Arkansas States University Sees New Opportunities to Advance Diversity

Maurice Gipson, on the job for three years at Arkansas State University, now has seat at the head table.

Chancellor Kelly Damphousse last month appointed Gipson as the first cabinet-level chief diversity officer. Gipson, who works as the assistant vice chancellor for diversity and leads the Office of Diversity and Community Engagement, will now report directly to the chancellor.

The move fits with the new chancellor's priorities, which include outreach and student retention. Damphousse has said it is vital that the university's chief diversity officer have "direct and regular interaction with the chancellor, and a seat at the leadership table."

Gipson is happy to be there.

"The great part of this job is that it looks different every day, but I wouldn't have it any other way," he told Arkansas Business. "Some days I'm meeting with university leadership and constituents about ethnic, sexual and gender diversity. Other days I am recruiting on the road or out in the community talking with partners, but it's always about building relationships."

In addition to serving on the chancellor's executive council, Gipson divides his efforts between student, faculty and staff recruitment and leading campus diversity and community outreach programming. His initiatives, which include Brother-2-Brother, A-State Advance and Every Redwolf Counts, seek to elevate minority student enrollment and retention levels and strengthen the climate of diversity for a student body that representatives from 68 countries.

Arkansas State is working to become a Research I university, which is defined by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Learning as a university engaged in extensive research activity (the University of Arkansas is among them). As part of reaching that goal, Gipson and his team travel across the country recruiting in-demand faculty and staff. But when recruiting students, they look close to home, including the Delta and in states bordering Arkansas. 

A Ferriday, Louisiana, native, Gipson said he understands the issues students face in a region known for poverty, high unemployment and low minority university enrollment. 

"It's a team effort and we go where the need is," Gipson said. "Recruiting faculty and staff is easier because I know the things they are looking for and interested in, but recruiting students is more fun. I am amazed at the pointed and serious questions they ask because it shows they are not removed from important national issues." 

Arkansas State has 13,790 students this spring. According to Gipson, students identifying as something other than "white or African American" accounted for 11.9 percent of the total student population in the fall, while around 18 percent identified as African American.

And student retention has improved. Damphousse reported that while Arkansas State retained 86.9 percent of fall 2016 freshmen last year, the university was able to retain 91.5 percent of freshmen for the spring 2018 semester. (The school had a record rate of 92 percent in 2015.)

According to university officials, campus enrollment rates are down partially because of increased popularity of online courses, which grew by 414 students, or 11 percent, over the past year. But the minority and international student population declined for the first time. The decline comes amid a national political debate over immigration.    

"This is something that has happened across the country," Gipson said. "We've reached out to our international partners in a really deliberate way to let them know we are certainly not intolerant. Our team has also reached out individually to DACA students, reassuring [them] that we're here to support them." 

Gipson said he is revamping recruitment strategies through an expanded social media presence, increased opportunities for campus visits and a stronger student diversity and enrollment team. He aims to change the stigma around university enrollment for minority students. 

"Messaging isn't what it used to be," Gipson said. "There isn't the same support for higher education. Students don't want to go in to huge amounts of debt when they can get a decent paying job right out of high school. We have to get them to focus on the long term as opposed to their ability to make money now." 

The Office of Diversity is also supporting and launching new initiatives. Mentorship programs with high student retention rates like Circle of Trust are a top priority. Campus leads have scheduled a number of events celebrating diversity. Most recently, the administration launched a new Pack Pact campaign, advocating for victims of discrimination while working to reduce the impact of sexual assault on the university campus.

"I've seen an overwhelmingly positive response from the appointment," Gipson said. "I'm hopeful that other schools know how important diversity is in higher education along with our local business sector. Dr. Damphousse recognized it early in his tenure and I think it will set the tone for our future and the area."