Priority Four of UNE’s five-year strategic plan (adopted in 2018) exhorts the University to create a “welcoming, inclusive, and vibrant community,” with a specific focus on increasing diversity in all areas of campus life.
In the summer of 2019, the Priority Four (P4) Committee, responsible for putting that part of the UNE’s Strategic Plan into action, determined that a new cabinet-level position should be created on the UNE leadership team, something akin to what is often called a “chief diversity officer.”
While financial exigencies slowed the hiring process, the P4 Committee and the University leadership team were attentive to feedback from the UNE Community, which was overwhelmingly in favor of filling the position. With the murder of George Floyd and the increasing urgency of the national conversation around systemic racism, UNE leadership accelerated the hiring, already in progress, despite the additional financial constraints imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.
“As University leadership evaluated our strategic priorities, we concluded that this role was critical in carrying forward anti-racism work at UNE and ensuring we are a welcoming community for all,” said UNE President James Herbert at the time.
UNE Provost Josh Hamilton echoed the president’s words in describing the missing piece he felt was needed to ensure the success of ongoing initiatives. “President Herbert and I have been heartened to see the many efforts across UNE to promote diversity and inclusion,” said Hamilton, “from top-down initiatives by the administration in accordance with our strategic plan to grass-roots initiatives at every level of the University. What we lack is a centralized person who can help us coordinate all that work and make sure we were not duplicating efforts or working at cross-purposes.”
After a somewhat surreal, mostly virtual series of interviews, on August 1, 2020, G. Christopher Hunt, Ed.D., officially stepped into that role, becoming UNE’s first associate provost for Community, Equity, and Diversity, moving with his six-year-old beagle-
Chihuahua mix, Geno, from his home in Easton, Pennsylvania, to his new place in Cape Elizabeth. For now, Hunt’s wife of 17 years, Nichelle (an M.P.H. who has worked in student support and advising), and his three children (Cydney, 16, an honors society high-achiever and aspiring dermatologist; Christopher Jordan, or “CJ,” 14, a basketball prodigy and electronic beat-meister; and “bright light” Cayla, 12, heavily into Tik Tok and an avid cook who has become the family’s lead chef) remain in Pennsylvania, to finish up school and minimize upheaval in their lives.
“We have vacationed here in the past,” says Hunt, “and we are somewhat familiar with the area. But Geno doesn’t have school, and he doesn’t have a job — so that’s why he gets to come.”
Hunt, who earned his Doctor of Education at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania, comes to UNE most recently from Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, where, since June 2017, he was the dean of Equity and Inclusion, the interim chief diversity officer, and most recently the dean of students and assistant vice president. Prior to his time at Lafayette, he spent eight years at Moravian College, in Bethlehem, where he was the associate dean of students and director of Intercultural Advancement and Global Inclusion, building that office at Moravian from the ground up.
And at UNE?
My job,” says Hunt, “is to be involved in all manner of high-level conversations and to work collaboratively at all levels across the University to help make sure that we are being mindful of equity, inclusion, diversity, and people’s sense of belonging in everything we do."
He continued, "And that's from building design and décor to student recruitment and curriculum to hiring professional staff and faculty.”
The need to improve in these areas is not unique to UNE, among predominantly White institutions (PWIs), particularly when it comes to faculty recruitment. “I can’t think of a college right now that’s not having conversations about hiring a more diverse faculty,” says Hunt. “And I do know this: colleges and universities will continue to fall short if they’re not intentional about strategies and methods to make their faculty more diverse. UNE has already articulated a desire to do better. I think, certainly, it starts there.”
For Hunt, it’s important to take a long, holistic view rather than focus on short-term quick fixes. “Sure,” he says, “we want to make gains this year, next year, the year after… but we also have to keep our eyes on what the faculty will look like a decade down the road. One way to do that is, when we have students in our classrooms, and we see something in them that suggests they can actually be a faculty member, we should speak that into them, and we should give them the idea that, ‘Hey, you know, you, you might be good at this.’”
This kind of person-to-person recognition is crucial to diversifying admissions as well. As Hunt points out, “It’s one thing to recruit students from diverse backgrounds, but it’s another thing to retain them and make sure they have a sense of belonging on campus. At a high level, that involves many different institutional offices, but I also think that the work has to be done at a very micro level, fostering community and building bridges, in a very grass-roots kind of way.”
Cultivating relationships and community is key to ensuring that no student graduates feeling like they had a bad experience based on their race, identity, or background.
“My research talks about Black men who went to college during the baby boomer generation and the millennial era,” says Hunt. “Many of the participants who graduated in the ’70s and ’80s, as well as those from the millennial era in the 2000s, left those institutions feeling alienated and isolated. So, part of my role will be to a make sure we’re working with Student Affairs and faculty and everyone else to do as much as we can to make sure everyone’s having a rich experience. And then, also, to cultivate those relationships, post-graduation, so that all our alums stay connected to the institution and feel that UNE is a lifelong home base for them.”
