Becoming a Force for Diversity and Inclusion - Higher Education
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Becoming a Force for Diversity and Inclusion

by Jamal Eric Watson

Rosemary E. Kilkenny made her foray into the diversity arena more than three decades ago.

Troubled at the time by the dearth of Black graduate students in her class at Kent State University, Kilkenny complained to the dean of graduate studies about the lack of diversity but was later challenged to develop a program of her own aimed at increasing Black enrollment. 

She accepted the challenge, and her strategy for increasing minority enrollment by ensuring Black students had the financial and mentoring support they needed was immediately hailed as a success and Kilkenny was later appointed assistant dean for graduate recruitment. She went on to serve in various positions at Kent State University and the State University of New York at Albany before arriving in 1980 at the nation’s oldest Jesuit university, where she assumed the role of special assistant for affirmative action programs.

Today, Kilkenny is Georgetown University’s vice president for institutional diversity and equity, a position that was created for her in 2006, and she has become the university’s most visible cheerleader for diversity and inclusion. 

Under Kilkenny’s leadership, Georgetown — which is largely viewed as conservative and steeped in tradition — has been aggressive in launching several campuswide initiatives aimed at making the campus more welcoming of others. The latest effort at promoting change was unveiled last spring and is a comprehensive attempt by the university to focus on diversity in recruitment and outreach, student life and curriculum.

“I am very committed to issues of social justice and equity,” says Kilkenny, who received her law degree from Georgetown. “Sometimes this is very frustrating work. You take major steps forward and then you take some steps backward.”

Those backward steps include an incident in 2007 in which several Georgetown students were targets of anti-gay attacks. The university responded by opening a resource center for gay students and hiring a full-time director to run it. The center plans events on campus such as Coming Out Week and Lavender Graduation, a ceremony held for gay students.

“There are from time to time incidents where LGBTQ students might be addressed in negative ways or harassed,” says Kilkenny. “Ultimately we want to feel like that’s eliminated so LGBTQ students feel like they’re safe on our campus.”

Responding to the various challenges that confront diversity efforts on campus has been a bit of a balancing act for the mother of two. Two years ago, the university required all university employees to participate in an online anti-harassment and discrimination course called “Promoting a Respectful Campus Community.”

Kilkenny says she remains personally committed to increasing the percentage of minority faculty on the campus. Asians, African-Americans and Latinos comprise about 15 percent of Georgetown’s faculty. The university scored a major coup when it lured Dr. Michael Eric Dyson away from the University of Pennsylvania a few years ago, and administrators have since hired three prominent African-Americans in the physics and mathematics departments.

Still, Kilkenny is discouraged by the lack of minority graduate students on campus — overall Black enrollment is about 6.7 percent, though its Black graduate student population is less than 3 percent — and says the university seeks to reverse this trend by committing a significant portion of its $1.5 billion capital campaign to fund grants for deserving minority students.

“We have to cast a wide net and build a pipeline of minority graduate students whom we can tap for the job market,” says Kilkenny.

“We need to do more to get full-time doctoral students because these students will serve as teaching assistants to our faculty, and they will be the future generation of the academy,” says Kilkenny, who wants Georgetown to partner with fellow Washington, D.C., institutions like Howard, George Washington and American universities when it comes to recruiting minority doctoral students for potential jobs. “The idea that we are living in a post-racial society is really a myth.” 

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