The University of Oklahoma made national headlines in March 2015 when members of a the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity were recorded singing a racist chant on a bus while traveling to an event. Immediately following the spread of the video, the university expelled two students and shut down the SAE fraternity’s chapter on campus.
In the months following the incident, OU implemented required diversity training for all incoming freshmen and transfer students, and university president David Boren named Jabar Shumate as the university’s first vice president of the University Community. Shumate has now been on the job for over one year, and he has attempted to ensure the diversity of each student, faculty and staff member is recognized and respected.
“President [Boren] was very clear that diversity and inclusion should never be seen as something that the diversity office does or something that is seen as separate and apart,” Shumate says to explain his job title. “Diversity and inclusion is really the corner store of what we do when we recruit students here.”
Shumate is a lifelong Oklahoman who grew up in Tulsa and completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Oklahoma. During his undergraduate years he served as student body president and went on to work as president Boren’s press secretary. Shumate spent ten years in the Oklahoma legislature serving in both the state House and state Senate.
Since the SAE incident, student activists have expanded their roles in advocating for diversity and equity, especially student athletes. Several OU football players have become outspoken supporters of social justice and systemic change on college campuses, and Shumate has worked with them in the past year to make campus a more inclusive place.
Shumate tells Race Matters host Merleyn Bell that student athletes were largely separated from the rest of campus when he was enrolled at OU. Today, technology has brought students closer together.
“It is difficult to keep any group entity away from student activism because we're all so interconnected because of social media,” Shumate says.
Looking toward the future, Shumate says he has a lot of work to do to continue to gain and keep the respect of student activist groups on campus.
“I am really excited as a former student leader that we have students who are committing themselves in a way that is not co-opted by the administration, or organizing the fashion of student government to make significant change,” Shumate says. “And I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for those groups and I'm very proud to work with them.”
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On How Recruiting Leads To Diversity And Academic Achievement
I've seen us focus in on having one of the, the next freshman class, the most diverse classes in the university's history and the highest academically ranked. And usually people say you have to compromise one for the other, and I think we're setting up a model that you can have both, but as well I'm really excited to see that now our university is really getting to understand the impact of being a major player in terms of setting really strong standards for diversity and inclusion, and when I go to conferences or I work with my other colleagues on other campuses they all really have a great deal of respect for what we're doing at the university and that makes me feel good.
On The Freshmen Diversity And Inclusion Experience
One of the first things the president [Boren] asked us to do is to establish that every freshman on our campus will, going forward, be a part of a mandatory diversity and inclusion experience. We are one of less than five universities in the nations that have their freshman go through an actual training on diversity and inclusion. That training developed by Dr. Kathy Wong of our own Southwest Center for Human Relations has focused really on five sort of core areas that really help students not only understand the diversity that exists on campus, but helps students to figure out how to come out of their comfort zone, and really build relationships with people who are different from them, learn from our shared experiences and really help individuals as they start at the University of Oklahoma know that their commitment, their work, is to make this university a better place. And so we have been asked by several universities because of the success of training now, over 4,200 freshman and some 1,300 transfer students, to share how you do this kind of really cutting edge, forward thinking kind of work on campuses.
On Student Athlete Activists Meeting With SAE Members
There was an opportunity post SAE to bring Eric Striker [OU football player and student athlete activist] and some of our African American student leaders and some of our leaders in on the campus together in President Boren's office. On the other side of that room were those young men that were, and young women, that were on that bus and there was a powerful exchange and the President almost gets emotional when he talks about it, where there was a conversation and Eric was the first to step up and say, “We forgive you.” And so much in this conversation has to be about forgiveness and reconciliation and I think that his experience there was phenomenal.
MERELYN BELL, HOST: So this is a new role for you, and really a new role for the university and I know that a lot of listeners probably don't know, as I didn't know before you came back to OU, exactly what the University Community office is and what your role as Vice President is there. So I wonder if you can share with us, briefly, a description of your responsibilities.
JABAR SHUMATE: Well, first I think I want to say that President Boren had great vision for what he, actually shared with me his vision for the office of the University Community, and his vision is really, in terms of what college and universities are doing in diversity and inclusion, forward thinking. So, in the role of Vice President for University Community, I am the university's chief diversity officer, so that means I'm the president's chief adviser on all of our institutions’ programs, all of our university's projects that work toward making OU a more diverse and more inclusive university, from recruiting and retention of students. Recruitment and retention of faculty. Making sure our staff is representative and looks like, you know, the diversity that exists in this state. I have a role in helping the president really put forward a robust agenda as he works to make OU a more diverse and inclusive place. But as well, the reason my title is University Community or Vice President of University Community is that the president was very clear that diversity and inclusion should never be seen as something that the diversity office does or something that is seen as separate and apart but for everything that will do - diversity and inclusion is really the corner store of what we do when we recruit students here, when we look at how dean's run their colleges, when we look at as well how we do student programming. It should never be a separate conversation because in our community, of course it's diverse, but I think the university is committed to making sure that inclusivity is really the most important thing that we do. And I always like to help people understand that diversity is really our invitation to individuals to come to this great experience or party we call the University of Oklahoma, or dance, but I think inclusion is being asked to dance in an environment and climate where we respect people and we welcome people into the family. And so that is the real mission of our office, is to make people feel that they are not just a part of our family but they're going to be asked to dance as they come to this great experience we call the University of Oklahoma.
