Dr. Tiffany Townsend:
chasing impact

Dr. Tiffany Townsend has made a career out of turning action into results

When Dr. Tiffany Townsend, Augusta University’s first Black female chief diversity officer, arrived on campus just over a year ago, she was excited about getting in on what in many ways seemed like the ground floor of a new and growing university.

“For me, it was less about the history of the office and more about the history of the new institution,” she says. “What could the office do and how could I situate the office to help facilitate that growth.”

While challenging enough in its own right, she admits to being caught a little off guard by the complexities of an office that had been occupied by a series of different people over a relatively brief span.

“I don’t think I really appreciated what it really meant to have so many folks in this office in such a short amount of time,” she says. “But what I did see, what was attractive to me, was the fact that Augusta University was growing and developing into something different and new. That that was an opportunity for me to get in at the ground level and really have an impact.”

That eagerness to help chart a course, as well as an impressive track record that dovetailed with the intricacies of a comprehensive research university, made the university’s administration eager to bring her onboard.

“As a national expert in the area of diversity and inclusion, Dr. Townsend will build on our core values to create an equitable campus climate and inclusive learning environment welcoming to all students, faculty and staff,” then-Provost Dr. Gretchen Caughman said upon the announcement of her hire.

Building on those values is a key part of that course she wants to set, and central to that is her career-long dedication to helping individuals and organizations realize positive gains in areas of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Influencing Lives

A licensed clinical psychologist, Townsend earned her bachelor’s degree from Spelman College and her master’s and doctoral degrees from George Washington University.

Her first academic appointments were at Penn State and Georgetown University School of Medicine. Active in community research at both institutions, specifically in areas of adolescents of color and understanding risk, she started moving toward work involving equity and health equity.

On the strength of that work, she was recruited for an administrative position with the American Psychological Association that focused on ethnic and minority affairs.

“One of the things I liked about the position was that I had more of an opportunity to influence more lives,” she says. “[Previously], a lot of my community-based work involved interventions where I would go in and do programs with adolescents, and for those adolescents I worked with — for those particular populations — I think I had an impact. But the reality is, you write these articles and it’s mostly other psychologists who read them, and so my work didn’t really expand in the way I thought it might as a senior administrator at a national association.”

So she took the job at the American Psychological Association and instead of writing grants and asking for money, she was giving money and helping mold the next generation of psychologists.

“And that felt really good,” she says. “But I missed being in an academic setting.”

She missed being connected to the research and scholarship and she missed being in an intellectual environment where she felt like she was being stimulated.

She also missed being connected to students.

So she decided she wanted to get back on a campus, but in a way where she could still use her administrative skills. And so she turned her attention to becoming chief diversity officer at Augusta University, an opportunity that seemed like the best of all worlds. Not only could she focus on equity and health equity, but the position also required a faculty appointment, something not mandatory for most chief diversity officers.

“This was an opportunity for me to do my administrative work, still be grounded in diversity, equity and inclusion, but also have my hand in scholarship and teaching,” she says. “And I think I have a much broader impact now. I have 9,500 students and over 1,200 faculty and staff. That’s a much broader kind of reach that is exciting to me.”

For Townsend, being a faculty member is more than personally rewarding; she finds it vital to her position.

“I know what it’s like to be in the classroom, so when I’m talking to faculty about what it takes to create an inclusive environment, I can come at it from their perspective, not just theoretical,” she says. “I’ve walked in their shoes, so I speak the language of a faculty member, but I can also appreciate the administrative perspective as well.”

According to interim provost Dr. Zach Kelehear, that perspective is part of what makes her so good at what she does.

“Dr. Townsend brings to Augusta University a vision for equity, inclusion and diversity informed by an academic life as a professor and an administrator,” he says. “As such, her work is rooted in research and informed by her practice as a scholar. We see in her academic appointment the model for all of our faculty across our university, where excellent teaching, meaningful research and excellent clinical care work together for extraordinary results.”

Difficult Conversations

In a year like 2020 that lacks a lot of the usual reference points, it can be easy to lose perspective, but for Townsend, Sept. 1, 2020, brought the last 12 months into sharp focus. Sept. 1 was the one-year anniversary of her arrival at Augusta University, and at noon that day she was participating in a virtual listening session for faculty and staff in the wake of several months of ongoing civil unrest that left faculty and staff — not to mention students and the world — shaken, hurt, confused and looking for answers.

As national headlines accentuated local problems experienced at very personal levels, the landscape of diversity and equity was exposed under the bright, unforgiving light of current events in a way that left little room for looking away.

So Townsend stepped into that light.

“These issues aren’t new, but I would say there’s more of an appreciation of their significance now,” she says. “I think there were many folks who already understood the significance, but I think there’s more of a spotlight on those issues now.”

In this environment, the need for true, honest and continuing communication became obvious, even if the communication wasn’t easy. And as difficult as the conversations can be, Townsend welcomes them.

The job, she says, is simply put but not easily done: we have to appreciate our history and we have to embrace it.

“I think for a long time we’ve wanted to say ‘Well, that was our past — that’s not who we are now,’” she says. “But everything as far as the way our country was built is based on that past, and until we can embrace that history and not be defensive about it, we won’t be able to really examine it or change it.”

And the only way these conversations can get off the ground, she says, is if they’re about solutions, not blame: This is where we are. This is how we got here. What do we do now?

It’s in this space, she says, that real healing can begin, but that can only happen if everyone appreciates that they come from a different, but equally valid position.

“Your experience is going to be different than mine, and it’s going to be difficult for you to appreciate my experience because you haven’t had to deal with it,” she says. “But if you can appreciate it and then say, ‘I understand that there is lots about what you’ve dealt with that I don’t know,’ I think we can go a long way in having real, honest conversations so we can move forward and heal.”

