Name: Pamala V. Morris
Title & Organization: Associate Dean and Director, Office of Multicultural Programs, College of Agriculture, Purdue University
What is your background and how did you find your way into the agricultural sector and higher education?
My B.S. and master’s degrees were both in elementary education.
Upon graduation with my bachelor’s degree, I began my teaching career with the Indianapolis Public School (IPS) system as an upper elementary 6th grade classroom teacher. During the first two years of teaching, I returned in the evenings to Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., to complete my master’s. After teaching for many years in the classroom, I applied and was accepted into the two-year Danforth National Principal Preparation Program through Indiana University. Upon completion of the Danforth Program, I was appointed principal of an elementary school within the IPS system.
Within the first 18 months of my principalship, I met with a Purdue Extension educator who presented me with an opportunity to implement a 4H program in the upper grades at my school. The school was in the heart of the “red light” district in Indianapolis, with 90% of students on free and reduced lunch, coming from single female parent homes. Many students were members of gangs, so the area was designated as “Dodge City.” Also, during the first 18 months I had three students shot in drive by shootings, where they were innocent by-standers. In addition, small business owners were complaining that my students were vandalizing and stealing from their stores. I needed help, so I agreed to take six of my 4th–6th grades teachers to Purdue for a week-long training of Project LEAD.
Project LEAD was a program where schools could partner with businesses in the community to improve relationships and engage in positive activities and events with students. I attended the week-long training and one of the Extension administrators captured me during a break to discuss how impressed he was with me taking time out of my busy schedule to attend this training. He noted that Purdue Extension needed someone with this philosophy of being visible and engaged at every level. Hence, after serving three years as principal, I was recruited into Purdue Extension to serve as program leader for 4H in the Indianapolis area. After two years, I moved to campus in the State 4H department, started and finished my doctorate at Purdue, began as a tenure track faculty in 1998, and became the inaugural assistant dean for an office that didn’t exist, the Office of Multicultural Programs (OMP).
My visionary leadership and teamwork enabled me to build the office’s capacity to serve as a valued resource to the entire college, which includes eleven academic and two support departments. The office provides educational and developmental opportunities to move our administration, faculty, staff, and students toward becoming culturally responsible citizens as we live, work, and communicate in a global society. The primary responsibility for OMP is to recruit, retain, and graduate underrepresented minorities (URMs), women, and first-generation college students. That is my journey into the field of agriculture sciences and higher education.
Why is diversity important to you and your institution?
I will begin with a quote from Former President Barack Obama in his first speech to a Joint Session of Congress, Feb. 24, 2009.
“In a global economy, where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity. It is a prerequisite. Right now, three quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma, and yet just over half of our citizens have that level of education. We have one of the highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized nation, and half of the students who begin college never finish. This is a prescription for economic decline, because we know the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow.”
To date, institutions of higher education have attempted to be more deliberate in their efforts to address diversity issues regarding the rights and concerns for a diversity of individuals and groups on our campuses. Numerous efforts are occurring to create offices across campuses that focus on diversity, inclusion, and belonging; establishing cultural centers as places of resources, networking, and support; developing international studies and centers to encourage learning, research, and mentoring to promote study abroad and the acculturation of domestic and international students; and developing departments and minors for ethnic, racial, gender, disabilities, and LGBTQ studies. However, it is my belief, in order to move from incremental to a transformational change we must change the narrative around diversity, inclusion, and belonging and understand that diversity efforts are more than just counting numbers and protecting the rights of those who have been historically marginalized. We need to broaden our efforts to include a narrative focused on achieving academic and institutional excellence that position institutions of higher education to be more competitive across the world.
To accomplish this, as a thought leader for diversity and inclusion I, as well as my colleagues, must be aware of the fact that diversity is an ever changing and a multidimensional idea. The legal, political, demographic, social, organizational, and historic context continues to change and to be effective, leaders and institutions must progress and develop as well. I believe that as a leader it is imperative to assist those in other leadership positions across the university to develop a diversity rationale and an institutional definition for diversity that can be infused into the tripartite missions of learning, discovery, and engagement.
