More Than Tolerance: Dr. Lawrence T. Potter Aligns Diversity Components at Allegheny College to Build Inclusive, Multi-Ethnic Pluralistic Environment

Article excerpt

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Part one of two-part series

Allegheny College is the 32nd oldest college in the nation. In 2015 it will celebrate its bicentennial. The college has rigorous standards and is dedicated to the ideal of providing a transformative education to ambitious, talented students regardless of their social or financial means. Set in rural northwestern Pennsylvania, this predominantly White residential college (student population 2,100) has pledged to diversify its faculty and student body. It's an impressive story of determination that has resulted in the creation of a chief diversity officer position.

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In 2010, award-winning educator and administrator Dr. Lawrence T. Potter was hired as chief diversity officer, associate dean of the college and tenured professor of English. He also is a member of the college's Administrative Executive Committee, the institution's highest governing body. As chief diversity officer and associate dean of the college, he will have broad influence over many aspects of campus and community life, especially with regards to faculty as well as the curriculum and co-curriculum in efforts to advance and sustain diversity initiatives at the college.

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"His scholarly work and his experience in the area of diversity makes him uniquely suited for the position," says Eddie Taylor, Class of '87, chairman of the Board of Trustees, and the first African-American to lead the board.

Potter's appointment carries a number of firsts. He is Allegheny's first chief diversity officer. He is Allegheny's first African-American to sit on the president's Cabinet, and he also is the first administrator/educator hired with tenure.

"Lawrence Potter is a first-rank scholar with an impressive curriculum vitae who has earned tenure at multiple institutions as well as a prestigious American Council on Education fellowship. In every conversation, he understood the challenges of building community in an increasingly diverse environment. He's absolutely committed to students and to building the structure to achieve our goals," says Dr. James Mullen, the president of Allegheny College since 2008.

Why, in the midst of a recession, does a small liberal arts college create a new administrative post?

Dr. Linda DeMeritt, dean of the college, responds without hesitation. "The world is becoming more diverse. In order for our students to succeed they have to understand diversity. Research shows that students have a richer intellectual experience in diverse classrooms. It's logical. If you're sitting next to someone from a different background, they might have other ways of thinking about something and that pushes students to question their beliefs and cultures."

For 150 years, only the rare student of color attended Allegheny. William Jason graduated in 1888 and continued to break records by becoming the first African-American president of a college. Don Speed Smith Goodloe, a 1906 graduate, founded and presided over Bowie State College in Maryland. In 1915, Edith Mae Gillespie became the first African-American woman to graduate, and David Johnson graduated in 1947. He later became the first African-American to join Allegheny's Board of Trustees.

Allegheny College is set in the town of Meadville (population 14,000), 90 miles north of Pittsburgh. The college draws a predominance of its students from the tri-state area of Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York. These students tend to share similar backgrounds: White, middle class, often the first in their family to attend college. Some meet students from different backgrounds for the first time when they arrive on campus. Their inexperience casts a parochial shadow over the college campus that is often echoed by the college staff who are generally Meadville residents. There is a palpable town-gown divide.

Whereas African-Americans represent about 13 percent of the nation's population, they represent only 2 percent of Crawford County's 28,000 residents. …