BELL: Well you yourself have been welcomed back to the University by the president through the creation of this role, and the placement of yourself in that role… How has that dance been this first year? I mean I imagine you've been talking to a lot of different departments and sort of gauging, as a staff member yourself and as VP rather than when you were a student or as a former employee a while ago, so how have those conversations being going?
SHUMATE: It’s been a great experience. One of the first things the president asked us to do is to establish that every freshman on our campus will, going forward, be a part of a mandatory diversity and inclusion experience. We are one of less than 5 universities in the nations that have their freshman go through an actual training on diversity and inclusion. That training developed by Dr. Kathy Wong of our own Southwest Center for Human Relations…
BELL: Yeah, she’s been a guest on the show...
SHUMATE: She's amazing, has focused really on five sort of core areas that really help students not only understand the diversity that exists on campus, but helps students to figure out how to come out of their comfort zone, and really build relationships with people who are different from them, learn from our shared experiences and really help individuals as they start at the University of Oklahoma know that their commitment, their work, is to make this university a better place. And so we have been asked by several universities because of the success of training now, over 4,200 freshman and some 1,300 transfer students, to share how you do this kind of really cutting edge, forward thinking kind of work on campuses. And I've been really honored to really work under David L. Boren because he really, post the SAE experience, set nationally sort of a standard of how universities should respond to significant situations as the SAE incident, but better yet how you use those experiences to make your campus a better place. Our work extends not only from our students but also extends to faculty and extends to staff and we are building robust programs that really, some mirror what we've done with freshman, with our faculty and staff, but as well, I have three campuses that our office exists on - this campus, the Health Sciences Center campus in Oklahoma City, and Tulsa - so we're really trying to figure out, because those three campuses have different personalities, I like to think of them as I have two nephews and a niece and they are all very different, and I think of our campuses sort of like I think of my niece and nephews is that you really have to understand their environments and I have spent the year trying to understand Norman and Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Great experience and I think we're laying the foundation for some outstanding work.
BELL: What's been one of the most rewarding aspects to you so far?
SHUMATE: The most rewarding aspect for me has been that we have been able to take, and I love this university, a difficult experience and...
BELL: And by that you mean the SAE incident...
SHUMATE: ...the SAE experience, and use that to really then begin to do our own work, what we need to do to have, not only the best, not only the best students in terms academically ranked students on our campus, but to really develop a strong recruitment strategy, that diversity doesn't have to be compromised in academic success. And so I think one of the best things I've been able to see, and you can usually see this on the side of, “What are you doing to make the campus more diverse?” I've seen us focus in on having one of the, the next freshman class, the most diverse classes in the university's history and the highest academically ranked. And usually people say you have to compromise one for the other and I think we're setting up a model that you can have both, but as well I'm really excited to see that now our university is really getting to understand the impact of being a major player in terms of setting really strong standards for diversity and inclusion, and when I go to conferences or I work with my other colleagues on other campuses they all really have a great deal of respect for what we're doing at the university and that makes me feel good.
BELL: Yeah, I'm glad that you mentioned that, you know, you're not alone in this process. There are diversity officers at campuses across the country, and I wondered how much you have been in communication with them about best practices, what's working and what's not, and if there's some sort of shared vision… Because I know you talked about the President's [Boren] vision and the vision that you’ve shared for OU specifically but is there some sort of national vision that everybody's sort of working toward?
