UW News

May 16, 2023

Q&A: Documenting the growth of UW’s Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity

A collage of black and white, historical images.

In his new book, Emile Pitre chronicles the history and growth of the Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity.Emile Pitre Collection, James Garrett, MOHAI, Steve Ludwig

In “Revolution to Evolution: The Story of the Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity at the University of Washington,” Emile Pitre chronicles the story of OMA&D from its 1968 inception to its current status as a model for university programs.

The UW will host a panel, Reflections on the 1968 Black Student Union, from 5-6:30 p.m. on May 19. The panel will feature founding members of the BSU and will be moderated by UW alum and former Black Student Union leader Marc Arsell Robinson. Registration for the Ethnic Cultural Center event is at capacity, but standby seating will be available on a first-come, first-served basis. The event will also be livestreamed and recorded. To watch the livestream, register on the event website.

OMA&D owes its creation to student-led activism, which was fueled by the national movement to address structural and cultural racism in institutions. In 1968, members of the Black Student Union and their supporters occupied the office of then-UW President Charles E. Odegaard. They demanded an increase in minority student enrollment, more minority faculty, staff and administrators and the establishment of a program in Black studies.

Their demands led to the creation of the Special Education Program, which in 1970 was renamed the Office of Minority Affairs and became the Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity in 2007.

At the time, Pitre was a UW graduate student and founding member of the Black Student Union. He later served for 21 years as chemistry instructor and 13 years as director of OMA&D’s instructional center. Pitre was promoted to associate vice president for minority affairs in 2004, a position he held until his retirement in 2014.

UW News sat down with Pitre to discuss his book and the past, present and future of OMA&D.

What motivated you to write this book?

EP: In 2008, I was a guest on a radio show with Sheila Edwards Lange, the former vice president and vice provost for minority affairs & diversity at the UW. She’s now the chancellor at the UW Tacoma. It was the 40th anniversary of the establishment of OMA&D and people were giving their opinions on the history. She thought we needed to write a book so that we could tell our own story.

I wanted to make sure the story was told accurately and to preempt the revisionists who might have their own agenda. People don’t want to actually acknowledge a program like OMA&D, and when they do, it’s a cursory presentation. I wanted to make sure the impetus for the creation of OMA&D was very well known. For me, the first chapter is the most important because it documents the audacious fearlessness of students who chose to challenge the university and change the landscape. I also wanted to show the reason we need to have OMA&D now. Not only now, but we also need to have it far into the future.

The book documents how the OMA&D was a national leader, becoming the first program in the country to implement certain strategies and programs. What fueled that evolution?

EP: It was our desire to make OMA&D the finest program in the country. And really, it was also because of Charles Evans, the person President Odegaard chose as the program’s first director, and the support he got from fellow faculty members. We did not seek previously established models by other institutions to emulate but determined independently what needed to happen at the UW to get off to the best possible start.

The person who followed Evans, Sam Kelly, was a unique individual. He came from a military background, and he understood hierarchy. He stipulated that he would only take the role if it was elevated to vice president for minority affairs. That made the program the first in the country to be led by a vice president, meaning he would have direct access to the president. Because Kelly really was a visionary, he chose to do things no one else had done. For example, he allowed for the creation of a unique academic support program. It started as a tutoring office, but the people he hired thought differently about how to support students and how to give them the best chance of being successful at the UW. The program employed discipline-specific professional instructors who had a deep knowledge of the subject matter, a unique ability to impart that knowledge to students and to teach them how to learn and solve problems independently.

The final chapter of the book details what needs to happen next for OMA&D. What do you address there?

EP: The last chapter is called “Beyond 50 Years (50 Next)” and it looks at what is required over the next 50 years. There are still gaps that need to be closed in order for the population we serve to reach parity with that of the university student body.  The chapter begins with a quote from Henry Louis Gates that says: “How could we have come so far and yet still have so far to go?” That exemplifies the challenge of what lies ahead for OMA&D. We’ve done quite well. I think we are arguably the most successful Diversity, Equity and Inclusion program in the country. But just because we are better than the rest doesn’t mean we don’t need to improve further.

There’s an enrollment gap, a retention rate gap and a graduation rate gap for our students compared to the university student body. Also, our students don’t perform as well in gateway courses compared to course averages. I call them gatekeeper courses because they keep students out of the high-demand majors including the science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, majors, as well as nursing and business. There’s also a lack of representation when it comes to earning degrees in the STEM disciplines. The population that we serve generally doesn’t earn a representative number of degrees in these areas, which is crucial in order to close the racial/ethnic wealth gap.

Based on projections, we know that the number of high school graduates from underrepresented and lower-income populations will increase by at least one-third in the next 10 years. These students come from high schools that don’t prepare them as well for college — Advanced Placement classes are typically not available to them, and they generally do not take college prep courses in high school. We need to be there to help close those gaps and provide them with the academic support they need to be successful and go on to pursue advanced degrees and increase diversity in the workforce.

We’ve come up with best practices, and we think those best practices should be acknowledged by the UW and woven into the very fabric of the institution. Diversity is not the charge of OMA&D alone but of the entire university. Everyone needs to be on board to move the needle forward, but OMA&D should lead the effort. After all, we have more than 50 years of experience helping students be successful. That’s part of the rationale for “50 Next.” We’re still relevant. We still need to be ever vigilant. Just because parity is achieved, it does not mean we can rest on our laurels. We must continue to evolve in order to avoid retrogression.


For more information, contact Pitre at empit@uw.edu.