Dr. Nick Negrete begins his new role as the first-ever Associate Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Otis College during a time of enormous, positive, and unprecedented change. The College is preparing to return to campus in the fall after a year of virtual instruction and remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic. George Floyd’s murder by police officers in Minnesota last summer, and the ensuing protests for social justice and racial equity, brought on a period of intense dialogue and reflection at the College, during which President Charles Hirschhorn committed to a DEI strategy that included this new AVP role. Negrete has been a familiar force at the College in his previous role as Dean of Student Affairs since 2018, and, even before his appointment as the new AVP, had relied heavily on his background in multicultural affairs and advocacy to ensure students felt heard and valued. On the eve of his first day, Negrete—who hails from Rialto, California and has a B.A. in psychology and Chicanx Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, as well as Masters and Doctorate degrees in education from the University of Vermont—took some time to answer questions about how he envisions his new role, his short- and long-term goals, and other aspects of the essential DEI strategy at Otis.
Last year, before President Charles Hirschhorn announced this new AVP of DEI role at Otis College, there were several forums with students, faculty, staff, and alumnx, during which concerns over issues of DEI were discussed in a very open, honest, and emotional way. What were your takeaways from the forums?
My key takeaway was that students and alumnx wanted their college to be better and do better. While the comments and feedback were difficult to hear and experience, I still viewed this as the deep love and loyalty everyone had for Otis College—it is those who love you the most that can tell you the truth about yourself. Overall, I heard that students want to be respected, heard, and visible in and out of the classrooms and studios. I heard that students want our commitment to faculty development to be focused on inclusion and equity work, including racial equity. I heard that students want more of a voice in conversations and decisions that are made about increasing campus-wide diversity and inclusion efforts, and how they need more support overall in terms of programming and institutional infrastructure, such as a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Center. Ultimately, I heard that students and alumnx do not want our response to be performative and a one-time “inoculation” approach, but rather a sustained and genuine commitment to do this work long term—work around anti-racism and dismantling systems of oppression within our day-to-day operations. They want us to take a critical eye and reflect inward, as hard as it may be, and ask ourselves, “How can we be different and do things differently that really allow for true community, inclusion, and justice?” Overall, I heard the love, the pain, and the urgency—this work matters and it must be addressed now. This is our moment to meet our students, faculty, staff, and our alumnx in a place that allows their voices to be amplified, honored, and validated.
After the forums, what were your hopes that the College would be able to address these concerns?
My hopes were very high, as our own president and provost attended these sessions, even when Provost Jiseon Lee Isbara was not officially in her role yet. I saw the commitment our senior leaders had to attend all of the forums and really listen firsthand to the issues that were raised. Their actions alone demonstrated the College’s willingness to begin doing the hard work of redesigning our overall role and commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, and to truly ask ourselves, “How do we plan to live this every day?” It is not enough to just post a few websites about these issues, concerns, and initiatives. We must do more to engage authentically, and do so in a spirit of collaboration, critique, and candor.
How much did the forums inform your decision to be considered for this AVP role?
The forums called me to act in my own role as then-Dean of Student Affairs, but also gave me a glimpse of what I could hopefully achieve as the AVP of DEI. With my previous experience as dean, coupled with my background in DEI, I believed this could be a good fit for me to be able to approach this work with a sense of respect for all of our community, while having a pulse on what is happening and what needs to be done in order to move the needle in a positive direction.
What other motivations did you have for wanting to be considered for this new role at Otis when you already had been making an impact as the Dean of Student Affairs?
The very fact that colleagues, faculty, and staff believed I have made an impact as the Dean of Student Affairs was motivation enough for me to truly believe I can do the same in this new role. DEI work is near and dear to my heart, and while I have not been in an executive-level role focused on DEI, I have always infused and integrated DEI in my work as the Dean of Student Affairs. My background in multicultural affairs and advocacy work allowed me to see how this can be achieved on a micro level. That said, I want to bring that passion and motivation to a macro level. I also have extremely strong relationships with many faculty, chairs, and the Provost's Office and believe my own relationship-building can help achieve the conversations that need to be had in order to develop new and improved expectations for our community.
How will you approach this new role at Otis, and how will that differ or be similar to how you approached your previous role as Dean of Student Affairs?
