Pepperdine University’s search for its first-ever chief diversity officer started just over two years ago, according to Pepperdine President Jim Gash. On Wednesday, March 3, that search ended: the private Christian school atop Pacific Coast Highway hired Dr. J. Goosby Smith as its inaugural vice president for community belonging and chief diversity officer, along with Dr. April Harris Akinloye as the assistant vice president for community belonging. Now the question students are asking is: Will the institution be willing to back up Smith and Harris Akinloye’s recommendations with concrete changes?
From the killing of Black 15-year-old Larry Donnell Kimmons by a security guard on the school’s original South Los Angeles campus more than 50 years ago to the numerous testimonials of classroom microaggressions on the Instagram account @BlackatPepperdine started earlier this year, Pepperdine’s record with race is long and complex.
Smith will officially join Pepperdine June 1, 2021. She said her first steps would be connecting with various community groups, sitting in on meetings, visiting different schools’ diversity councils—all to establish a baseline of where the school currently is. “You don’t just jump in and do things, you have to listen to people to see what matters most,” she said.
The 10-page job description for Smith’s role detailed that her duties include advising Gash on matters relating to diversity, developing a university-wide center for diversity that serves as a resource for and supports efforts and initiatives across Pepperdine, developing and managing a budget, and serving as a member of the school’s steering team, among many others.
Some students worried that despite the pair’s efforts, things around Pepperdine would not change without deeper campus backing.
“Pepperdine has to be willing to allow the people that they’re putting in place, as well as the structures that are already in place, to enable change,” Celine Foreman, a Pepperdine junior who is also a campaign organizer and the membership coordinator of the Pepperdine Justice Coalition, a group of students, teachers and admin dedicated to making the school more equitable. “They can’t just appoint someone and then hope that everything will change. They have to be willing to take the advice and actually implement the advice that person may have.”
These concerns echo earlier complaints Pepperdine students shared with The Malibu Times over the summer and last fall. Students said they felt that past apologies or attempts to address racism from Gash fell flat because they were not widely broadcast to donors.
When asked whether Pepperdine’s assumedly white, wealthy, Christian conservative donors were in support of a diversity initiative, Gash told The Malibu Times that the community was “committed.”
“Pepperdine is committed to the steps that we’re taking and creating a community of belonging, not despite any sort of financial incentives,” Gash said in a recent interview. “We’re 100 percent behind this, we’re not fighting against anyone in this, and to say that our donor base is largely white and conservative is a caricature. It’s a whole lot more nuanced than that.”
@BlackatPepperdine was not the impetus for the creation of the two positions, Gash clarified, but the Instagram account is a valuable source of data for the administration. Gash said the account is one of the first things he checks online each day.
Smith comes to Pepperdine from The Citadel, a military college in South Carolina. There, she facilitates dialogue sessions amongst groups where people can connect and rehumanize each other. “Since December, 2018, I’ve also had the blessing to be able to train commanders and executive officers transitioning from the military to running Navy ROTCs at other universities,” Smith added. Before working at The Citadel, Smith attended Spelman College, an HBCU (historically Black college and university), before moving on to a career in tech. Smith went back to school to earn an MBA and PhD from Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, focusing on issues of diversity. From there, Pepperdine was her first teaching appointment. In the decades since, she has worked at several universities around the country.
Harris Akinloye also has experience at Pepperdine: a double alumna, she received both her undergraduate education and master’s degree in Malibu, before getting a PhD in education from University of California, Santa Barbara. In the past, Harris Akinloye has served as the chief diversity officer at Vanguard University.
Both were selected out of a pool of over 70 candidates after a nationwide search, Gash said.
Smith noted that Pepperdine had made much progress on diversity in the 20 years since she’d been associated with the school. “That should not be missed,” Smith said. “[Harris Akinloye] and I are accelerating that progress.”
Smith said she was excited to be collaborating with Harris Akinloye, though she did not yet know how the two would be splitting their upcoming duties.
“One of the strengths is that we both have a history at Pepperdine and understand the culture, but also both of us have engaged heavily in other organizations and institutions,” Smith said.