Oklahoma State University police chief Leon Jones has lived in Stillwater for 25 years and is constantly impressed by the hospitality of the community.
So when asked about the state of diversity and inclusion for African Americans at OSU on Thursday, Jones was proud to share his story.
“It’s always constantly improving,” Jones said. “In being here for 25 years, I’ve gotten to see a lot of changes throughout the university and particularly us Blacks coming to Stillwater, Oklahoma. And not just going to school, but in being part of the community. I moved here in 1987 before I joined the university just trying to make my way through life trying to figure out what I was gonna do. And the path fell in front of me once I started here at OSU which, once again, turned out to be the greatest move I made because the community is just tremendous, a lot different from other places I’ve been.”
Jones was one of 11 speakers who spoke at OSU’s Community Advancing Conversations, a virtual panel led by chief diversity officer Dr. Jason Kirksey. The speakers were made up of various Black faculty members, staff and coaches across campus. The focal point of the conversation was ways the university can improve its inclusion.
“Out of the last four years we’ve had two student body presidents and we currently have a graduate student body president that’s black,” said residential life director Dr. Leon McClinton. “So that, to me, says a lot about our institution really trying to create student leaders within our black community. But then, on the other end of the spectrum, we do have some racial incidents that occur such as black face, we’ve had a few that have occurred. A couple of them have occurred in the resident’s halls.
When those incidents occur, definitely trying to mitigate those situations. You hear from the Black students that they feel like they’re not supported. So really trying to provide for them, create a setting or environment where they can be heard and trying to recover from those types of incidents.”
McClinton argues that OSU, like many predominantly white institutions, has Black students that feel they are not respected or that their voice is unheard. The panel believes things can be changed by having conversations about the topic.
“We’ve got to have these conversations,” Jones said. “And we’ve got to have these conversations with the students. And we got to let them know that it’s OK to feel that way, we’ve just got to know how to move forward from that.”
These issues extend to the athletes as well. As men’s basketball coach Mike Boynton pointed out, athletes sometimes struggle with getting adjusted to campus.
“We're in a minority in a general population, but from an athletics standpoint, the athletes are actually mostly African American students,” Boynton said. “So we deal with a different kind of cohort of students. My experience in my four years here has been that the athletes do genuinely enjoy their experience here, but they usually hang out with other athletes and it’s not necessarily that they’re getting the entire campus experience… Hopefully we continue to find people around campus when athletes and their families come visit so that they can feel like it’s home still.”
Patsy Armstrong, an assistant athletic director, suggested that athletes could improve these hardships if they get more communication from campus leaders.
“I think what happens sometimes on a lot of campuses is that the campus is spread out in pockets, especially for student athletes,” Armstrong said. “They’re kind of in their own little world in the west endzone and Gallagher (Iba Arena). So these great programs that campus is doing, that the residential hall might be doing, that the college of engineering is doing, they just never know about it or never hear about it… That’s the piece I would like to see. Bridging pockets more to get those student athletes, specifically, more engaged with what is out there.”