Q&A with first vice president and chief diversity officer

Dr. Khalilah A. Shabazz is Butler’s new vice president and chief diversity officer. Photo by Lauren Hough.

ALISON MICCOLIS | MANAGING EDITOR | amiccolis@butler.edu

Dr. Khalilah A. Shabazz started at Butler University as Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer on Sep. 12 after working at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, IUPUI, for more than 20 years. She is the first person to hold this role at Butler. 

Shabazz earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from IUPUI. She then went on to earn her master’s degree in higher education where she focused on the experiences of minority students and student retention. Her doctorate is also in higher education, where her research focused on institutional climate. 

The connection between Shabazz and Butler, however, did not just begin when she started her current role. Shabazz’s great grandmother, Vivian Irene White Marbury, who raised her, was one of the founders of Sigma Gamma Rho on Butler’s campus 100 years ago. 

The Butler Collegian: How did you hear about the position and what drew you to apply? 

Khalilah Shabazz: So it’s sort of a unique story, in that I am a member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority Incorporated, with my great-grandmother being a founder … And so [Butler] had an event in the fall that was sort of like a countdown to the 100th anniversary of Sigma Gamma Rho … There was time to just kind of mingle, and so I was just kind of chit chatting with President Danko and Bethanie [Danko]. So this was fall of 2021. And we just kind of chit chatted, and he asked what I did and that type of thing. So fast forward, I had heard, sort of through the grapevine … that there were different types of searches for a position similar to this one, so not this specific position as it was finalized … 

And so, spring comes along, and I ended up coming to the graduation. The seven founders [of Sigma Gamma Rho] received the honorary degree, which was just an incredible honor. [I] ended up being a commencement speaker. And then afterward, there was a reception, and people were like, “Oh, my God, that was great,” and you know, “Hey, what are you doing? Would you be willing to kind of entertain a conversation about the DEI things that are happening at Butler?” So that kind of snowballed into, “Here, just take a look at the job description,” and that type of thing. And conversations lead to longer conversations and an interview day and really working with [Butler’s] leadership team to say, “Hey, here are some things that I think would be beneficial to the campus and the skill set that I have that might align, and let’s see if we can make this happen.” And we did. 

TBC: What is your position? What are your roles and responsibilities? What are you going to be doing on campus? 

KS: I guess I could start by saying: I don’t know. What I’ll say is what we’ve outlined are a few things. One is really a coordination and sort of a centralization of how we’re going to do DEI as an institution. Because right now, like I mentioned a minute ago, there’s amazing things happening all over. But most folks don’t know because people operate in silos, and that’s very common across institutions all across the nation, which is why roles like this come into play. And a lot of the peer institutions of Butler have recently within the past probably 10 years have all created similar roles … That was part of me looking into seeing [if there] is truly a need, and it most certainly has been the trend for most of Butler’s peers or aspiring institutions. So the ones that we are like and the ones that we aspire to be have formalized an institutional [Chief Diversity Officer] or Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to really lead these efforts. 

So I see myself as a catalyst. I’m not going to be the … compliance police. I’m not the person that’s going to go around and tell everybody what they must do. I really want to understand what makes every student, staff and faculty member thrive at Butler, and what are the barriers to them thriving, and what are things that we might be doing that we need to make sure happens and is available and accessible for everybody? And how are we actualizing our mission? So that’s sort of how I’m approaching the work. 

There’s three kinds of areas that I’m going to center the work around … One is inclusive climate and culture. How do people feel as members of the Butler community? How do we address and mitigate bias, discrimination, things of that nature. So using data, surveys, focus groups and conversations, how do we make sure that when you walk on campus, you feel safe, you feel like your voice matters and is heard, et cetera. So that’s one area.

Another area is learning and development. There’s opportunities or pockets for learning about DEI or social justice things, but nothing that’s really kind of coordinated that says, “Hey, I want to really sink in and learn a little bit more about my own identity or identity of others or bias or microaggressions. I want to grow in my DEI competency.” And that’s at all levels, right? — students, staff, faculty, everybody. So that’s another area of opportunity to really develop the learning piece.

And then the other one is centered around programming and engagement. Amazing things are happening — like Dr. Rosa Clemente was here yesterday, right? — and so how do we make sure that people really know who this amazing activist is that is coming to campus, that is bringing herself and her knowledge and her experiences as an intersectional individual to campus and how many people can benefit from hearing from her? So how do we do that and make sure that the platform is appropriate and accessible to everybody? And other [types of programming] as an institution, how do we celebrate our various heritage months … or observances that we often miss out on? 

So those are the three things within sort of my official role that I’m going to really hone in and focus on. 

TBC: What experience do you have working in DEI, and how will that help you in your current role? 

