is comprised of faculty, staff, students and members of the Fort Smith community “who are engaged in or passionate about diversity and inclusion initiatives.” The committee was formed after an allegation of race discrimination was made against the university’s head basketball coach.
On Sept. 2, 2019, Riley announced that the allegation had been reported by a former UAFS basketball player. A letter by Mr. and Mrs. Reginald Williams and Tyler Allen Williams, a former UAFS student and basketball player, was posted on Facebook Aug. 31. The letter described what the Williamses called a racist act by Coach Jim Boone in regards to the Tyler Williams “dreadlocks” hairstyle. Williams, from Edmund, Okla., was a guard and the second-leading scorer for UAFS for the 2018-19 season.
On Sept. 11, 2019, Riley reported that the university’s EOC officer did not find substantial evidence to support the claim of race discrimination but that “the process revealed a need for better communications when addressing a sensitive matter, particularly when raised by a student.” In her statement, Riley said the UAFS athletics department “will not condone or allow a policy, procedure, or practice – conveyed verbally or in writing – to dictate the hair styles or hair lengths for its student athletes.” Riley also said she would allocate resources to hire a director of campus diversity and inclusion. The committee also was formed.
Blue’s experience in fostering diverse and inclusive campus environments with a focus on coalition and community building, student recruitment, retention, advocacy and strategic programming stood out to the committee during the national recruiting process for the position.
“I believe Mr. Blue has the skills, experience and drive to lead this university in both innovating new strategies and strengthening efforts that have already begun on campus,” said UAFS Provost Dr. Georgia Hale, who chaired the search. “We know engaging our increasingly diverse community, empowering our faculty and staff to contribute to diversity work effectively, and providing opportunities for our students to learn and thrive in supportive environments are integral to our success, and I look forward to seeing Mr. Blue’s impact in those areas.”
Blue said UAFS is ripe for DEI work to commence.
“People are ready to advance the mission of this university. They’re hungry for something new, and especially during the time we’re in socially in this country, this is the right time to move Fort Smith forward,” he said.
His first steps, once he starts in the position will be to have a series of meetings both with those involved with the university and those in the community at large to see what the diversity, equity and inclusion climate on campus is.
“I want to see what we are doing well … and what we is not going so well, see what needs doing,” Blue said.
Blue said one area he would like to work on is recruitment, noting he would like to have UAFS’ minority population to better reflect that of the state. For the fall 2020 semester, UAFS’ race/ethnicity characteristics show white undergraduates account for 60.75% of the student population. Black undergraduates were at 3.7%, Asian undergraduates at 5.5% and Hispanic undergraduates at 14.4%. Graduate students combined only made up 1% of the student population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2019, Arkansas’ race makeup was 79% white, 15.7% black, 1.7% Asian and 7.8% Hispanic.
“It goes beyond recruitment though. We also have to look at retention. It is not just about recruiting the students. We have to keep them. And we need to look at how to do that,” Blue said.
During a mid-December visit to campus, Blue said he was impressed with Fort Smith and UAFS and excited to begin this work in a community where he can truly plant roots.
“Seeing the varied buildings and businesses and noticing the construction across town was reassuring,” he said. “And seeing the infrastructure on campus and the growth of the campus, too, you know you’re coming somewhere that is progressing, and that’s encouraging.”
Blue said it was exciting to be involved with a relatively young university and he was looking forward to “starting some important work.”
Blue has a master’s degree in leadership from Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and bachelor’s degree in biology from Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss.