by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson
Tony Boston joined Dickinson in October as the college’s inaugural vice president and chief diversity officer. Below, he answers some questions about his career, his vision for this new role and the important work underway.
Tell us about your professional path.
As an undergraduate at Whittier College, I majored in biology and physical education. While there, I worked in the Office of Admissions within the Diversity in Action program—my first taste of diversity, equity and inclusion! Because of my experiences of growing up in poverty in rural Arkansas, I understood how important education is and how it expands access and changes patterns of poverty within families. Upon graduation, I decided to work as a biology teacher in a low-socioeconomic community in Southern California. This career choice allowed me to stay engaged and to expand opportunity through education.
Eventually, I transitioned to higher education—teaching, coaching and serving on committees at Pomona College. This committee service included a Title IX working group, the Presidential Advisory Committee for Diversity and Pomona’s executive committee. I was then tapped to enter the administration as an associate dean for academic affairs and as a diversity officer. Eventually, I was named special adviser to the president. After Pomona, I moved to Reed College, where I worked as dean for institutional diversity. I moved from that position to Dickinson.
What brought you to Dickinson, specifically?
Although this is an inaugural role, the infrastructure is in place to do some really creative things. There's a lot of amazing work happening on the ground in the All-College Committee for Equity, Inclusivity & Belonging; the House Divided Project; the work of the Office of Equity & Inclusivity; and equity work in various areas around the college. Dickinson partners with LACRELA—Liberal Arts Colleges’ Racial Equity Leadership Alliance—a national project that thinks about how diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) issues are playing out on small liberal-arts campuses across the nation. That takes some strong institutional commitment and strong investment from senior leadership—it shows that the college is moving in a proactive and strategic way and thinking about equity and access. We are also a member of LADO [Liberal Arts Diversity Officers], another sign that we’re tuned in, doing important work and thinking about this on a national scale. These were among the factors that led me to believe that Dickinson was committed to DEI and that this would be a great fit.
Change is never easy, but I think it can be easier when we know one another.
How do you envision this new role?
A diversity officer works with existing scholarship and uses their background and experience to provide intellectual leadership to advance conversations about equity, diversity and inclusivity. Day-to-day, it's about serving as a strategic advisor, whether that's to the president and senior leadership team or to a department or department chair.
There are times when you work as a coach and motivator to say, “Yes, we have some strong, ambitious goals. I can give you the tools and the resources to help you to get there.” At times, it's about being that empathetic ear, where I can welcome someone into the office and say, “Let's have a conversation.” Often, those conversations are with members of our community, crossing many different demographics, who feel that there's a disconnect between our aspirations and their lived experiences. A part of my work is to close that gap. And I find that to be very rewarding, very valuable.
Does this look different at a liberal-arts college like Dickinson?
A small, residential liberal-arts college does community really well. It’s a high-touch environment with a low student-to-faculty ratio, so you get those close connections and relationships. Change is never easy, but I think it can be easier when we know one another.
What are some of the challenges in this work?
I think that where we are, generationally, and where our students are in their four-year cycles here, we want to see everything happen within a three- or four-year period of time. And I think a part of that challenge of the work is that it may take a little bit longer. We are committed to getting it done. We have to move in that right direction—we have to always move toward equity, always move toward justice. But there aren’t any quick fixes or silver bullets that are going to resolve our issues.
It’s a slow process, and sometimes that can create some frustration. There’s also resistance at times, because sometimes we experience change as a loss of control or power.
It's about the complexity of human interaction. Working through that complexity takes time.
What are you working on now?
Ah, so many things! Since joining Dickinson in October, I’ve been engaging members of the community to listen to their stories and understand the narrative of what it's like to live, learn and work here at Dickinson. I’m also immersing myself in data that has been collected and trying to understand—looking at questions such as “What is it like, as an underrepresented woman in STEM?” “What is it like to be an international student?”—and thinking about how we can use data to inform decisions.
With the newly formed division of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, it’s exciting to think about how we come together to shape a vision—how we do our work, our programming, the conversations we have, how we engage with the Carlisle community and how we provide the institution with the tools, the skills and the language to advance this work and multiply our capacity.
Because I’m a part of the leadership team, I’m able to guide how we think about decisions and connect those decisions to equity, whether we're talking about a new building, finances or new policies.
What do you wish more people knew about your field?
Changing perceptions and actions, increasing or enhancing individuals’ skills and changing the way that we interact with one another is about the complexity of human interaction. Working through that complexity takes time.
It’s also not necessarily the work of an individual, but the work of the organization overall. Dickinson is an amazing place that's steeped in tradition and values that date back 240 years. There isn't a single policy or speech I can give that will change that 240-year history. It’s going to take dedication over a sustained period of time—by me, by my office, by the institution—to continue to steadily move the institution forward.
Do you have any heroes?
In 2021, I lost my mother. In so many ways, she is a hero for me. Like a lot of people growing up in a rural community, we struggled quite a bit. As a young, single parent with three kids, she moved our family from rural Arkansas to California. She got additional training and certifications to advance her career from being a cook at a restaurant, making minimum wage, to eventually becoming a supervisor and sending all three of her children to college—something that was not a possibility for herself. She had such a strength of character. I think about that constantly, as I’m doing this work.
I want to invite as many voices into this conversation as possible ... Diversity, equity and inclusion work is for everyone.
What's your best advice to students?
As someone who grew up in poverty in rural Arkansas, when I attended a liberal-arts college as a STEM major, it didn't seem like it was a natural fit. Even though my college did amazing things to build that sense of belonging, there was always that thought in the back of my mind of: Do I really belong here? Are they going to find out that I'm a fraud? And I went on to become a biology teacher, working to advance science education. Now, I’m working at a larger scale in higher ed.
So If I could give advice to students experiencing impostor syndrome or stereotype threat, I would say, "You’re enough, and you belong."
What do you most want us to know about you?
That I am approachable. If you have a desire to engage in the work, email me, give me a phone call, knock on my door. Let’s grab a cup of coffee and just have a conversation. The conversation doesn't always have to be about somber issues of race and inequities and oppression. I like to have uplifting conversations as well, about sports, music, what’s happening in the general area. Definitely feel free to comment and engage.
Is there anything you would like to add?
I want to invite as many voices into this conversation as possible, because we all have stories to tell and experiences and backgrounds to contribute. Diversity, equity and inclusion work is for everyone. If you are new to these conversations, you can do this without fear that you may say or do the wrong thing—we are an institution of higher education; we are here for your learning and development. And if you have been advocating for change and protesting for a long period of time, there's an entry point for you as well, as we continue to move this work forward. The important thing is that, as a community, we're all in this together.
Published February 24, 2023