Accepting diversity

Victoria Teresko

Imagine being a blind student at The University of Akron and needing accessibility to reach certain areas on campus. However, you have a problem: You can’t bring your dog on campus.

Helping students with disabilities is just one of the many issues that Lee Gill includes in his work to promote diversity on campus.

“My job every day is to make my colleagues, the president, and the provost, continually think about a diverse climate and a diverse culture here at
The University of Akron,” Gill said.

When Gill received a phone call about a job opening in 2008 for the university’s first associate vice president of inclusion and equity/chief diversity officer, he was working at a consulting firm. Gill went through the lengthy interview process and was hired.

“I was missing the day to day interactions with colleagues; when you’re a consultant, it is a kind of lonely, isolated job.”

As the chief diversity officer, he looks at the climate of UA and whether it is welcoming to diverse points of view. If the environment does not value diversity, then individuals of minority groups are not likely to succeed. Gill wants to continue to change The University of Akron to become more welcoming of diversity.

Gill’s experience with diversity began in college at The University of Michigan, where he was voted the first African American student body president. One of his ideas for the university was to implement Afro Living Units for different races and ethnicities. Unfortunately, his ideas were shot down. However, we now see living-learning communities, which are similar to his original idea, at The University of Akron.

Gill did not initially believe that he would work with issues regarding diversity upon graduating from college.

“I wanted to practice law and make money,” Gill said. “However, I had an innate passion for certain things, and it has evolved into this career.”

Having someone to look up to can be crucial when a child is growing up. For Gill, his father was an important role model. Gill’s father did not complete the eighth grade, but he instilled a strong work ethic, accountability and responsibility in his son.

This can be seen through his accomplishments scholastically, as he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and sociology from The University of Michigan. He went on to earn his Juris Doctor degree from The Chicago-Kent College of Law.

Gill believes some of his best accomplishments have been getting students and faculty to think about diversity. When most people think of diversity, they tend to think of race. However, there are many aspects to individuals that make them different from one another, such as income, sexual orientation, military experience and religious beliefs.

“When we speak of diversity, we speak of inclusive excellence,” Gill said. “The unfortunate thing is that when people speak of diversity, they’re referring to race.”

Changing the thought process of any institution can be difficult. Gill believes that each day comes with its own new set of difficulties. He says that the most challenging part of his job is realizing that change is gradual, and that diversity is a journey.

“To grow a culture takes five to eight years: Change is slow,” Gill said.

A short term goal that Gill has for the spring 2013 semester is to provide an educational experience that institutes learning about different cultures. A long term goal that Gill has is to increase the diversity of instructors at The University of Akron.

Both of these goals are part of Gills larger aim: to better prepare University of Akron students for a multicultural world.