Affinity groups for students are a good way of laying a foundation for those lifelong relationships. “When I do my research on retention,” explains Hunt, “one of the best practices is to make sure that students have those kinds of groups, like a BSU [Black student union] or a Latinx student union or an LGBTQ affinity group... We think about them sometimes as ‘just’ clubs and organizations, but these are actually retention strategies and have a direct impact on students’ sense of belonging and academic success. Sometimes they are the difference that helps marginalized students feel like they have a voice and a real connection with the institution.”
“I’m looking forward to working with [Dean of Students] Jen DeBurro and [Director of Intercultural Student Engagement] Erica Rousseau in Student Affairs,” continues Hunt. “I think we’re going to complement each other really well.
I really feel strongly that the more people get to know who you are in your heart — that you are engaged, that you are advocating for them and showing up — that will enable you to build bridges with other people, other departments.”
Hunt served as an advisor to student groups at both Lafayette and Moravian, and he plans to continue that kind of work at UNE. “What helps me feel renewed about my work every day,” says Hunt, “is having an opportunity to work on the ground with students: getting to know them on a personal level, forming mentoring relationships — that is really meaningful to me.”
One of the reasons those mentoring relations are so important to Hunt is because of his own experience as a Black male college student at a PWI. “When I was an undergraduate student at West Chester University of Pennsylvania,” Hunt remembers, “one of the things that really stuck out to me was the unofficial mentoring relationship that I formed with the assistant director of multicultural affairs. His name was Dr. Kendrick Mickens. And honestly, just seeing him in a position of authority, seeing a Black man in that role, was something to aspire to — one of the reasons why I imagined myself being able to do something like that.”
But Hunt is quick to point out that his presence serves as a model for White students as well as Black students. “I talk about showing up, being present, and that’s what I mean: being a model for students who look like me. But also, quite frankly, for majority students as well. It’s not lost on me that I might be one of the first, if not the only, Black educator that many White students are going to interact with.”
While our conversation has focused on students, what about Hunt’s own experience as a Black man in one of the whitest states in the U.S., stepping in as the only Black cabinet-level administrator in a predominantly White school? Hunt is philosophical. “It’s not my first time being the first Black administrator or the only Black person in a room,” he says. “So, I understand the significance. I have been built for it. So, I don’t come into the room apologizing or being bashful. I come in to do my job and to advocate the way I need to for students, faculty, and professional staff. What I hope moving forward is that if I am the first, that there will be a second, and a third, and a fifth and so on…”
While no higher-ed administrative position can exist in a social vacuum, positions like Hunt’s are explicitly embedded within larger societal contexts, such as the one created by the horrific public murder of George Floyd. “For me and my work,” says Hunt, “it’s a primer for more in-depth conversations. It feels like society — more so now than perhaps at other times in the past — is willing to be introspective and ask ourselves, collectively, some harder questions. The Pew Center has done some public opinion polls, and there’s data out there that suggest opinions about systemic racism are evolving very quickly, almost in real time.”
Of course, the price paid to even start the conversation has been unfathomably high. “What’s really…sick,” says Hunt, reaching for the appropriate word, “is that it took his torture for folks to say, ‘Oh! That’s what you mean!’ Because there are other George Floyds. There are a lot more George Floyds. So in the wake of his death and countless others, we must honor them by doing the hard, introspective work of making more just and equitable college campuses and society.”
Hunt’s hiring itself can be seen as a direct result of doing that hard and introspective work, which sent colleges across America scrambling to integrate their leadership teams. I ask Hunt how he would answer people who might say his hiring is simply putting a Band-Aid on a set of deeply intractable, systemic problems.
Hunt shakes his head and responds very slowly, like he doesn’t think much of the question. “I actually think not everything deserves a response,” he says. “I don’t think that’s necessarily a substantive talking point. What I’m very big on is, if someone or some organization does something that puts points on the board, then those points should be honored and reflected. And if an organization does things that cost us points, then we should deduct them. I think we have to be fair and honest and call balls and strikes.”
“Look,” says Hunt, elaborating, “I realize that just hiring someone doesn’t necessarily advance every issue. But I think it is progress. First there was the implementation of UNE’s Strategic Plan and the incorporation of Priority Four. That was a start, launched by President Herbert and the leadership team. Then there was all the work that the Priority Four committee did, as it relates to the Rankin climate survey, as it relates to the hiring of my position and doing that search, and any number of other things that they’ve been working on. So now I’m hired, and part of my charge will be to analyze that data from the Rankin study and work with the community to talk about implementing the next steps. The University Faculty Assembly is already working on some policy revisions and motions…” He stops mid-sentence and shrugs: there’s a lot of positive work going on.
“I like to think of things in terms of sports analogies,” says Hunt. “So, I might say ‘singles and doubles.’ I also think about old-school football, you know: three yards, four yards at a clip, running up the middle. Eventually you advance the ball down the field. And you know, you might get sacked, you might have some losses, but you’re constantly moving forward.”
He continues, “You know: you have one conversation here, or one conversation over there, and that will lead you to where you want to get to — eventually.”