We must begin thinking about our diversity and inclusion efforts as connected networks of capabilities that if positioned in a more cohesive and collaborative manner will result in even greater levels of campus inclusion. We cannot continue to think about resources in isolation; they must be interconnected elements whose relationships need clarification and strengthening to address these following goals and priorities:
- Increasing access and equity for historically underrepresented and federally protected groups
- Creating an inclusive, culturally intelligent campus for the entire institutional community
- Engaging in research and scholarship to understand the experiences of women, minorities, and diverse groups
- Infusing diversity into the curriculum and co-curriculum for every student to ensure that they each experience the educational benefits of diversity
What current diversity initiatives do you have planned or ongoing?
I have many initiatives ongoing in my college, so I will highlight only a few. One major initiative over the last two years, has been to implement the “Inclusive Excellence” framework to begin the process of embedding DEIB into everything that we do across the tripartite missions of the institution and college. In order to create and environment of inclusion where we foster a sense of pride, passion, and belonging, with the support and funding from our dean we have administered the Intercultural Development Inventory across our college to administrators, faculty, staff, and some graduates students with over 70% completion. This is an effort to move our entire college toward becoming interculturally competent. We are also offering programs to faculty and staff to create that sense of belonging through different educational programs. For example, our “Chew on This Series” are quarterly workshops aligning DEIB with agricultural topics for faculty, staff, and graduate students.
We received $250K over five years to support a new undergraduate mentoring program, Support for Success (SSP), to provide additional community building and professional development program that includes:
- LeaderShape Catalysts Retreat – Fall/Spring, offered to all undergraduates, Els, MANRRS, Ag. Ambassadors, 10 spots from other colleges
- Community social events
- Professional development workshops – (4) per year, undergrad/grad/staff, based on student survey feedback
In addition, we garnered support from Cargill ($400K over two years) to hire an outreach coordinator to increase outreach to new partners, increase the number of Junior MANRRS clubs and increase engagement with C-PASA (Purdue Agribusiness Summer Academy) participants throughout the academic year. PASA, now renamed C-PASA to honor the contribution from Cargill, is a three-tier pipeline program engaging middle school students in a one-day agricultural career awareness event, a three-day high school teacher workshop to equip teachers with resources, and a two-week high school residential summer camp.
We also highlight and celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with week-long events during the week of our national MLK Jr. holiday. We have a different theme for each year and 2023’s theme is creating a sense of belonging. We are bringing in Dr. Terrell Strayhorn, author of College Students’ Sense of Belonging: A key to college success for all students. Dr. Strayhorn will serve as our keynote speaker on Wednesday, Jan. 18, and provide workshops throughout the day for faculty, staff, students, and administrators. We have a panel of industry leaders on Friday of that week where we will also present our Unsung Diversity Hero award recipients for 2022 and 2023. Each award recipient receives $1,500 to use for professional development and a plaque. There are three categories: faculty, staff, and student teams. The award is given to those who work behind the scenes to create an environment of inclusion in their respective departments.
In your opinion, what is the most exciting thing happening in the sector currently?
I believe the most exciting thing happening now in agriculture is digital ag and data science. Which also captures my vision for the future of agriculture. As one of my colleagues always says, “this is an exciting time to be in agriculture.” A direct quote from my dean captures the excitement and vision for the future: “Digital agriculture is already changing the landscape of agricultural research by allowing many more sources of data to be brought together for interpretation,” said Karen Plaut, the Glenn W. Sample dean of the College of Agriculture. “This enables the development of apps with specific functions, real-time decision making, and expanding the field of predictive agriculture.”
My thoughts on the future of agriculture are definitely not original. As part of the senior leadership in the College of Agriculture, we continue to engage in many discussions and presentations focused on our future. Advanced technologies contributing to concise data collection and analysis will be of benefit, not only to farmers but the industry as well. The digital world and data science will eventually have an impact on how people see agriculture as not only pertaining to traditional farming but through a lens of innovation and inventions that we probably can’t even envision. The impact will have a ripple effect on how we teach and foster learning; recruit and retain a diversity of excellent faculty, staff, and students; evaluate performance reviews; and create structures and support systems for a global citizenry.