When Donald Outing arrives in a new town, one of the first things he sets out to do is find a place to get his hair cut.
He searched the Bethlehem area and found a location not too far from Lehigh’s campus. As he sat down, the barber asked him what he did for a living. Outing told him he works at Lehigh, and the barber assumed he was a professor.
When Outing explained he was hired as the first vice president for equity and community, the barber was impressed something so progressive was being done in his own community.
“Every time I encounter someone and they learn about my position and what Lehigh’s desires are, they get excited,” Outing said. “People who live in the area who never even attended Lehigh have this sense of commitment and loyalty to the school, and they want to see Lehigh do well and succeed.”
Naturally, students and the community at large are eager to see Lehigh become a more welcoming environment that, in turn, produces individuals with the capacity to accept and promote diversity.
Outing was brought to Lehigh to enhance and support community engagement and inclusion efforts across campus. Lehigh announced Outing’s position on Jan. 24 and by Feb. 1, he was on campus meeting with different stakeholders, from students and staff to alumni and senior leaders to begin shaping his role.
Beginning in 1997, Outing served as an assistant professor in the department of mathematical sciences at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Outing returned to West Point in 2004 after earning his doctorate in mathematics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. As a faculty member at West Point, Outing quickly became involved in matters of diversity.
“I began to become very much aware of the lack of representation of specifically African Americans, Hispanics and women in the mathematical sciences,” Outing said.
Outing refused to accept what other colleagues and so-called experts in the field dismissed as normal. Research proved to Outing that the mathematics community had prevented black individuals and women from becoming practicing mathematicians in the United States up until the better part of the 1960s.
The more Outing learned about the historical and systematic discrimination in the field he loved, the more he wanted to develop strategies to encourage women and minorities to participate in mathematical sciences. Outing worked to recruit a more diverse faculty and student body at West Point, receiving national recognition for his efforts and giving presentations on those efforts at national conferences.
After wearing the uniform for about 30 years, Outing considered retiring from public service but was asked to become the chief diversity officer at West Point. It was an inaugural position, so he had to build it, similar to what he is doing at Lehigh.
Outing said Lehigh already has a number of organizations working to achieve the common goal of diversity and inclusion, but it is now his job to serve as a strategist and focal point for the mission.
Lori McClaind, an associate dean of students and tri-chair of the Council for Equity and Community, served on the search committee for Outing’s position. She said it was during a period of transformation in which members of the CEC began to question what Lehigh is truly about and what is important to the campus climate.
McClaind said the idea of having someone lead diversity efforts goes as far back as 2010.
“A chief diversity officer has always been something on the agenda of the CEC and folks across campus who felt like we needed someone to lead and coordinate this effort and facilitate opportunities for education,” McClaind said.
With the support of President John Simon and Provost Pat Farrell, the CEC decided it was finally time to take the next step. Cheryl Matherly, the vice president and vice provost for international affairs and tri-chair of the CEC, said the search committee portrayed diversity in and of itself, including faculty, staff and students from across campus.
Matherly said Outing’s experiences and successes at West Point, as well as his calm demeanor, made him stand out throughout the search process.
“Even prior to the time he became a chief diversity officer, just in his role as a faculty member in the math department, he had a really big impact on (West Point), in terms of of actual measures like affecting the number of faculty of color in the math department, to changing the thinking about how diversity was part of education,” Matherly said.
Matherly said Outing also exhibits the attitude needed to deal with complicated, emotional issues.
Pat Johnson, vice president for finance and administration and a co-chair of the CEC, said the search committee sought out a candidate who could relate to students, faculty and staff. Johnson said each group has a different experience working and learning at a university, so the chosen candidate needed to be able to bring these groups together.
Bringing people together, and helping those people develop the capacity to lead and empathize, is part of Outing’s primary objective. As he settles into his position, though, Outing’s first priority is to draft a strategic plan around diversity, inclusion and equity.
Outing said he envisions his plan coming to life in the next six months. It will focus on recruitment and admission of a more diverse student body, the retention of that diverse student body and hiring a more diverse faculty and staff. The plan will also work to create a more inclusive campus and stronger community outreach.
Outing said he also needs to establish the structure of his position and determine the assets he will need to bring under the purview of his office.
“There are a lot of great things being done here, some of them will be in natural alignment with the office,” Outing said. “Then there’s going to be an opportunity to create additional positions in this space, as well as to help administer and manage many different programs.”
A large focus of Outing’s position and the CEC in general is enhancing and providing resources to campus-wide efforts already taking place. For example, Outing said community outreach can be expanded to increase the size of Lehigh’s national footprint.
Perhaps the biggest concentration of Outing’s role at Lehigh is raising awareness for problems in order to find solutions.
“It’s about building collaborative relationships, it’s about empowering and getting people to see the importance of this and how we all benefit from more awareness,” Outing said. “It’s not a minority issue, it’s not a woman’s issue, it’s an all-of-us issue, because we all become better capacity-wise and development-wise when we learn, develop and thrive in an inclusive environment.”
Though Outing is here to promote an inclusive environment, the responsibility also lands in the hands of Lehigh students.
Outing said students are doing themselves a disservice when they do not push themselves to meet people who are different than they are.
“Invite people who are different from you into your space and then also visit other people in their spaces,” Outing said. “Take advantage of your time. You’re on a campus for four years to experience different cultures and different people. Step outside of your comfort zone.”