First and foremost, I will approach this work with relationships at the center—this is the core of DEI work, and I believe that if you do not have strong, positive relationships across our constituent groups—from Senior Team to students—then the work will be even more challenging. I will also lean into those faculty and staff members who have expertise, passion, and deep-rooted work in social justice and inclusion. I will be asking a lot of questions, listening to our community, and developing a strategy for us to do this work together—as a community. I also know the College is sitting on really important and informative data that I would like to use as a backdrop for decision-making around what we prioritize and how. This is no different than how I have approached my work as the Dean of Student Affairs—the only major difference I must acknowledge is the fact that this role is for the entire College, serving all constituent groups. I must be creative and innovative while also advocating for the resources necessary in order to do this work well. I must be student-centered, faculty-centered, and staff-centered when it comes to serving our campus in this way, while also including our alumnx voices and experiences to inform our approaches. Balancing the focus and priorities for each of these groups will be challenging, but this is also exciting for me to think about as I consider the strong partnerships I will have to develop.
What do you think are the most immediate challenges you will face in this new role? What are you most excited about doing?
I think the most immediate challenge will be how to position our current DEI Council in ways that are supportive of this role, and developing even more of an identity for that institutional body. There also are budget implications for the anticipated work required to truly make a culture shift on campus. While an executive leadership position is helpful for the College to have in order to keep focus and strategy at the center, there are other resources that must exist in order to actualize the work fully. It will be about identifying what that looks like for the campus while also identifying current departments and positions that can support this work within their own organizational strategies.
I see my new role serving in a consulting capacity for many of our campus partners; the challenge will be how to define my relationship uniquely across these partners so they experience my role as supportive and aspirational, rather than as someone “auditing” their DEI work. On a similar note, I am extremely excited to work with various campus partners, and specifically with Provost Lee Isbara and Karen Hill, the Vice President for Human Resources and Development, to identify ways we can begin to support and develop the faculty and staff in order to allow them to grow as professionals and best serve our students and alumnx.
How do you think your own background as a Latinx, gay, first-generation college student will inform the work you will do?
I believe my identities are central to how I do my work. I cannot and will not leave those at the door or put them “on hold” in my professional life. My experience as a Latinx gay man, one who was the first to attend a four-year college in my family and grew up working class has absolutely informed how I do my work now. I am able to truly connect and reflect on those experiences as I think about how to best serve our students. I have a personal background that mirrors much of our student population today, and I know what helped me achieve success in my undergraduate life, while also knowing what it feels like to experience isolation, no sense of belonging, and questioning my abilities. These feelings often come up for students who may not see themselves in their faculty and staff. My personal experience with this motivates me to be better and do better, and provide ways we can diversify our faculty and staff so that our students actually see their full selves in our community. I know the power of representation, and we must start there in order to build a critical mass of faculty and staff who truly reflect our student population. This is not the answer, but just one strategy among many that must occur in order to truly achieve inclusive excellence for our campus.
What do you envision for your first three months in this role? The next three years?
In my first three months I plan to talk to many groups of people—faculty, staff, students, alumnx, Senior Team—and listen to the needs, desires, and expectations of our community. I also want to be able to take a closer look at our own diversity data points and campus climate data and work with our DEI Council on how to build a strategy together for the College to achieve our DEI initiatives. While there is no specific strategic plan in place focused on DEI, there are DEI goals within the College’s Strategic Plan. I want to begin to open up conversations with the Senior Team and the DEI Council about how to begin to develop a road map for DEI goals for the College in a centralized manner. I also want to reflect on the statement President Hirschhorn sent to the entire College last June and identify the DEI goals and expectations he has articulated so that we can begin mapping out how to achieve them.
In the next three years I hope to have led the College in developing a robust Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion training and development program for faculty and staff, where it becomes a part of our culture and who we are in terms of frequent and consistent touchpoints our community engages in. I also see the College fully supporting my role in developing plans and a physical footprint for a Center for DEI, with appropriate staffing that will support our entire community. I would also like to see the College launch a DEI campaign in partnership with Institutional Advancement to raise critical funds to continue to support this work, while also supporting programs that increase our diversity of staff and faculty, in addition to scholarship support for students from historically marginalized communities. This work has already begun, but I would love this to be blown up as an expansive, external-facing campaign. These are just some of the thoughts and ideas I have, including those I outlined in my community presentation that I will surely reflect back on and consider.
