The university has appointed Stephanie Hamm as the university’s first chief diversity officer.
Hamm graduated from ACU in 1990 with a bachelor’s degree in social work. She went on to obtain her Master’s Degree in Social Work at West Virginia University and then received her Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Arlington. She worked in social work for a number of years before returning to ACU to teach in 2008.
Although she and her husband, Scott Hamm, director of online education and the Ed.D. program at Hardin Simmons University, joked they’d never come back to Abilene after both graduating from ACU, she said they are happy to be here. Their son attends ACU as a sophomore and their oldest daughter graduated from ACU in 2018.
Hamm is now an associate professor in the School of Social Work. Hamm assumed the role of Chief Diversity Officer in the fall of 2019.
“I think that ACU has had a long history, and some of our history is actually steeped in racism, which is sad, but it actually is in terms of who has been let in,” Hamm said. “There’s actually some history about who was allowed to own property around ACU, so there’s been a long history. But along that history also, has been little spurts of equity and activity to move us forward, which is really good.”
Hamm said the student population at ACU is becoming increasingly diverse. Almost 40 percent of the student population is diverse.
“We need to be able to examine our culture here, our environment, our traditions, to make sure they are inclusive of everyone,” Hamm said. “I think the bottom line is, that students graduate from ACU with a complete and fulfilling college experience having felt like they belong here, that this is their place, that they are supposed to be here, and that every individual is needed here.”
Hamm said the other part of her role as Chief Diversity Officer is to eliminate any microaggression that is of harm to students.
“We have people on-campus that experience microaggressions,” Hamm said. “They experience hard stuff, sometimes on a daily basis because of their culture, because of where they come from. Whether it is because they are international students, black or Hispanic, first-generation, not Church of Christ or not Christian.
“This role specifically has to do with race and ethnicity, but we want to eliminate as many of those uncomfortable hardships and frustrations as we possibly can so that people can stay here. And so that people can have a very enriching time while they’re here. As a Christian university, I kind of feel like we should have been about this a long time ago.”
Dr. Phil Schubert, President of ACU, said the new position of Chief Diversity Officer at ACU stemmed from the Diversity Task Force about three years ago. About a year ago, a report was made by the Senior Leadership Team with the recommendation to create the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and hire a Chief Diversity Officer.
President Schubert said when choosing Hamm as the Chief Diversity Officer at ACU, they took into consideration that bringing in an outsider for the position would be challenging in this initial role and felt it would be much more affective to hire someone who had a strong knowledge of the culture and landscape of ACU to make quick progress.
“From that standpoint, Stephanie really fit all the criteria,” President Schubert said. “She was somewhat of an obvious choice given the nature of her work and her leadership on our campus over the past several years, her knowledge of who we are and her credibility among our faculty and staff.”
The Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion has two main purposes, to ensure everyone has an enriching experience and to eliminate all of the hard things as much as possible. Many universities now have a chief diversity officer, as well as businesses and organizations.
Hamm has three overarching goals set in place. One goal is to increase retention of diverse students. Diverse students are the students that are most likely to leave before graduation.
“They leave for various reasons,” Hamm said. “Maybe they leave because of money, but maybe people say, ‘It’s just not my school. I just don’t belong here.’ And that’s sad.”
Another goal is to increase diverse faculty and also increase their retention.
“Again we get diverse people, but then they can’t stay for whatever reason,” Hamm said. “And some of that is because of Abilene, there’s not a lot happening in Abilene. But what I’ve found is that often, there hasn’t been something terrible that causes someone to leave, but there also hasn’t been something so compelling that makes them want to stay. We are very, very good at relationships here at ACU, we just need to make sure we extend it to everyone.”
Another goal is to educate and train students, faculty and staff. Hamm said faculty have already been doing great things, like the use of the Adams Center for Teaching and Learning.
“It’s kind of like the teacher’s lounge but way better,” Hamm said.
The Adams Center holds book studies for faculty and staff and regularly invites speakers to speak on different topics. Hamm said that a recent book read by faculty and staff was called “I’m Still Here” by Austin Channing Brown, about the experience of a black female working in a predominately white, Christian organization. The author of the book, Austin Channing Brown, has been invited by the Adams Center to visit campus next week. She will speak at Chapel Monday.
Hamm said one challenge the office faces moving forward is deciding what exactly needs to be done.
“We can look at other universities and see what they have done but that may not fit ACU,” Hamm said. “We’re unique in a lot of ways. And so we don’t want to just pick something up there and move it over here. There may be some good things, but it may not fit.”
Another challenge for the office is prioritizing what comes first and what comes second. And yet, another challenge they face moving forward is buy-in.
“I’ve had a lot of really positive comments, ‘I’m so glad we’re finally doing this,’ and ‘What can I do to help?’,” Hamm said. “But then I’ve had other comments about, ‘Why are we doing this?’ and, ‘Is this really necessary?’ So there may be some push-back with some just not understanding the purpose of the office.”
Eventually, Hamm said there may even be some curricular changes. Based on campus research a few years ago, the collected data showed that students want information about diversity and more curricular options, but they do not want it to be required.
“But this is the quandary, if we offer things that are voluntary, the people who want to do it are the ones who are going to do it,” Hamm said. “And sometimes the people who don’t want to do it, are the people that we really need to hear the information.”