SHUMATE: No one university is the same, so I'll answer your question to say yes. There is, and I was welcome into the sheer- the Big 12 conference of chief diversity officers. The chair of that conference, Dr. Jason Kirksey at the Oklahoma State University, has been a really good friend in helping me, along with Ashley, the chief diversity officer at Texas Tech, and the chief diversity officer at the University of Texas. I probably don't go more than two weeks without visiting with the individuals on those campuses that lead diversity and inclusion as one of the newest diversity officers in the Big 12. And we meet 3 times a year to go over the things that we're doing. I will credit President Boren because what we're doing with the freshman diversity experience just elevated me in that conference. For individuals saying, “Wow, if we could get our university president to see the value in this and put something like this place. I've been at this 17 years and it would be the biggest significant thing that I would have done in my whole career.” I hear from other chief diversity officers, or “I've been at this for many, many years.” So our president helped position us very strongly in the Big 12 in terms of what we're doing in diversity and inclusion, but then nationally the Big 12 conference for chief diversity officers is a part of an organization called the National Association of Chief Diversity Officers (NADOHE), and they have welcomed me into the organization. There are standards, we have a journal, an academic journal, that's part of our organization that, you know, helps me to stay connected to the most promising practices in diversity and inclusion and the best practices. But as well with NADOHE comes really standards for what a chief diversity officer's office should look like and what it should be doing, and so I didn't have to go and reinvent the wheel and I feel like amongst my colleagues nationally, we are all very committed collectively to seeing all of our nation's campuses to become more diverse and more inclusive and it's been a welcoming experience, and one that I'm thankful for because as you know my background was in the Oklahoma Legislature, but I think I was uniquely positioned to bring something different to this campus, but professionally I've been helped by so many others that have had years of experience in the work of diversity and inclusion.
BELL: Have you experienced any surprises along the way - any challenges?
SHUMATE: I have. I think probably one of the biggest challenges has been that I was a student here, of course a little over 20 years ago, and student body president almost 20 years ago and when I was here my work as a student body president was to bring people together. That was of course many years before the rise of social activism and the Black Lives Matter movement, obviously, and if you look at college campuses today, social activism is a really, a new and exciting way in which students really show their commitment to making a campus a better place, and there are individuals who don't understand - I am so thankful this university has a Women's and Gender Studies program, and a Center for Social Justice, because I think that what is happening today on college campus is meaningful work by students who don't want to be a part of student government or the university's administration. They want to be a partner in making sure the transparency and transactions at the university are not just immediate but are long lasting. And so I've been aided by the work of Unheard, who I will always credit as a significant force that allowed for the creation of my office, but as well now, there are three other groups of social activists, the Brown Collective, Indigenize OU, and as well as Dena who represents the Disability Inclusion and Awareness group, whereas, diversity and inclusion is not often, or the work of what is disability resources or services or activism on behalf of students with a disability is often not included in the work of diversity and inclusion or activism. They are a part and working with our Latino students, with our LGBTQ students which Quick is another organization along with the others that they collectively meet and hold my office accountable. It's a lot of work, it is a lot of work. I've spent the year building trust and I've got a lot of work to do to continue to build trust with these groups, but I am really excited as a former student leader that we have students who are committing themselves in a way that is not co-opted by the administration, or organizing the fashion of student government to make significant change. And I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for those groups and I'm very proud to work with them.
BELL: You and I have talked briefly about, not only student activism but student athlete activism, which for me has been… You know over the past year we've seen a lot of student athletes come to the conversation about race, not only here at OU but at other university and I was excited that you were also interested in talking about that topic. So I wonder if you can sort of tell us about any work that you've done with student athletes in particular, and what your thoughts are about that sort of unexpected development, because it's not… It's sort of a recent trend for student athletes to use their position on campus to speak out about these types of issues - correct?
SHUMATE: Correct. You know, I would have to say first I think Joe Castiglione is one of the best university athletic directors in the nation. I was a student when he was initially hired here at the university and, he and President Boren's work on behalf of student athletes have been amazing. But in the work of diversity and inclusion one of the first things as we worked to develop the freshman diversity experience and implement that diversity experience in Camp Crimson, one of the first individuals to step up was Joe Castiglione who said, “I want, and I want to ensure going forward that a significant number of student athletes participate in Camp Crimson and the Freshman diversity experience because I want them to understand their role and responsibilities in being not just a student athlete but a student leader.” Powerful work. And this year we've seen a record number of athletes participate in Camp Crimson and behind that Joe Castiglione committed to almost double the number of student athletes last year that were in Camp Crimson, which is just amazing. My office works very closely with Zac Selmon, new Associate Athletic Director that has been very committed, and I think you know his family's history and connection to athletics. The Selmon family with athletics here at the University of Oklahoma....
BELL: Can you elaborate on that a little bit, because I'm a little fuzzy...
