Sunday, December 5, 2021

‘Diversity means everybody’

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ASKED & ANSWERED: DR. KEITH E. WHITFIELD

Entering the stately office of UNLV President Dr. Keith Whitfield feels like walking into history. Named to the post last summer, the prolific scholar and seasoned administrator is the first African-American president in the school’s history — and his powerful story stands as an example of excellence and achievement for the thousands of students and educators he now leads. 

Dr. Whitfield is an expert in the fields of psychology, health, and aging and has previously served as provost, senior vice president of academic affairs, and professor of psychology at Wayne State University in Michigan. An active administrator and researcher, Whitfield has authored or co-authored over 200 publications and has earned nearly $20 million in funding from agencies including the National Health, National Institute on Aging (NIA), and the National Science Foundation. Prior to Wayne State, Whitfield served as vice provost for academic affairs at Duke University. 

Whitfield now oversees a university with more than 31,000 students and 4,000 full-time employees. He has worked in higher education for more than three decades and has received numerous national awards and honors throughout his career. He earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from College of Santa Fe, a PH.D. in lifespan development psychology from Texas Tech University, and completed postdoctoral training in quantitative genetics from the University of Colorado at Boulder. 

He granted an exclusive interview to Black Image, which he enjoys reading each month because “it shows positive images and it points people towards success.” 

As the new UNLV President, did you identify what you wanted to bring to the administrative table before accepting the position? 

When I was thinking about applying for the job, I initially decided against it because … I thought I couldn’t leave my position at Wayne State. I really loved what I was doing. But as I took another look and saw that UNLV is the second most diverse university in the country — and that students were improving — it struck my interest. I said to myself, “You know something, UNLV needs a student success champion as a president.” Past presidents have all been different and I only have respect for their tenures. But my big thing is about student success. 

When you started as President of UNLV last year you immediately met with students, sororities and fraternities. Did the students find this odd and something that they hadn’t experienced before with other presidents? 

Yes I think they did. I love to interact with all — diversity means everybody. It had not been the tradition before. I had to have my schedule adjusted so that I am able to walk around the campus and listen to people. I have meetings in the student union at our Starbucks and you have to stay grounded. 

Tell me about a letter you received that someone wrote to you and asked you if you believe you got the UNLV president position because you are Black and on the heels of George Floyd’s murder? 

Yes, I just sat back to reflect: “I am going to be honest with myself, Did that have a factor in my selection?” It could, but I remember the questions that were asked of me when I was being interviewed for the job and how they were asked. If you are a Black person you don’t have to be a psychologist to figure it out. They asked me hard questions and they did ask me about diversity — but didn’t flinch when they asked about it. I really feel like they responded to what I had to say — which is who I am. I am a student-centered president who thinks of myself as a family member. One of the things that makes me slightly different is that I’m still a researcher. I am heavy into African-American families and longevity. Everything I do connects me with students and families for everyone. 

What is the demographic breakdown of the students at UNLV? 

There are 31,000 students and … We do most of our diversity numbers with the undergraduate population. It’s about 33 percent Hispanic and 14 to 15 percent African American. Total is 65 percent non-white. 

What are the biggest challenges for African-Americans who might want to attend UNLV? 

I am solution oriented. For example, College of Southern Nevada President Dr. Federico Zaragoza is a very close buddy of mine because I am a big fan of his and he is an outstanding guy. Also, I know that there are going to be students that won’t hit the UNLV GPA requirement. We are a top tier University. You want to know that the students are well prepared — because you don’t want to set them up for failure. So that there are lots of routes for attending UNLV. Some of the hurdles can be required classes, timing, and how they do with their financial aid. 

When do you anticipate for the university to be open and the students will be back on campus? 

The doors at UNLV are already open. Twenty percent of the students are in class on campus and 80 percent of the classes are virtual. For the fall of 2021 it is a goal to go back to 80 percent opened with classes on campus — that’s if nothing else happens.

Do you have a venture you hope to complete that will be part of your UNLV legacy?

I am solution oriented. For example, College of Southern Nevada President Dr. Federico Zaragoza is a very close buddy of mine because I am a big fan of his and he is an outstanding guy. Also, I know that there are going to be students that won’t hit the UNLV GPA requirement. We are a top tier University. You want to know that the students are well prepared — because you don’t want to set them up for failure. So that there are lots of routes for attending UNLV. Some of the hurdles can be required classes, timing, and how they do with their financial aid. 

When do you anticipate for the university to be open and the students will be back on campus? 

The doors at UNLV are already open. Twenty percent of the students are in class on campus and 80 percent of the classes are virtual. For the fall of 2021 it is a goal to go back to 80 percent opened with classes on campus — that’s if nothing else happens.

Do you have a venture you hope to complete that will be part of your UNLV legacy?

My thing is that it’s not just one thing. It’s a dozen things. The general pillars are we are going to work on economic development. We know that the state has to be diversified economically. And we can be a big help with that because many companies come in because they know that a workforce is coming out of UNLV. The better we produce people — guess what? We then help the city and the state to be able to do what’s needed. The second piece is our Health Center. I don’t like to hear people say, “McCarran Airport is the best waiting room for healthcare.” We have an Academic Health Center that is outstanding and it has shown it in this time of COVID-19. I am so proud that over 100,000 vaccinations have been done. This is part of the solution and we are going to get students’ success rate up from the current 44 percent to at least 60 percent success. It’s the culture that we believe in students — and UNLV is ready for it. We really do care about our students. It doesn’t always work out perfectly, but it can work out better and we can work towards that student success and economic development. We will be more community facing and we are working on something really for the school system here in the city. Actually, we have two things for the school system — but one is producing more teachers.

So, it’s a feeding process so if you are a student in the school system locally it feeds right into bringing more students to the University system? 

Yes, you got it! And at the same time try to address social justice and diversity. That is a goal strived for but never arriving. I worry about so many of our young people. They don’t know the history that you have lived. They use social media and believe they figured it all out and all the problems. Oh my — we have to educate them because they don’t know what’s going on. One reality is that now people are understanding that diversity means everybody. Some of my colleagues have said to me, “If we mean ‘everybody,’ we have to listen to everybody.” I said, “You are exactly right and we will figure it out.”

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