Taj Smith, a candidate for the position of chief diversity and inclusion officer (CDIO) spoke to the FSU community about his desire to come to FSU and his qualifications for the job on Wednesday, April 19.
As part of the search for a new CDIO, FSU is hosting three open forums, at which students, faculty and staff can meet the candidates and ask them questions.
Smith currently works as the director for the Center for Diversity and Inclusion at Xavier University.
Smith was asked how he first became involved in inclusive excellence, and he said his journey began during his undergraduate studies at Rutgers. He added during high school, he “coasted” and when he got to college he had to adapt to a different culture.
He began as an accounting major, before he switched and received a degree in journalism and mass media. Smith served as the Editor-in-Chief of the black and Latino magazine at Rutgers.
Smith received his master’s at Cornell in Africana Studies. He completed his doctorate in Social Justice Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, specifically focusing on working with college men of color.
He co-created a theater program called Phallacies, in which the group’s focus is to talk “critically about what it means to be a man. Value what is good, but be critical of our male privilege we might carry and to think about the ways we might contribute to homophobia or making homophobic remarks in our culture.”
Smith’s resume, which has been made available to all students, said Phallacies is “a non-profit performing arts organization that provides leadership development, health education and violence prevention, while encouraging young men to challenge hegemonic masculinity.”
One student asked Smith how he would be involved with the various identity-based clubs on campus.
He said he would make an effort to attend events that were important to the clubs, as well as partnering with them for programs and making himself available through office hours for students.
Another student asked him what he would do in response to graffiti being found that depicted racist or anti-Semitic language and symbols.
Smith said, “Unfortunately, that language has been around for a long time. … First, recognize that it is a historical issue that we have not properly recognized as the United States of America. … College is a diverse place where we bring together people with different experiences and we have to try to get them on the same page.”
He added it is expected for the community to react to the situation and he would turn it in to a learning experience. “I would probably make sure we would have a forum of some sort to talk about how people are impacted, and also, how we move forward.”
Smith discussed the importance of being proactive and teaching incoming first-year students the importance of inclusivity and acceptance of personal identity to avoid incidents like the graffiti. “When some people hear ‘inclusive language’ they say, ‘You’re trying to be PC.’ It’s not about being PC, it’s about understanding that people need to be respected for how they want to identify.”
Smith said, “We have to be consistent across identities. … In my experience, we react a certain way to racial incidents, but we don’t react the same way for other incidences. So, if there’s ‘spic’ written on there, or ‘nigger’ written on there, we’re going to react. But are we going to react the same way if ‘bitch’ is written on there, or, ‘That’s so gay,’ or, ‘Fag.’
“We have to be accountable about inclusive excellence across the board,” he added.
Smith said he went into college without an exact plan of where he wanted to go with his career and didn’t make that decision until he began taking African-American history courses.
His first class in African American studies was with former Black Panther party member and Rutgers professor, Regina Jennings. He said, “I took a class with her – did a ten-page paper. She read two pages of it and gave me a C-minus. … What she was trying to do was push me further, push me to excel. She saw something in me that was greater than I could see in myself at the time.”
He said his classroom experiences led him to become involved in activism around campus, such as being a voice for those who were “marginalized in some kind of way.”
Smith said he is interested in working at Framingham State because of the small campus size, the location and because the strategic diversity plan has a “fabulous framework,” and he wants to make a “collective effort” around the campus to continue the work the Center for Inclusive Excellence has done.
Smith said he has an interest in pairing with organizations around the Framingham community to host events and bring lecturers to the University as a way to diversify the speakers who come to FSU.
One forum attendee asked Smith how successful he has been in his job at Xavier University and how he would bring that success to FSU.
He said Xavier University has a way to track the students who are attending events. He said his co-worker, a member of the LGBT+ community, often sees the “most diverse number of students” because students feel more comfortable coming to a space where their identity is recognized by another person in the community.
“It’s not a magic trick. It’s just having somebody around that looks like them,” he said.
Smith said he is focused on retention rates of students of color and first-generation students. He said he reaches out to those students to have lunch or coffee in order to access how they are thriving at the university.
“This gives us a better understanding of why a student might leave. Even if their record says it’s for financial reasons, it might be because they don’t have a sense of belonging,” he said.
Smith added if he came to FSU he would need to see “what works here,” and then “make space” for other programs to increase the retention of students and bring more programming to the University.
He addressed the importance of showing students a diverse faculty and staff as a way to promote an inclusive environment at the University. This includes faculty and staff in larger initiatives campus-wide to promote diversity.
The next candidate, Mary Bonderoff, will be featured on April 25 at 1:30 p.m. in the Forum.