Her listening tour, which she began long before the Sept. 1, 2020, virtual listening session that was attended by more than 250 faculty and staff, provided an important, ongoing temperature check, but it’s far from the only thing she’s done and only a small part of what she has planned.

Laying the Foundation

Townsend has a no-nonsense belief in the importance of building a solid foundation, and although she’s certainly not starting from scratch, she admits some of the work that needed to be done has surprised her.

“I came into an office where there have been different leaders over a short amount of time, and there was never anything that could really grow roots and take hold,” she says. “So there were some things that I would have expected to see at a university that just weren’t here.”

That said, she took advantage of the existing relationships and structures, some of which were siloed in the colleges, harnessed their power, and worked to bring them into a more centralized structure.

“We want to put these pillars in place so that we can have that foundation and then we can build our house of diversity with our blueprint, which is our strategic plan,” she says.

The strategic plan is a comprehensive document created from the information gathered over the last 12 months.

Having learned from listening sessions that faculty, staff and students didn’t feel like they had a place where they could report incidents of bias on campus, Townsend and her team have made reporting easier and are creating the Tolerance Reformation and Unity Support Team (TRUST), a group that will provide a systematic process for documenting and reporting incidents of bias on campus.

Responding to equity-based issues goes beyond reporting, however, and Townsend also wants to address concerns that a mechanism exists for talking with leadership.

“I think leadership definitely appreciates the significance of diversity, and I think there is a growing understanding of what that means,” she says. “I’m going to be completely honest: most folks who have the luxury of not having to deal with certain issues haven’t had to think about them, so while in theory it might make sense and they can be supportive, there’s not always a true understanding of what that means.”

Several listening sessions with key leaders have already occurred, and Townsend says they will continue.

At the Sept. 1 listening session, which was hosted by President Brooks Keel and Kelehear, faculty and staff raised areas of concern via Microsoft Teams while participating in a lively exchange in the chat window. Many expressed thanks for the platform and the frankness of the discussion.

Along with providing training opportunities to ensure that everyone is exposed to the same information as it relates to diversity, equity and inclusion, she’s also eager to raise the visibility of diversity where it exists. Therefore, a section of the redesigned ODI webpage highlights people like Yvonne Turner, executive vice president for Finance.

“A lot of students said they felt like faculty and administrators are not diverse, and it’s true that you see less diversity the higher up you go,” she says. “We want to address that, but the other piece we want to do is help students and staff know who is actually here.”

Serving as the strategic planning and advising body of ODI, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Steering Committee advises Townsend on matters that impact the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the office, specifically focusing on the development and implementation of the strategic plan.

A subgroup of that committee is developing the outline that will eventually become the strategic plan. Once drafted, the plan will be given to the Council of Equity Leaders, who will then take it back to their individual units for feedback.

The strategic plan is anticipated to be released in early 2021.

In addition, Townsend has pushed forward a DEI faculty recruitment program and a small grants program designed to help diversify the university’s workforce and support the career development of these diverse employees.

She’s also anxious to reach beyond campus and partner with the local community to make sure the rich history that exists in Augusta is being told. This includes an initiative with the Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History, Paine College and Augusta University’s Department of Art and Design to honor Drs. Justine and Isaiah Washington, who were educators at the Summerville Campus and the people Washington Hall is named after.

The Alumni Factor

Having graduated from Spelman College, a Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) college, Townsend experienced a legacy of alumni interaction she would like to see expanded upon at Augusta University.

“We want to make sure that our students know they can go to faculty and staff, but that they can also go to alumni to get support,” she says.

Having affinity groups of faculty and staff built around these students is important, she says, but having corresponding groups among alumni would help facilitate that support.

“I’d really like to build a community of support around our students,” she says. “Many of our students are from underrepresented groups — and that includes students of color, different abilities, different sexual orientations, gender identities — and they come to me and say they don’t feel supported here. I think the best way to address that is for everyone to really rally around the students.”

Impacting the Future

Once the strategic plan is implemented, Townsend assures that there will be important and scheduled benchmarking.

“We will be able to chart our progress and see how close we are to reaching our goal, so when we fall short, we’ll be able to tweak it,” she says. “Otherwise, all we’re doing is talking about where we’d like to be, and that’s more of a dream. Until you have a plan, it’s not a goal.”

And that goal brings the story full circle — back to the idea of impact. Not just the multiplier effect that comes from influencing the leaders of tomorrow; not just the idea that as part of our institutional values, inclusivity and everything it represents should be expected at every juncture and with every encounter; but also the idea that emphasizing diversity, equity and inclusion prepares graduates for success in the workplace. It’s a marketable advantage.

“There was a time when you could say, ‘I don’t do computers,’ but you can’t say that now and be successful,” she says. “Diversity is the same way. There was a time when you could say, ‘Well, I just don’t understand that’ and you could get away with it, but now it’s become such a part of who we are and how we do business that you have to appreciate and understand that people are coming from different perspectives and you have to know how to engage those people in order to be effective. And I want our students to be at the forefront of that.”

And though she understands that in the current climate, the diversity, equity and inclusion conversation is focused on racial issues, she says that shining the spotlight on one group experiencing inequity helps illuminate the inequities experienced by all groups. And keeping the university focused on the goal of inclusion — and understanding that it means inclusion for all — is what she finds so inspiring about her role.

“Augusta University is growing, and it would be so great for it to grow so that diversity becomes a part of the fabric of the way in which we do business,” she says. “That we just know that we do diversity well here and if you want to learn how to do it, you come to Augusta University.

“That’s not where we are, and I think everyone appreciates that, but that’s where we’d like to be.”

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