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CDO acclimates to Brandeis campus and community

Two news editors interviewed Brandeis’ Chief Diversity Officer on Tuesday, Feb. 14 to ask about upcoming plans to increase diversity at Brandeis. The interview took place two weeks after the executive order temporarily banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries went into effect.

Mark Brimhall-Vargas, who worked as the Chief Diversity Officer at Tufts for two years before coming to Brandeis, stepped into his role on Jan 11. He has not publicly spoken about intentions or plans for the campus. “I feel like I’m still learning the institution,” Brimhall-Vargas said.

Brimhall-Vargas sees his role as a Chief Diversity Officer as bringing the subject of diversity into every action on campus. His position exists because “Very few people have a day job where thinking about diversity is their job,” according to Brimhall-Vargas.

“There is an order of operations. The first is equity. So I want to make sure that whatever equity concerns or gaps that we have, that we attempt to fill them. It’s very foundational to make sure that the environment is free from harassment or discrimination.”

Every environment has some sort of discrimination, according to Brimhall-Vargas. He does not expect Brandeis to be perfect. He wants “systems of grievance that make sense and that people have confidence in.”

He intends to create a diversity dashboard to display statistics about race and ethnicity at Brandeis. “I have a personal philosophy to be as transparent as possible,” Brimhall-Vargas said. He developed a dashboard at Tufts that includes color graphs depicting the percentage of students of color in a given category. The board also breaks down the ethnicity and race of other groups such as the Board of Trustees. “We want to provide data so that people can see, even if it isn’t always perfect, that it is improving. That’s a story that often is missed.”

Brimhall-Vargas has spoken with the Office of Institutional Research about creating this diversity dashboard. They shared data with him that he believes could be useful for the dashboard. He did not comment on what this data was. He has also met with those in support of creating a Brandeis diversity webpage.

There is information on the Office of the Provost’s website under the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion section about diversity at Brandeis as well as some statistics. However, Brimhall-Vargas feels that this is not enough. Before going live with the dashboard, Brimhall-Vargas believes it would be essential to get student feedback. He feels that the project is progressing, but he’s not quite there yet.

Compared to his previous experience, Brimhall-Vargas feels that students at Brandeis are more active than they often believe themselves to be. “My experience so far is that Brandeis students do show up. As a new person I’m delighted about the sense of urgency that I experience among students,” he said.

He believes that recent attacks on diversity are an opportunity to “learn more as we do activism.” Brimhall-Vargas referred to the amount of literature available at the library on issues that have incited protests in recent weeks.

“I don’t mean to sound cavalier when I say this, but one of the biggest challenges is to be in an environment where people care about social justice, because they think they already know everything about it. The open inquisitive attitude about learning about who we are sometimes is not there,” he said.

“People can feel defensive around how much progress we have or haven’t made. I think the biggest challenge will be to thoughtfully and respectfully engage with a campus that has in fact embraced social justice as a mission, but also engage it with reality about where we are not meeting the mark.”

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