Image via University of Pittsburgh
When Clyde Pickett learned he would be the new head of Pitt’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, he celebrated in true 2020 fashion — by staying home. That did not dampen his enthusiasm, though.
Pickett, a 2017 graduate of Pitt’s School of Education, was appointed as the University’s vice chancellor of diversity and inclusion in June. Pickett’s office encompasses work dealing with Title IX, disability resources and civil rights compliance.
After three years of serving as the chief diversity officer for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, Pickett said he was excited to come back to Pittsburgh.
“I was ecstatic about being entrusted to come to the University of Pittsburgh,” Pickett said. “Given that we are in the midst of both the pandemic and a national moment of addressing and confronting racism in the United States, it was exciting news for the possibilities.”
Although the upcoming semester will look a bit different than normal, Pickett said he is optimistic that ODI will be able to support students who are staying both on and off campus with online videos, a town hall lecture series and counseling services.
“The priority of the work we’ve put in place is to be available to support our students,” Pickett said. “We know we are in a pivotal moment, in terms of this environment, and I want us to maintain our posture and be responsive to the needs of students.”
ODI hosted the virtual 2020 Diversity Forum, “Advancing Social Justice: A Call to Action” in late July, which facilitated discussion on burdens disproportionately inflicted upon Black people, including disease and disenfranchisement. Pickett said he was encouraged by the nearly 12,000 participants and hopes that programming like this can continue to digitally connect students to resources related to promoting equity.
“It’s important for us to be intentional about outreach and connecting with students to continue the programs that are available,” Pickett said. “We’re excited to sit down and talk with students about how we can continue to meet their needs.”
The Diversity Forum served as part of an ongoing conversation about racial equity at the University. Student activists have been at the forefront of the discussion — 18 Black student organizations sent a list of demands to the administration in June, and School of Medicine students got their new dean to agree to wide-ranging demands. Pitt’s division of Student Affairs released an anti-racism plan in July, which addressed some student concerns.
Pickett said while some diversity and inclusion conversation took place prior to him joining the University, it is important for there to be an open line of communication between students and administration.
“In my role as vice chancellor, I am committed to being accessible to students and doing all I can to help foster an equitable and inclusive campus,” Pickett said. “ODI remains committed to serving our community and doing everything we can to improve the student experience for all.”
Racial equity is at the forefront of ODI’s mission, particularly in the wake of the social unrest surrounding George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, Pickett said.
“We understand the nation’s fight for equity and justice has taken more priority in the eyes of the public,” Pickett said. “We want to do everything we can to make the University of Pittsburgh a more equitable, inclusive and belonging campus for all of our constituents, and certainly, that includes our students.”
While the University is responsible for providing students with support, Pickett said society needs to normalize student activism.
“I applaud our students for their leadership and the willingness to voice their concern,” Pickett said. “As a former student leader and someone who has been in the work of addressing equity, diversity and inclusion for some time, I understand that any effort to advance change for the better must include our students.”
James Huguley, the interim director for Pitt’s Center on Race and Social Problems, said education is critical because it combats white indifference.
“Large swaths of whites simply do not have to care about race issues, and that is true even at perceivably progressive institutions like the University of Pittsburgh,” Huguley said. “I’m sure it’s frustrating to students that they will encounter not only outright opposition, but more community lukewarm interests in issues that Black students may feel is life or death.”
Huguley added that Black representation within the University is vital. A Pitt alumna recently started a petition calling for the University to include a Black studies requirement for all students, which has since gained more than 7,000 signatures.
“The University is a place where we need to educate the masses to restore communities of color that have been harmed and exploited by the systems that built American institutions like universities,” Huguley said. “Having people in influential positions that can advocate for students’ needs and experiences is an essential protective structure in the University.”
Pickett is also responsible for coordinating with Pitt’s Title IX team to provide resources and support to students who have experienced sexual harassment. The Title IX office has spent the summer implementing new regulations that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos imposed upon universities this past May. The rules were met with pushback from the University, out of concern that they might discourage students from filing a report.
Carrie Benson, the Title IX prevention and education coordinator, said it has been a balancing act to ensure that the University is in compliance with the federal government while still providing students with a sense of safety.
“We had a little over three months to read, interpret and understand a way to implement these new regulations, during a global pandemic,” Benson said. “The health, safety and the well-being of our students is our first priority. While we may not be able to physically interact as we used to, ODI is still fully staffed and committed to supporting our students.”
Pennsylvania was one of several states to join a multistate lawsuit requesting an injunction against the new Title IX regulations, which narrow the definition of sexual harassment and require a cross-examination between parties. Despite the changes, Pickett said his office will continue to prioritize student support and resources.
“As the new regulations go in place, we’re committed to providing response and doing what we can to support our students,” Pickett said. “If our students experience sexual misconduct or harassment, we want to be a resource and we remain prepared to address those things.”
Amid the ongoing fight for equity with a new academic year on the horizon, Pickett said he wants students to seize the opportunity to continue their education inside and outside of the classroom.
“I would remind students to stay positive and focused on their education, but lean into the opportunity to help make change happen,” Pickett said. “Every major movement in this country has significant input and influence from students being involved in progressive change.”