MSU Diversity Conference challenges attendees to pair conversation with action

Jeff Johnson delivers the keynote address at Mississippi State University’s 2017 Diversity Conference. (Photo by Robert Lewis)

MSU President Mark E. Keenum speaks at the 2017 Diversity Conference while Lakiesha Williams, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering and chair of the President’s Commission on the Status of Minorities, looks on. (Photo by Russ Houston)

Contact: James Carskadon

STARKVILLE, Miss.—Award-winning journalist and social activist Jeff Johnson challenged attendees at Mississippi State University’s 2017 Diversity Conference to strive for meaningful results when considering ways to increase institutional diversity.

“Conferences need to be about work, not just about conversation,” Johnson said.

Johnson was the keynote speaker for the two-day conference, presented by MSU’s President’s Commission on the Status of Minorities and held at The Mill at MSU Conference Center.  In his speech, Johnson said showcasing the market value of diversity and inclusion can effect change in organizations that are market-driven. He also advocated for strong communities where diversity and inclusion is more than a program.

“The goal should be community, and community is hard,” Johnson said. “Community challenges us … Your story and what you have been through make a community real.”

MSU President Mark E. Keenum spoke to the importance of diversity and its empowering effect in institutions. He encouraged the audience to be a positive example by quoting civil rights icon Rosa Parks, who once said “each person must live their life as a model for others.”

“We all have a responsibility to set that example for others,” Keenum said.

A Thursday [Jan. 26] morning panel brought together administrators from the University of Mississippi, University of Southern Mississippi, Alcorn State University, University of Mississippi Medical Center and MSU to discuss strategies for creating an inclusive campus. The panelists discussed ways to increase faculty diversity and the importance of considering the makeup of different student groups to encourage members from diverse backgrounds. They emphasized that plans need to be backed up with resources.

“I always look to identify needs and bring the right resources to bear,” University of Mississippi Assistant Provost and Assistant to the Chancellor Concerning Minority Affairs Donald Cole said.

On Friday [Jan. 27], MSU alumnus and Public Policy and Administration doctoral candidate Timothy Fair led a presentation on how to engage in civil discourse within higher education. Fair has spent the last year working at Cornell University mentoring Greek Life groups and coordinating inclusion programs. He encouraged anyone looking to find their voice on diversity issues to be confident in their beliefs, but also show enough humility to acknowledge when they could be wrong. Additionally, Fair encouraged educators and students to avoid staying in social silos.

“A dialogue implies a healthy exchange of ideals,” Fair said. “It’s hard to exchange when you’re only interested in being heard.”

The President’s Commission on the Status of Minorities hosts the MSU Diversity Conference every other year with the help of many sponsors. The commission strives to facilitate interculturalism and promote diversity and inclusion at Mississippi State University. For more, see

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