Making Diversity a Reality at Santa Clara University

By Deborah Lohse, Assistant Director of Media Relations, Santa Clara University

Aldo Billingslea (Photo: Santa Clara University)


Aldo Billingslea (Photo: Santa Clara University)

Aldo Billingslea is the associate provost for diversity and inclusion at Santa Clara University, a position he has held since June 2013. His primary focus is to work closely with members of the University community to enhance the recruitment, retention and success of students, staff and faculty from underrepresented groups. He is also charged with working collaboratively alongside leaders from various campus units (e.g. academic deans and staff from the Offices of Undergraduate Admission, Multicultural Learning, Title IX and Human Resources) to promote an inclusive climate through curricular, co-curricular and extracurricular programs.

In early 2016, he sat down for a question-and-answer session, which has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: What brought you, with your background as a theatre professor, to this position?

A: The way this position was initially drafted, it was pretty demanding because it encompassed a lot. We wanted someone who could deal with data and the metrics of diversity, someone who could do external grant applications, someone with teaching experience, who could process and collect data, with a terminal degree, and who had achieved tenure and been promoted to full professor.

When I saw all the elements and requirements for data, I thought, “No, that's not a position for me.” But then they split the position in two: one a director for the office and then an associate provost. In that director position, we now have Raymond Plaza. He’s the researcher and data guy, and has been extremely successful.  

Q: So they made it work?

A: Yes. In some regards, it was a great exercise for what this office does. As we work with faculty on best approaches in developing a diverse array of candidates for a search, one question to ask is: Can you separate your wants from your needs for the position? What is it that you need the position to have? What's the requirement versus the preference?

Q: Why were you interested in this job?

A: I first came in to Santa Clara as a target-of-opportunity hire in the department of theatre and dance, and [had] worked with previous deans in arts and sciences to meet potential hires. So I partly moved into the job because it's stuff that I would do anyway. I partly moved into the job because creating the position is a great step forward for the institution, and I wanted to affirm that step and see the institution move forward from that point. I think this is a great starting point.

Q: What are the objectives of your office?

A. We want our recruitment of students, staff and faculty to be more representative of the diversity in [both] the Bay Area of California and the United States. So we want to take a close look at faculty—what kind of diversity do we have—or staff, and break it down in the same way: hourly versus salary, versus administrative, versus executive administrative, and really look at what kind of diversity we have there.

The other measurable is to figure out how inclusive is the environment. So on one hand you may have diversity, but if it's a “sixth-grade” level of diversity where all the boys stay over here and all the girls stay over there, that's not so great. So if we start to just silo up that way, we're not getting the benefit of having diversity because those individuals aren’t interacting and those perspectives aren't enhancing the way that we work, the way that we learn. 

Q: What new thinking is required?

A: Sometimes we have to broaden our thoughts and our approach to new perspectives. When a new faculty member comes in, for example, and brings their new perspective, if we just say, “Great—Thank you for your new perspective, but we're only going to look at things in the same old, old way,” that’s an issue. We can reflect on it and consider how we might allow space for new voices. We can acknowledge that a new idea has value, even if it doesn’t fit our traditional paradigm.

Martin Luther King, Jr. says that it's one thing to be the good Samaritan and to offer some assistance to the person who has been devastated by violence on the Jericho road. It's another to realize the problem is the Jericho road, and that's what you need to address. That's a more systematic thing. That's the other part of what we're doing in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, to try to provide the structures that are needed long-term so that you're not just addressing those individual situations, but you're offering some long-term structure to try to move things forward.

Q: What else?

A: Retention is so important. Making sure the people we have here feel they are appreciated where they are. We'll go back to my background as an actor and an acting teacher. If I'm teaching my students how to take on a character, the first question to ask about that character to figure out who they are is: What do they want? Then, what's in the way of what they want? What obstacle? Third, what do they do to overcome the obstacle to get what they want? Actions and desires really say a lot about who a person is.

When people enter the academy, almost across the board, if they're intelligent enough to do this work, they've got other options. Most people want to make a difference: that is the objective, not just making oodles of money. My colleagues realized the things that are important to me, the things that I wanted, and my colleagues helped retain me by making little choices along the way, such as asking “What plays do you want to do?” I wanted to do an August Wilson, but we didn't have enough African-American students to do an August Wilson. They said “Take a look at this play by Lorraine Hansberry. Is that something that you could do?” They cared enough to figure out what I valued and how my values line up with the institution's values and the mission for the department.

Q: Why is this role important especially now?

A: Everybody in the country, every school in the country, now more than ever in the history of the academy, realizes that the demographics have to change. The complexion of the universities in the United States has got to change. The Black Lives Matter movement has moved the needle. When a university protest will unseat a president and will have administrators tendering their resignations or trustees demanding that employees tender their resignation, the game has changed.

Schools have raised the value of having faculty of color, meaning Asian and Black, Latino, Native American, Alaskan Native, Pacific Islander, all those groups are people of color. Also gender diversity, particularly in the sciences: Who's teaching those classes? Do you have females that are up in engineering and in physics? It's really important. Can I see myself in that field? Those questions are just being asked now, they are on blast!

People are looking at demographics as a sign of how successful your university is. Who wants to be there? Who wants to attend there? Who wants to work there? What kind of education can I get there? Because people know that perspective is important.