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Meet Robin Means Coleman

New chief diversity officer talks about why she came to Northwestern and what she’s looking forward to in 2021

On Feb. 1, Robin Means Coleman began her role as vice president and associate provost for diversity and inclusion and chief diversity officer. In addition to her role as chief diversity officer and a member of President Morton Schapiro’s senior staff, Coleman is the inaugural Ida B. Wells and Ferdinand Barnett Professor of Communication Studies.

She spoke to Northwestern Now about what she is most looking forward to in 2021, plus how she really feels about the eight inches of snow Evanston received this week.

Why did you decide to come to Northwestern?

I am a true believer in developing strategic plans to use as my north star for progress and assessment. During my time as a Big Ten Academic Leadership Program Fellow, I chose to dig in to a number of Big Ten strategic plans.

Robin Means Coleman
Robin Means Coleman

The NorthWEstern WILL Strategic Plan stood out. It is as bold as it is comprehensive, and that left a lasting impact. It is driven by academic and research excellence (“discover”), global strategic partnerships (“engage”), intercultural pedagogy (“integrate”), and diversity and inclusion (“connect”). It invites continued improvement and change as it pertains to inclusive pedagogies, undergraduate and graduate student access and education initiatives, campus climate improvements, and the recruitment, retention and professional development of faculty and staff. Often, university strategic plans are not really “planning” documents at all. Rather, they are public relations pieces about where an institution has been and what it is currently doing. Northwestern’s stands out because it encourages real planning and innovation.

Related: Northwestern names Robin Means Coleman chief diversity officer

More, while we should always hold our institutions to an even higher standard, Northwestern is moving in a positive direction in several areas, including the student binary gender ratio and increased diversity in undergraduate enrollments. I am especially excited by the “I’m First” campaign launched in 2018. COVID-19 hit access to college hard. “I’m First” is a proactive way to increase access and inform social mobility. I believe we are equipped to do similar access and inclusion programming as it pertains to neurodiversity for students, staff and faculty. With this kind of excellence, coming to Northwestern was a very easy decision to make.

What three things are you looking forward to this year?

Personally, I cannot wait to attend performances in the Wirtz Center. I absolutely love the arts. I am eager to enjoy the plays, dance and musical productions.

Professionally, I am looking forward to partnering with the Diversity Leaders Group. The DLG is a brilliant, committed collective of diversity, equity and inclusion innovators.

As for our social world, I am relentlessly optimistic in my belief that 2021 will be the year that serious reforms are put in place to rid us of wrongs as a result of environmental racism, the carceral state, health disparities, mental health services inaccessibility and redlining and political gerrymandering.

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

Two things. First, I am so deeply honored to be the inaugural Ida B. Wells and Ferdinand Barnett Professor of Communication Studies. My admiration for Ida B. Wells, in particular, knows no bounds. As I watched the terrorist attack on the Capitol last month, I wished many of our political leaders would reflect on her words and see themselves in them: “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” More, as it pertains to the Department of Communication Studies, I am proud to work alongside such matchless scholars. Faculty across the School of Communication are disciplinary trailblazers, and I am honored to join them as we continue to inform the scholarly agenda.

Second, I am most over-the-moon about Northwestern saying, ‘we want to be a national leader on diversity and improved campus climate.’ I am so very proud that I and the OIDI team have been entrusted with coordinating the campus response to inclusion, diversity, equity and importantly, accountability. Northwestern will be known as *the* innovator in these areas. That’s the greatest achievement of all!

What’s a fun fact that you want to share with the Northwestern community?

About eight years ago, I entered a bench-press contest at Eastern Michigan University. One aging professor — that would be me — against a bunch of college students. I took third-place! They gave me a nice water bottle as my prize. They should have given me a handful of ibuprofen.

Are you sure moving from Texas to Evanston in February is a good idea?

I am writing this from College Station, Texas, where I am wearing a cotton sundress and espadrille sandals. It is 75 degrees! You, on the other hand, are digging out from about eight inches of snow. As someone born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and who spent much of her professional career in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I appreciate a proper four seasons, and I just love winter clothes. But eight inches of snow makes even this hearty Midwesterner a bit nervous!