By Brianna Bush
On Aug. 30, The University of Tampa’s new chief diversity officer (CDO), Thomas Witherspoon, is set to be at the forefront of making strides towards diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).
In addition, Witherspoon will work to carry out the mission in the Values to Action: UT’s Task Force on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion report which was designed to assess and refine the social climate at UT.
“The intention was to create an interdisciplinary team of staff and students to really look at our campus climate,” said Stephanie Russell Krebs, the vice president for student affairs and one of the leading professionals in the task force. “That is when the emergence of Witherspoon’s role came to fruition.”
Witherspoon has years of experience standing as a leader in higher education institutions by seeking to create a welcoming environment for all students.
He served as the vice president for diversity and inclusion and as the title IX coordinator at Whitman College. During his time there, he was named as chair of the inclusion task force committee.
Additionally, he earned a Doctor of Education (EdD) in Higher Education Administration at New England College. He later went on to become a program director for The Posse Foundation, which is a leadership development program created to give college access to youth.
He also took roles as the associate director of admissions at Boston University, the assistant dean of students at Dartmouth College, and the associate dean and director of multicultural student affairs at Denison University, respectively.
Krebs upholds that Witherspoon is well equipped for the role as “he’s worked at multiple positions of DEI.”
The chief diversity officer search committee, which was made up of UT professionals and students, was heavily involved in finding an individual who had not only a strong background but also the will to make a change.
Hannah Lammon, senior international business major and a student leader that served on the DEI Task Force, was poised to be a part of UT’s long-term goal of achieving DEI.
Lammon was a member of the co-curricular sub-committee where the goal was to see what improvements could be made to support different identity groups on campus.
“It was a really great experience; I think it was a big learning curve because I’ve never been a part of an administrative committee before,” said Lammon. “It was really great to have a diverse task force that really included a lot of parts of the university.”
“I got to see how long everything takes because everything is very thoughtful and intentional,” said Lammon. “Topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion are very important and they need to be thought through fully in order for them to work effectively.”
When it came time to implement their mission, Lammon was also a member of the search committee for the chief diversity officer position.
“Students were involved in the interview process and students felt strongly that he was passionate about DEI,” said Krebs.
“When we initially were going through the interview process he [Dr. Witherspoon] stood out to me as someone who would be able to really attune students, and I thought that was honestly the most important piece in this role,” said Lammon. “Not only does he have credentials to be CDO but he also has the capability of connecting with people our age.”
When Spartan Peer Educating About Resources (SPEAR) mentor and InterVarsity small group leader, Kendra Williams learned about what Dr. Witherspoon has to offer at UT, she saw this as a great opportunity for small spaces on campus to be heard.
“I think the chief diversity officer will bring change to UT by bringing awareness to equity and inclusion,” said Williams. “I think I could work with him in the future considering a lot of my scholars [mentees] are minority students.”
Krebs and Lammon both see the improvement needed to make the campus a safe space for students of all backgrounds.
“Everyone involved [in the task force] was very passionate about the subject,” said Lammon. “A lot of them have personal stakes in DEI work just like myself and I think that was another thing that made it a better job because it was really nice working with people that care.”
“People choose diversity because they want to be around different people,” said Krebs. “We have to make good on our promise to move things forward.”
Achieving the mission of DEI continues with the UT community working diligently to do their part. The entrance of UT’s new CDO is a stepping stone to seeing that change.
“Students don’t realize change doesn’t happen in one day,” said Lammon. “Every single person on campus is equally responsible for making that change.”