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New UND VP: Diversity more complex than it seems

Sandra Mitchell is the new Vice President for inclusion and diversity at UND. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Around the time Sandra Mitchell was offered the position of Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion at UND, the controversy surrounding the school’s Fighting Sioux nickname and logo was once again making headlines.

Soon after a sorority hung a banner some deemed offensive toward American Indians, Mitchell took the job. Soon after that, several students wore shirts that said “Siouxper drunk” to an annual festival attended mostly by university students, and that incident was followed by a protest march through campus.

“I was kind of like, ‘Oh my gosh, what am I getting myself into,’” Mitchell said.

Since then, Mitchell said she has spent a lot of time looking at the diversity issues that affect Grand Forks.

“From the outside it looks like a very simple issue,” she said. “From the inside … it’s a school mascot, but there's a lot of statewide support in a way that you may not see in other places. It was more complex than I thought.”

Diversity goals

Mitchell has been at UND for about a month and a half and said the Fighting Sioux issue isn’t her only area of focus. She doesn’t have any concrete plans yet, but Mitchell said she wants to teach the campus community that diversity is about so much more than race.

“We tend to think of diversity as being only about race and we tend to think activities associated with diversity are the cultural pieces; the food, festival, fun stuff,” she said. “What we don't look at are things like socioeconomic class as a diversity issue. … We don't look at things even like regional diversity in the United States. There are definite cultures associated with where you live and those are all diversity issues but we tend to not think of them when ‘diversity’ is said.”

Mitchell will be working with various groups on campus to come up with educational programming for UND students.

“Diversity is a good thing and we all play some role in it,” she said. “It’s not just for people who look like me, and we all have some role in that. It can be scary sometimes, but it really is a good thing. It’s nice to have different ideas, perspectives and experiences from which we can solve problems, build communities or any number of things.”

Spreading cultural awareness

This is the first time Mitchell’s position has existed at UND. Spokesman Peter Johnson said the creation of a diversity VP has been in the works for several years and was vetted through the campus community, including the University Senate.

Mitchell will make $125,000 annually and report to Provost Thomas DiLorenzo with a “dotted line” to the Vice President of Student Affairs Lori Reesor, Johnson said.

Mitchell comes to UND from Regis University in Denver where she served as its first long-standing chief diversity officer for more than a decade.

Before that, Mitchell also helped establish the first National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education, or NCORE, at Iowa State University where she served as coordinator of Minority Recruitment and Retention for the College of Education. Mitchell said the conference still happens, even in her absence.

She decided to apply in Grand Forks after the job posting came across her desk on three separate occasions.

“I just thought it was a sign,” she said.

Anna Burleson

Anna Burleson is the higher education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald. She is a 2013 graduate of the University of South Dakota's Mass Communication program and is originally from Watertown, S.D. Contact her with story ideas or tips by phone, email or Twitter, all of which are listed below. Examples of her work can be accessed here.

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