Joelle Murchison contends for Chief Diversity Officer position

Joelle Murchison, currently vice president of enterprise diversity and inclusion at Travelers Insurance Company, speaks during her presentation in the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center's Konover Auditorium in Storrs, Connecticut on Monday, Feb. 29, 2016. (Jason Jiang/The Daily Campus)

The search for the University of Connecticut’s Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) is well under way, with the third and final candidate Joelle Murchison delivering her public pitch at the Dodd Konover Auditorium Monday afternoon.

The creation of the position of CDO was recommended by UConn’s Diversity Task Force, which was commissioned by university President Susan Herbst and convened after numerous instances of racism on campus.

The CDO will be in the president’s cabinet and will work to “educate and motivate members of this community to fully embrace diversity and inclusion as core values, not just to be talked about, but to be collectively practiced at UConn,” according to Herbst.

Murchison’s presentation and visit to UConn follows the acts of Lisa McBride and Frank Tuitt. All three candidates have extensive résumés. For Murchison’s part, she currently serves as the Vice President of Enterprise Diversity and Inclusion at Travelers Insurance Company. 

“There are a number of parallels to the company I joined nine years ago and the position that UConn sits in today,” Murchison wrote in an email to The Daily Campus. “There are at the core good people who have acknowledged a real opportunity to make the organization more accessible and responsive to the experiences, backgrounds and values of everyone who is a part of it.”

A diversity trainer for a number of years, Murchison also spoke to the similarities of the corporate world and the academic world during her presentation, saying that the bureaucracy of both share a resemblance.

Murchison emphasized the importance of overall diversity, not just black and white, saying, “A lot of times when people talk about diversity, it’s about race.” Murchison spoke to her achievements as an ally to the LGBT community, pointing out her launch of seven nationwide employee diversity networks, including blacks, Hispanics/Latinos, Asians, women, LGBT and other groups. 

While there has been a question and answer session for all the candidates, Murchison took particular care to get the crowd involved. She showed a picture of Wilbur Cross and had attendees yell out words. Examples included “tradition,” “prestige,” “white,” “old-fashioned,” “administrative building” and “oppressive.”

It’s not just enough that you count the numbers, and you count heads. It really is about how the university makes sure those voices are all included.
— Joelle Murchison, a candidate for UConn's Chief Diversity Officer position

A picture of fans at a UConn basketball game elicited responses of “pride,” “spirit,” “winning,” “white” and “privilege.” A picture of protestors affiliated with “Black Lives Matter” brought the words “empowerment,” “human rights,” “power,” “struggle,” “equality” and “unity.”

This led to a discussion about how “campuses have been in an uproar about issues such as race, gender and undocumented immigrants.” Murchison asked those in the auditorium to reflect on the value of diversity after this part of her presentation.

Diversity is made up of skills, beliefs, thinking style, sexual orientation, heritage, location and political views, among other things, according to Murchison. She implored members of the university community to engage in a dialogue about race. This meant, for Murchison, truly examining past mistakes in order to prevent them from happening again.

“Many of us close off dialogue because we’re uncomfortable ourselves with sharing information…many of us aren’t aware of,” Murchison said.

Inclusion is also an integral part of diversity for Murchison.

“The question for UConn is, do all of these people have access to participate and engage in this community?” Murchison asked. “It’s not just enough that you count the numbers, and you count heads…it really is about how the university makes sure those voices are all included.”

Before the question and answer session, Murchison offered a suggested way forward for the university: the establishment of a university diversity council that would communicate a diverse vision to the student body and include everyone in decision-making.

She called for a strategic planning process that was comprised of diversity education and training. Yet, Murchison stressed, resources and monetary support were essential to such ideas. 

“Simply a Chief Diversity Officer will not change the entire world at UConn,” Murchison said. 

In Murchison’s mind, it is incumbent upon deans and academic departments to be proactive in changing the “mix of individuals who are considered for opportunities.” A question about making sure this happens across the university, and not just certain areas, brought Murchison to address how “different groups…get pigeonholed.” For example, in her experience, women are all in Human Resources in corporate America.

Professors from Africana studies to computer science, as well as students and staff, asked questions that got at Murchison’s leadership philosophy and personal history. 

Joelle Murchison, currently vice president of enterprise diversity and inclusion at Travelers Insurance Company, speaks during her presentation in the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center's Konover Auditorium in Storrs, Connecticut on Monday, Feb. 29, 2016. (Jason Jiang/The Daily Campus)

Brittney Yancy, a PhD candidate and teacher at UConn, asked a question about intersectionality and how that would inform Murchison’s vision. 

“When I think about the concept of what it means, it calls into question what we fight for. As an African-American woman, I am unable to separate those two realities,” Murchison said. “I think, for me, it really is acknowledging and not asking people to choose one part of your identity over another.” 

When Murchison expressed a desire for Yancy to help her study the theory, she said “I’ll de-corporatize, and get theorized,” which drew applause from those gathered.

Responding to a question from The Daily Campus, Murchison said she does not expect to act as a public relations official. 

“I’m not Olivia Pope, although her clothes are very fly,” Murchison said. “The Chief Diversity Officer would be a very important advocate for students…I think the student demands that I understand were put forth certainly need to be answered.”

Francine Quintino, an eighth-semester political science and Spanish double major, as well as an employee at the Puerto Rican and Latin-American cultural center, asked about the fractured relationship between the administration and students, as well as inquiring into Murchison’s position on financial aid for undocumented immigrant students. 

“I was one of those students that took over the administration building at Brown my freshman year,” Murchison said. “At that time it was for need-blind admission, to admit students freely whether they can pay or not...Moving the university forward without student perspective would be very dangerous to me.”

Murchison said she understands what it feels like to be talking to people and to feel like they do not hear you. In this sense, she hopes to be a translator and advocate for students, calling them “probably” the “first priority” in UConn’s complex bureaucracy. 

“I think that there should be open access to education for those who choose to pursue it,” Murchison said in response to the undocumented immigrant question.

Quintino said she was pleased with Murchison’s candidacy after the presentation. 

“I really liked what she had to say. I think that it’s difficult not to step on anyone’s toes when you’re in that position of giving a forum and you obviously want to get hired, but I did feel that she was authentic and genuine, and I think that’s what’s most important,” Quintino said. “I know for me as a student, I want to know, is my voice going to be heard, am I going to be represented? There has to be someone who is in the position to talk to the administration and make the students feel like they’re being heard.” 

Yancy placed Tuitt and Murchison ahead of McBride after Monday’s demonstration.

“It boils down to someone who has a very clear, intentional, intersectional vision. I do feel strongly about the latter two candidates, whose vision was very clear,” Yancy said. “One of the things that stuck out is to be able to have those hard conversations, and anyone who can stand up here and say that is a strong candidate to me. “

Murchison grew up in Long Island and went to a racially diverse high school before attaining her bachelors degree in public policy and educational studies from Brown University, her masters of education degree from Harvard University and her masters of science degree in communication management from Syracuse University.

She said in an interview with The Daily Campus that her experience as a student has stuck with her throughout her career working for increased diversity.

“I protested, attended speak outs, held officer roles in student organizations, was a Jazz DJ from 3-6 am my freshman year and I even checked IDs for entry to the hockey arena as my work study job,” Murchison said. “My student experience was very diverse and it is my hope that through the work we have the potential to do together, that yours is the same. That you share with the community your talents and abilities – and most importantly that you find the space to do those things in an environment that is supportive, inclusive, respectful and safe for all of us.”


Sten Spinella is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at sten.spinella@uconn.edu.