KS: In this work, you never arrive, right? You’re constantly learning, so I am most certainly a lifelong learner and action-oriented person relative to DEI because there’s still tons we don’t know. Everybody is evolving every day. But what I do know is I spent 21 years at the institution down the street, in many ways. There’s pros and cons to that. I was at one institution. It was very different from Butler in many ways, public/private, large/small, very different. However, the advances that I have been able to contribute to as a university around DEI are things that I think would be incredible here. They’re transferable — there’s a lot of transferable skills and ways I can adapt a lot of the things that I was able to help accomplish there, here. From my starting first-generation programs, like really helping students understand no matter who they were that you can be successful in college, so helping them with wraparound supports. 

I developed the Diversity Enrichment and Achievement Program, or DEAP, and DEAP was a retention and support program. It was coordinated and offered mentorship and some monetary support, but it was really about building community and building self-efficacy skills within yourself and tons more …

I started study abroad programs and led them for years. I love bridging the gap between global and domestic diversity because we have students and individuals from all over the world, and we don’t really do a good job at sort of bridging that. So I was a part of some really strong partnerships to break down those invisible barriers between our international students and our domestically diverse students. 

I was one of the founding persons of our LGBTQ+ center. So I went and did the research across the United States to see what centers were doing and how best to develop out and staff and fund, and we were able to successfully get [an] LGBTQ+ center on our campus. I led the initiative and created the first ever all-gender restroom list for the entire campus. 

The list can go on and on and on. And I will say that a lot of those things I was able to help initiate. And that’s just campus-wide things. I can’t tell you how many faculty and staff trainings [I’ve done] to help them better serve, better teach, better work with students, better respond to issues of DEI in the classroom. [I] helped to do our newsletter. 

A lot of the things I’ve mentioned, I do not take full credit for. I feel like I sometimes have wild ideas, and I throw it, and it sticks, and I’m like, “Great, let’s go!” But I also recognize it involves the assistance and support of many, many, many of my students. I’m very collaborative. So I want to hear the voices of the students at all times. I’m a very student-centered and driven professional. So yeah, all [of] that wasn’t done by myself. I just was fortunate enough to be able to lead many of those things. 

TBC: We have seen a lot of turnover with women and people of color in leadership positions at the university over the past few years. How do you hope to change that? 

KS: You know, I want to know why. And this really aligns with some work that I’m actually still working on with IUPUI. We started seeing this mass exodus of women of color on campus, and we were like, “Are they leaving? Are they being pushed out? What is happening?” 

So we actually developed a task force and began to study why. We looked at the institutional data to see how people were being either given or passed up on opportunities. Then we held focus groups. We held probably like 20-some odd focus groups and did interviews with all of these women who wanted to share their stories, the women who were still there. And then we did analysis on that data and have developed recommendations to the institution. So that most certainly connects with this and you’re bringing something to my attention that I had no idea about … but I certainly see that informing what I want to do and what I think that I will be able to do. 

So one of the things is, I hope to develop a dashboard, which a lot of institutions use, and it’s really just an opportunity to be very transparent about your demographic information. And it includes other things too, so it’ll talk about the climate, things of that nature, but you can see trends … and then only when someone’s looking at it, can they say, “Oh, wait, we’ve lost this many people.” But if nobody’s looking at it, it’s just anecdotal, or some people don’t operate without the data. And so, that is most certainly one of the things that I will be working in partnership with HR to do this demographic trending and see in what ways we need to develop new recruitment strategies. Like perhaps sending [job postings] to Indeed … is not the place. Maybe we need to send through Diverse: Issues in Higher [Education] or specific networks, that in this particular case are women-identified networks, where they can get jobs and stuff. So there’s a bunch of springing off strategies that I think could be beneficial. 

TBC: What are your personal goals during your time at Butler? Are there any areas of campus life you want to focus on? 

KS: The first thing that comes to my mind, which may sound cheesy or emotional, but I really want to bring forth the energy and the passion of the seven founders [of Sigma Gamma Rho], which included my great-grandmother, who were the benefactors of Ovid Butler’s positionality about race, gender, inclusivity, diversity and equity. And so to me, I keep imagining picking up this torch and the timing of it all — I’m getting goosebumps — is just so incredible because this is our 100 years. 

And I know that the sorority being founded here, I think that it sounds like, “Oh, it’s a sorority,” but I think about what was happening in 1922 and the real history of what it meant for our Butler founder to say, “Hey, no, we’re taking a stand. Oh, okay, the KKK is gonna be right there. You’re gonna live right there. That’s fine. We’re gonna have a university here anyway … And I’m gonna let people such as these seven women, including [Shabazz’s great-grandmother], come in these doors.” And they worked to establish and build an organization that was centered around educating and equity and social justice for communities and particularly communities of color in Indianapolis. And that’s profound to me. 

They did this initial living the mission of Butler, so I feel like my personal responsibility is to make sure that if that torch has dimmed over the years — which I understand it has, right? I’m on my tour of campus, and I’m hearing all the different things, great things too, but I’m also hearing the hard truths — I want to help reignite that, so that not just me, but everybody feels that, and we’re able to truly have some long-standing change and really feel like when you come here, you know the kind of institution that you’re coming to. And you may not be prepared or ready to grow in that way, but you’re accepting the responsibility to. No matter who you are, what your background and experiences and perspectives are, you’re committing here, which is a commitment: not to your education only, but a commitment for advancing towards social change. And then leaving here and going and doing that [social change]. 

