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Q&A with Lee Bitsóí, Stony Brook University’s First Chief Diversity Officer

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Lee Bitsóí, Chief Diversity Officer
Lee Bitsóí, Chief Diversity Officer

Lee Bitsóí, EdM, EdD, joined Stony Brook University as our first Chief Diversity Officer on July 28, 2017.

Dr. Bitsóí, proud member of the Navajo Nation, arrives with a distinguished background of more than 20 years in academia, working in leadership roles related to student diversity and recruitment at Harvard, Dartmouth, and most recently, Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

As he continues his dedicated career at Stony Brook, Dr. Bitsóí shared his thoughts about the importance of diversity in education, and his plans to further enhance the equity, inclusivity and diversity of our campus community.

As Stony Brook’s first Chief Diversity Officer, how will you make an impact?

My overarching goal is to expand the understanding of diversity and inclusion beyond the commonly accepted two-dimensional construct focused on race and biological sex. Each of us brings an intersectionality to Stony Brook, and society, so we need to be aware of visible and invisible forms of diversity. It is also important for people to understand that diversity and inclusion are inextricably linked.

Moreover, diversity is not a person, program or destination, and is never fully achieved because it is an evolving, interdependent ecosystem that requires everyone’s participation. There is so much potential at Stony Brook, so we have an excellent opportunity to set the standard for inclusive excellence in higher education.

How will you build on Stony Brook’s Plan for Equity, Inclusion and Diversity?

I came to Stony Brook because of the intentional commitment from senior leaders, as well as the commitment from our students and campus educators, that led to the development of the Plan for Equity, Inclusion and Diversity. This excellent plan is thoughtful and inclusive, so it will serve as a blueprint that will allow me to lead and facilitate transformational change for all underrepresented and unmentioned populations at all levels throughout Stony Brook.

This transformation is about giving voice to those who historically did not have one. Furthermore, we can work collectively to move beyond a heteronormative mindset that will make Stony Brook the institution of choice for aspiring leaders who want to shape policy that will prepare our country in its shift to a minority-majority nation.

Chief Diversity Officer Lee Bitsóí chats with a new student on campus
Chief Diversity Officer Lee Bitsóí chats with a new student on campus

Working in higher education, what have you learned that will influence your approach at Stony Brook?

Education in our country, historically, was reserved for the privileged and elite, as evidenced by the first colonial colleges that were established by white European men for white European males. Only three colleges (Harvard College, the College of William and Mary and Dartmouth College) made a commitment to educate other people — Native Americans — but they failed miserably in their efforts. Subsequently, this institutionalized privilege has dictated and influenced the establishment and development of our K-12 system and social and health services.

Because everyone else was excluded in those colonial colleges, including other colleges that were established shortly thereafter, historically black colleges and universities, women’s colleges, religious affiliated institutions and tribal colleges and universities were created. It is crucial that people are aware of these historical facts so that they understand the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion today as we broaden the participation of underrepresented and unmentioned people in higher education.

Diversity is not taking anything away from anyone; it’s merely broadening the participation of people from diverse backgrounds. With such an understanding, we will be better equipped to transform our discussions into dialogues to allow us to recognize that we are more alike than we are different and this begins with conversations amongst us.

Lee Bitsoi, Chief Diversity Officer
Lee Bitsóí, Chief Diversity Officer

What are your goals for your first year as Chief Diversity Officer?

My first and foremost goal is to increase the level of cultural dexterity for our campus community members. Cultural competency, humility and respect are important components of cultural dexterity, and our students need to learn about this as we prepare them to become leaders in our society.

In order to achieve this, I will conduct a diversity audit to identify what types of diversity programming is in place for students and campus educators — faculty and staff — to ascertain our strengths in diversity, equity and inclusion. Let’s build on those strengths together. Upon completion of this audit, I plan to convene a diversity summit for the entire University to review our strengths and find ways to partner and collaborate to make Stony Brook even more diverse and inclusive for everyone on all of our campuses.

Why is diversity in education important?

There is diversity within diversity, so it’s is our responsibility to participate in whatever way that we can in diversity programming, in education and society. Specifically, in education, diversity is crucial to gain a better understanding of different people and communities. Being exposed to other people and cultures better equips us to work with underrepresented and underserved communities.

Moreover, there is the importance of diversity in thought and perspective since two people may come from similar backgrounds, but their life experiences may be different, and shape their approaches to trouble shooting and problem solving in their critical analysis of any given situation. Diversity in education also exposes us to the “other,” so that we don’t approach our research endeavors from a deficit model or “savior” mentality. Instead, let’s democratize scientific research and invite our constituencies to be partners in discovery.

How do grants and other sources of funding support Stony Brook’s goals for diversity and social mobility?

Internal funding indicates that the University is committed to diversity and is invested in itself to strive for inclusive excellence. External funding is always welcome and receiving such funding indicates our diversity brand. On that note, there many opportunities to receive grants from federal and non-profit agencies for diversity programming and we should explore and pursue them. What is key to securing and sustaining any sort of funding (internal and external) is providing the return for such investments, and this can be obtained through assessment and evaluation. Stony Brook has a strong brand in STEM and social mobility, so let’s add diversity to our branding.

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