BY MIKE LEONARD
When James Wimbush was an undergraduate student attending two small colleges in his native Virginia, and as a graduate student at Virginia Tech, he never had a black professor. When he came to Indiana University 22 years ago and joined the faculty of the Kelley School of Business, he was one of just two African Americans on the school’s tenure-track faculty.
So when he hears underrepresented minorities on the IU campus say that they’d like to see more faculty, students, and staff who “look like me,” Wimbush gets it.
“I’ve always been an integrationist,” he says. “I can truly appreciate people wanting to be in environments that make them comfortable. Being around people who look like them and have shared the same experiences—I understand that.”
Last July, Wimbush, 54, was named Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Multicultural Affairs for the entire IU system. It’s a big job, and in no place is it bigger than on the Bloomington campus where the percentage of underrepresented minorities, such as African Americans, lags behind goals set by President Michael A. McRobbie and the board of trustees.
“For example,” Wimbush says in his thoughtful, congenial manner, “I was just at a reception for the Wells Scholars and it’s the most prestigious fellowship we offer and I was looking around and it was one of those rare occasions I couldn’t help but notice there were no African Americans in the group.”
Wimbush says the recruitment of academically accomplished underrepresented minorities is “very, very difficult” because the Harvards, Stanfords, and Michigans of the world also are offering attractive scholarship packages to good students. The last thing he wants to see, he says, are students brought in for the sake of diversity who are set up to fail. “We want to provide the resources so they can indeed be successful.”
In addition to his new job, Wimbush will retain his title and duties as Dean of the University Graduate School, where his goals include attracting and supporting both graduate students and post-doctoral students who will add to the ranks of the professoriate class.
Wimbush knows his new task will not be easy but points out that he doesn’t come to the job without important life experience. He’s old enough to remember when businesses had entrances for “colored” and “white,” and was the first in his family to finish high school, let alone college. He put himself through school working as a janitor at night. “I’ve been in a position where people certainly did not afford you any respect whatsoever,” he says. “I’ve done dirty work.”