2011 TC Pressroom
Teachers College, Columbia University
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Making the Case for Diversity

Making the Case for Diversity
Multiculturalism at TC has an advocate in Janice Robinson

It's not widely known, but Janice Robinson-special counsel to the President and Director of the Office of Diversity and Community-does, occasionally, get to sit down. It's usually only a matter of minutes, however, before the phone rings or the next student or faculty member knocks on her door.
Robinson's career has included stints as an administrator, educator and attorney, and at Teachers College, she wears all three hats-and more-on any given day. What that means, functionally speaking, is that she often conducts business standing in the hallway.

It also means that TC has a forceful advocate for community life.

"One of several key reasons that I was thrilled to come to TC was looking at where Arthur had put Janice's position," says Darlyne Bailey, Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of the College. "Having Janice's office as part of the President's office reflects the College's commitment to increasing its degree of multiculturalism, not only in the people but also in our policies and practices."

You may know the Office of Community and Diversity best by its email flyers for TC Happy Hour and movie screenings by the African Diaspora Cine Club, but don't be fooled. Created in January 2000, at the recommendation of the College's 1999 Diversity Task Force Report, the office deals with concerns related to equity, discrimination, civility, due process, fear, recognition and inclusion. 

"We focus on three main, overlapping areas," Robinson says.  

The first is bringing TC together as a means of tackling broad diversity and community issues among the faculty, students and staff. In addition to lectures and happy hours, the office also gives research grants of $3,000 to students engaging in academic research that explores diversity issues of race, culture, language, gender, sexual orientation and disability. There are also grants for conducting diversity-related events or initiatives on campus. Any serious proposal that seems likely to promote greater mutual understanding on campus is a good bet to get a fair shake. "I can't think of a single instance where we've gone to Janice and haven't received some sort of great support and help," says Mark Noizumi, Student Senate Vice President and a member of the Committee for Community and Diversity. "I'm a big fan." For her part, Robinson says she is "impressed by the wealth of projects and daily efforts by community members to improve the TC climate."

The second focus of the office is Robinson's role as the ombudsperson for faculty and staff. For those who might wonder why a faculty member isn't serving in this function, the answer is: Robinson is also an assistant professor in the Higher Education program. She teaches a law course on affirmative action in admissions, putting her students through a mock process of making admissions decisions. "Since they're going to be leaders at colleges and schools, I want them not only to learn the legal theory, but also have the chance to apply it," she says. At a previous job, she chaired a faculty search, secured over a million dollars in grant funding and has been steeped in affirmative action issues in admissions throughout her career.
Robinson has been steeped in admissions-related affirmative action issues throughout here career-and has chaired a faculty search and secured over a million dollars in grant funding.

As ombudsperson, Robinson-working with Professor Erwin Flaxman, her counterpart for student concerns-brings all her experience to bear on diversity, academic and employment-related issues that require advice or mediation. "I treat it as an offline way to get larger problems resolved," she says. "Being ombudsman gives me an opportunity to understand the systemic problems at TC and see what the common themes really are." She says she treats all such meetings confidentially.

"Janice is truly a ‘go to' person," says Professor John Saxman, chairman of the Biobehavioral Studies Department. "She is a colleague and friend, someone I go to when I need a reasoned and honest reaction or answer to an issue related to relationships within the Teachers College community.  I trust her completely because I know that she always has the best interests of the community as her top priority."

Robinson's third focus is her work as Special Counsel, in which she serves as TC's point person for legal affairs-including making the call on when to use outside counsel. It's a large responsibility, Robinson acknowledges, but one that significantly benefits her efforts in the other two areas.

"I'm fortunate to report directly to the President, and that sets what we do apart from diversity efforts at many other colleges," she says. One example of which she's particularly proud: the Office's success in getting union participation on TC's committees for bidding the facilities contract and strategic planning-bodies that, at most colleges, typically exclude union staff.

The Office of Diversity and Community has accomplished a great deal, but Robinson is quick to note that serious challenges remain. "We continue to work on fundamental institutional trust issues with all constituents at TC," she says. "We can still do a better job of fully integrating everyone into the mainstream of life here, of using truly collaborative processes and reducing uneven, ad hoc decision-making, and above all, in ensuring that there is full adherence to non-discriminatory policies and practices."

It's a tall order, but her fans would tell you not to worry-Robinson is on the case.

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