You’ve spoken before about how this role will require community buy-in and involvement. How can the Otis Community support your vision and the work of the DEI Center?
We cannot do this work in isolation or separate and apart from each other, this I know for sure. The Otis Community must be able to feel as if my role is approachable for them to share their own feedback, ideas, concerns, and vision for the campus. It will require patience, empathy, and all of us to practice openness and vulnerability to accept the realities of what we need to change and shift, both internally within ourselves as well as externally within the organization. This requires us to be honest with ourselves and forge spaces of belonging so that we can truly be in solidarity with each other. The reality is, we are not all in the same place on the spectrum of our commitment to DEI and our learning and growth. I challenge all of us to accept that reality and consider, “How can I be of service to others? How can I show up so others can also courageously show up?” This work is challenging and complex, and will require trust and openness, and it is our collective responsibility to develop that trust in ways that will manifest a meaningful community that supports belonging for students, staff, faculty, and alumnx.
Do you envision your work in this role, and that of the DEI Center, happening solely within the confines of Otis? If not, what type of external collaborations do you envision?
First, I think we must start in our own home and work on our own struggles in order to be a model for others externally. While we have begun carving out our place along the road to developing a more inclusive campus climate, we still have a lot of work to do. I do think there are external constituency groups who align with our vision and mission for DEI and I do see us embracing those organizations and community centers that are committed to doing this work together in a mutually supportive manner. Some external organizations that we have already been working with are The Metaphor Club, our connections though the CAIL and ACT programs, and the Los Angeles Unified School District. There are also emerging partners in diversifying the creative industry that include many top employers who are committed to recruiting and hiring creatives from diverse backgrounds while also working with us on preparing the next generation of artists and designers from historically marginalized communities.
There is much discussion about the power of these roles in higher education to enact lasting change. How do you feel about this debate and how would you address those in our community who might wonder about the impact of one person dedicated to DEI at Otis?
Many colleges and universities have created executive-level diversity roles on their campuses since the 1990s, but it has become increasingly more prevalent over the last 15 to 20 years. This has been seen, and can be seen as performative, and for some places, that is exactly what it is. What we have to commit to as a college is the idea that this is not a performative action but one of many actions that must take place if we are to sustain an ongoing commitment to DEI. One person cannot be and do everything for a campus community related to DEI—I want our community to know that this work is all of our work. It does not live and breathe in my job description alone. I see myself as a facilitator of this work, one who helps our campus integrate it in all of our roles as faculty, staff, students, and alumnx. My hope is that this role is just the beginning of what is to come for Otis, and I am committed to guiding our community along this journey while developing accountability structures so that we are all doing this work with thoughtful design and with proper infrastructure.
Who do you feel will be your biggest partners in the work you will undertake in this new role?
I see everyone as a partner in this work—from students all the way to President Hirschhorn. However, some key day-to-day partners I think are critical for me to work with in order to get started on this very important work include the Provost, faculty leaders, Human Resources, our students, and alumnx.
What else would you like the Otis Community to know about you?
I want the community to know that my heart is in this work 100%. I am deeply committed to making Otis a place where everyone feels validated and included, and can point to actionable things that have proven we are committed to this work. I want people to know that I lead with my heart first, and I do my best to include others around key initiatives that require many perspectives. When anyone is doing DEI work, it is almost a given that you may not always get it right, and mistakes will happen. I want people to know that I will give grace to others when mistakes happen and I would hope for the same towards me. I want us to be able to move toward a community that embraces and normalizes restorative approaches to correcting behavior and realigning our expectations. I want people to know that I am open and willing to discuss new ideas and new ways to be in community with each other. I also want people to know that I love the work I do, I find joy in my work, and I want to inspire others. When we do this work with purpose the outcome is astounding, and the impact on who we become as an organization will significantly elevate our sense of community, carving out an identity for our campus that we can be proud of.
Members of the Otis Community are welcome to share their perspectives with Negrete at email@example.com.
Main image by Allison Knight; second image of Negrete with students and Director of Counseling Services, James Birks (second from right), by Shelley Davis; bottom image of Negrete with an Otis student during Moonlight Breakfast in 2019 by Fawad Assadullah.