By Chuck Chandler
It seems perfectly logical that the child of a Green Beret and an educator would grow up to have a career fighting discrimination in education.
That couple’s daughter, Taffye Benson Clayton, was hired in 2016 by Auburn University as the first leader of its Office of Inclusion and Diversity, based on her successes at the University of North Carolina and East Carolina University.
Clayton earned a bachelor’s degree from UNC, a master’s from American University, a doctorate from ECU and holds a certificate from the management development program at Harvard. At Auburn, she and her team have been tasked with expanding the diversity and inclusion footprint within the institution and nationally.
The North Carolina native said that while she “never set out” to have a career involving diversity and inclusion in higher education, she developed an interest in policy while working on Capitol Hill and the work “found” her. At Auburn she established the “Critical Conversations” public forum series that brings scholars and national personalities on campus to explore viewpoint diversity, free speech and inclusion issues.
“We’ve made some gains in workforce diversity at Auburn, but there’s more work to be done,” said Clayton, associate provost and vice president. “Our numbers for women and African Americans in executive leadership on the President’s Cabinet have increased. However, just as other major research universities across the country, we are challenged with recruiting and retaining historically underrepresented faculty at Auburn. We are on a continuous improvement model to both increase the presence of more diverse faculty and to cultivate a supportive and inclusive climate where faculty, students, staff and administrators can thrive.”
Clayton said the goal is to attract more students who have been historically underrepresented at Auburn, including African American, Native American, Latino, first generation and lower socioeconomic income students.
“Through our Provost’s Undergraduate Leadership Scholarship (PLUS) program at Auburn we have developed practices that position our scholars for success,” she said. “We have engaged a comprehensive scholar support program that emphasizes student engagement and maximizes student outcomes. Scholars in the PLUS program have GPAs that are higher than the average GPA of Auburn students.”
Clayton said the Auburn strategy goes beyond enrollment to ensure that as students enter the campus, they feel like they belong and are supported. She said they are equipped with tools and “habits of mind and practice” to be successful students.
Approaches to diversity-related changes in corporate and academic contexts can differ, Clayton said. Traditional corporate culture is characterized by hierarchy, while traditional academic culture is characterized by shared governance. Academic environments and the work of diversity and inclusion within them are “necessarily collaborative,” she said.
“So, while corporate leaders can make immediate decisions resulting in direct action and results, academic environments require buy-in, discussion and debate, input and feedback and broader socialization,” Clayton said. “The academic environment often has a more protracted process for decision-making and realization of results.”
Clayton complimented Alabama Power for its longstanding relationship with Auburn through initiatives like the Academic Excellence Program (AEP) of the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering. AEP was established in 1996 to enhance the recruitment and retention of minorities and now serves more than 300 underrepresented engineering students annually.
“This collaboration is an indication of Alabama Power’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, and more specifically, to cultivating diverse STEM talent,” she said. “AEP is an exemplar model of how partnerships between corporations and universities can be impactful for students and communities as well as state, regional and national economies.”
One hundred fifty-seven years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, a century after the 19th Amendment, 56 years after Harold Franklin became the first of his race to enroll at AU, African Americans, minorities and women still fight for equality on many fronts in America. Clayton said all Americans should have the same opportunities and access.
“We have this matter of unfinished business in this country,” she said. “We still need transparent conversations in society. The good news is that we have some indication of strategies that are actually working. While there is plenty of headroom for growth on matters of diversity, equity and inclusion, we should acknowledge our successes and build on them.”
Power Moves, an ongoing series by Alabama NewsCenter, celebrates the contributions of multicultural leaders in Alabama. Visit AlabamaNewsCenter.com throughout the year for inspiring stories of those working to elevate the state.