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When Clyde Wilson Pickett joined the University of Pittsburgh in July 2020, his mission as vice chancellor was clear: Prioritize equity.
The first step toward that goal was a small but important one — a name change for his unit, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.
“We needed to prioritize ‘equity’ in our name as we thought about ensuring our institutions are more inclusive and how to create optimal experiences with equitable outcomes for everyone involved,” said Pickett, who now leads the Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (OEDI).
“Our differences are what make experiences so rich. We must be more intentional about welcoming different populations,” he said of diversity and inclusion. “But we must also consider how we foster an environment where those differences are not only brought to the organization but are part of the decision-making process, involved in advancing our efforts and exchanged in the classroom and the community.”
The staff at OEDI is working to not just identify people who can bring diverse perspectives to the table, but proactively invite them to help frame and execute the vision of the office — and Pitt.
“The macro level strategy comes from OEDI, but on the micro level, we move this work only when individuals participate. It takes all hands on deck to assess what the experience and the sense of belonging is for each community member, but more importantly, to continue to adjust as needed,” Pickett said.
Called to the cause
Pickett’s (EDUC ’17G) inspiration for equity work began during his undergraduate career at the University of Kentucky, where he majored in agricultural economics. He was a leader who served as the president of the Black student union and an employee in the university’s Office of Minority Affairs.
“One of the first major projects that I had a chance to participate in and support was the 50-year commemoration celebration of the university, and I met the individual who sued for admission at the University of Kentucky,” said Pickett. In 1949, Lyman T. Johnson won a lawsuit against the university and became its first Black student.
“I had the opportunity to meet a number of the first Black students who attended that university, as well as to interact with senior administrators. It really laid the foundation and the understanding that for systems to change, you need consistent strategy and input for those individuals who are organized to change the system. That experience led me to want to do this kind of work.”
After graduation, he explored other fields but wound up back in higher education charged by his desire to transform lives and make a difference in society.
So, in 2014, Pickett enrolled in Pitt’s School of Education to earn his PhD.
“Our program had a number of Black men. That made a considerable difference for me in terms of having a cohort group that I could learn with, that I could share with, that I could study with,” he recalled. “We could connect in terms of our long-term goal, and that was, of course, completing our program, but more importantly, continuing to agitate and advance the support for education. That experience kept me culturally grounded.”
After finishing his PhD, Pickett held student- and diversity-focused positions at several other colleges, including the Community Colleges of Allegheny County, Ohio Northern University and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System, before returning to Pitt.
Progress at Pitt
In his relatively short time as vice chancellor, Pickett has made clear his distinction between words and actions, especially when it comes to what he calls “agitating change.”
In September 2021, OEDI launched the Racial Equity Consciousness Institute, a series of immersive, learner-oriented education and dialogue modules that ask participants to contemplate race and racism and encourage anti-racism. Nearly 200 people have already signed on.
He’s also working with the LGBTQ community on inclusion initiatives related to gender transition, identity-based affinity groups and gender-neutral bathrooms and housing.
“We have an LGBTQIA+ website that will be a tool for the entire community to identify available resources and, more importantly, make connections,” Pickett said. “We’ve heard loud and clear from stakeholders that this is a pillar we need to put greater attention on, and we’re excited and ready to do so.”
OEDI’s social justice website — which displays and tracks data related to Pitt’s students, instructors, vendors and more — is another bright spot on his already impressive track record. The platform serves as a “source of pride and more importantly, a source of transparency,” he said. “It identifies key endeavors we’re undertaking to make a difference and offers key statistical indicators about our progress as a University community.”
And that’s just a start. Pickett wants to remind the Pitt community that we, too, wield power.
“Diversity moves when we move together,” said Pickett. “The biggest thing is to get involved with the initiatives and opportunities that come out of our office and that come out of other offices around the University.”
— Kara Henderson