SHUMATE: The Selmon brothers which were Dewey, Lucious and Lee Roy - were outstanding football players, you can't hardly talk about OU football and its history without talking about the role of the Selmon brothers. And Zac probably, though a seasoned professional and a young individual who you will know, you'll come to know nationally I'm sure in just a short period of time because of how dynamic he is in his work as an athletic executive… His family has a historic connection but we we're able this year to wrestle him back to the university. He was once on staff here as a Senior Associate Athletic Director charged with many different things but his work has included making sure, and insuring that more of our student athletes are involved in leadership programs across campus. Zac and I probably meet maybe once a month, but he oversees the stadium expansion and many other things but has a core commitment to seeing our student athletes play a big role diversity and inclusion. And you know Bob Stoops who after the SAE incident sent a message to college coaches around the country that you stand with your players who are connected to the work of student activists on this campus and when actions happen on this campus, get behind them and show them that you're bigger than just being behind them on the field. But he showed the nation how you as a coach should really get behind your players when something like the SAE incident happens but they have decided that we have to use, or we are going to use our influence to really lend to the healing pieces and the healing experiences that happen on this campus. I think our football team played an enormous role in helping the University of Oklahoma move forward and I think as well you saw that at the University of Missouri as well.
BELL: One of those students in particular that sort of led the charge was Eric Striker. Can you tell us a little bit about Eric and his relation to that incident and sort of the role as a student activist that he took on?
SHUMATE: Very proud of Eric Striker. I think that he immediately, and I watched this away from the University, made statements about what happened with the SAE incident and put conversation on a national level that only a student athlete or someone that popular could do. So instead of saying my work is to make the University of Oklahoma known for football, he really used his capital, maybe he didn't think of it this way, but his ability to galvanize attention nationally and really pulled together his team to say we must take a stance against hatred and we must have a conversation about how the university becomes a better place. I have heard President Boren be really impressed with Eric Striker's work to be able to forgive because the power of forgiveness is probably the strongest piece of his story. He was recently awarded the Otis Sullivan Award, award given by the Edith Kenny Gaylord Foundation, or known, her foundation is known as a major foundation in regards to the ethics in journalism. And he received that award because I think individuals watched him, and this didn't get played out nationally, but there was an opportunity post SAE to bring Eric Striker and some of our African American student leaders and some of our leaders in, on the campus, together in President Boren's office. On the other side of that room were those young men that were, and young women, that were on that bus and there was a powerful exchange and the President almost gets emotional when he talks about it, where there was a conversation and Eric was the first step up and say, “We forgive you.” And so much in this conversation has to be about forgiveness and reconciliation and I think that his experience there was phenomenal but I think as well, Eric Striker is just a, one sharp individual to know that his platform is bigger than just football and I was impressed as a person, not at that time at the University, with his courage. The Women's and Genders study program recently gave him an award for, their highest award for having courage, to use your popularity that makes life better, not just this campus but I think the conversation that has happened nationally on college campus' - Eric Striker as really set a standard for which a student athlete should look at, and a model for what student athletes can look at the power of their ability to make change.
BELL: Yeah. Now what I remember from that time is that it seemed that he sort of unintentionally thrust himself into the spotlight. I think it was a Snapchat video that he released that was sort of a, you know this release of anger and energy that thrust him into this conversation but maybe without a lot of forethought about, you know, and sort of sitting down and deciding, “I'm going to be an activist today.” And it seemed very well timed that he had such support from his team, you mentioned that his coach Bob Stoops was very supportive, stood behind him. The administration here at OU certainly stood behind him and have applauded him for doing so. I wonder how you and other diversity officers and administrations ensure that other students feel comfortable doing that. I remember reading an ESPN article late last year that mentioned Eric and the impact that he had not only on OU but nationally that talked to and sort of did a survey of other students who said, “Well, yes this all turned out very well, but there's still a concern that we risk alienation by doing so.” And there is this issue, you know sort of a tension between athletic departments and the larger community as a whole, at least that students feel, sort of internally, and want to express but maybe can't. Or still are not doing. So I wonder, how do you encourage other students to take this same path as Eric and to become the same type of success in their activism that he was?
SHUMATE: You know I would start at, which is interesting, and I don't think the conversation happens as often that… When I was in school here student athletes were pretty separate, pretty much separated from what went on on campus and so twenty years later, I arrive back here and with the rise of social media, Snapchat and Facebook and Instagram, and all of these pieces - it is difficult to keep any group entity away from student activism because we're all so interconnected because of social media. And so Eric's situation is unique but there is something to learn about for student athletes the responsibility, and you have the ability to stay connected but as well I think our responsibility, my responsibility as a chief diversity officer, is to give those students opportunities that they can learn how to develop, like Camp Crimson is a place where you then learn how to develop into a student leader because you begin to understand the university and I think we have a mission not to separate students off, but as a community bring students together, and I think Eric demonstrated the power of what can happen when you cross that line and really take the University to another level and the impact that you have. Some athletes have to see it, and maybe even Mr. Striker, or Eric had to see it, but the ability and power that they have - enormous. And social media I think played an incredible role in showing student athletes the ability and power that they have to make a difference on campus.