TBC: As a leader, what are your greatest strengths? 

KS: I very much have a collaborative spirit. It’s really important to me to hear voices and hear perspectives. I’m fine with being challenged. I think that’s a part of collaboration. I would say that I am also a strategist. I was telling some colleagues the other day, I woke up at like 5 in the morning, and it’s almost like in my brain I can see stuff as puzzle pieces, and I’m moving them around … I think in terms of, “I can see a big goal” … 

I am an empath, which is a strength and a fault. I think, though, that it really helps me to pause. Sometimes there might be a policy or practice that we just can’t change. But I know that it could be impacting someone in a not-so-good way. And that person, even though I may not be able to change it, I still want them to feel heard and know that I care about how something is impacting them. I think empathy really helps me to be able to do that. That means that [when] you drop a tear, though, the Kleenex is ready, because I’m going to, too. 

And then the last one I would say is I’m a lifelong learner, and I said that earlier. I don’t take for granted that it is a privilege to be able to do this work, and so I constantly try to honor my identities, [the] identities of other people, and constantly evolve as I need to to make sure that I’m doing things in the way that I should. I’m also really patient … Not patient where you can just push me over, but I do have a lot of patience. 

TBC: What’s a fun fact about yourself? 

KS: Let’s see, what’s a fun fact. I have a wildly ridiculous addiction to butterflies. I believe that if I had to have a spirit animal, they would be mine. Because [butterflies], I mean, they’re so beautiful. Their life from transformation, you know, they crawl, then they cocoon, then they have to bust themselves out of their own cocoon, and then they fly. They don’t really necessarily live that long, but there’s just so much power there. And so I love, love, love butterflies. And I always have on a piece of butterfly jewelry or something. And if by chance I accidentally leave it, I have tattoos. 

TBC: Can you talk about your great-grandmother and how her journey impacted you? 

KS: Vivian Irene White Marbury, she was born March of 1900, and so she lived until she was 100 years old, 100 years and six months. She raised me. She began raising me when she was about 81, and my elementary school was right across the way where the old International School is. Just as a human being, she was an incredible woman. And I knew her as grandma. I didn’t know her as founder of Sigma Gamma Rho, and I didn’t learn about her involvement in the sorority until after she died. 

And so my life with her, I got to see her impact. She was deeply committed to the community. We had scholarship fundraisers. Back in the day, the older people would do card parties, and so they would play bridge, and they would rotate to different people’s houses and the money was [used] to raise money for children. So you had to have a team, and you put your bid in. She was just deeply committed to the community. She was very, very humble. She did not talk about all the things that I learned about her post-her death. She just didn’t talk about it. And people were like, “Why didn’t you know?” And I said she didn’t talk about Sigma Gamma Rho because she lived the values. It’s about scholarship; it’s about sisterhood. It’s about service. So she didn’t have to tell you who she was — she lived it. That’s just who she was and innately what she passed down to me: this fighting spirit and working towards equity and wanting to be included, despite the barriers. 

I mean, can you imagine the courage at 20 or 21 years old, and you know that there’s someone who hates you because of the color of your skin, that you’ve got to walk past their house in order to get an education? Can you imagine the courage that it would take to do that and do that boldly? And so I think about that. Despite their circumstances, the barriers, the racism, the sexism, they still were like, “We’re still gonna go, and we’re gonna create this organization.” 

She did so much in the community. She was a principal of [Indianapolis Public School] 87 for 39 years. She built that school from two trailers into the brick and mortar that still stands and operates today … She just did so many amazings things. I’m forever ever, ever, ever, ever indebted to her [for] what she sort of silently instilled in me. She showed me that you don’t have to tell people anything. Your actions, what you do, those are the things that matter — what people see and how you make people feel. 

TBC: Is there anything else you would like to add?

KS: You know, I would like to add that it really will take as many members — who are willing  — of the Butler community to really make DEI integrated within the fabric of Butler. I cannot do it by myself. I will not do it by myself. I believe in collaboration. I’m okay with heading up, but the responsibility doesn’t fall on me. And so I know a lot of people are like, “Well, what does this mean? What’s this job mean? What’re they going to do? Who’s it going to serve?” 

I’m, again, like that catalyst. I’m coordinating efforts, but I need the members of the Butler community to walk through the confusion with me. To share those things that we’re doing really well with me. To share where our gaps and our barriers are with me so that we can come up with solutions that actually do lead to change and that we can institutionalize. And so if anything, I just want the Butler community to know that I look forward to talking to students … I just really, really value [that the position is] not a “top down.” This position doesn’t mean that, “Okay, it’s her responsibility.” 

No, it means that, “She’s going to help kind of steer the ship, but we’ve all gotta row.” 

This interview was edited for length and clarity. 


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