Cynthia Edmunds started her job leading the Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) only 2 ½ weeks ago, but she’s no stranger to the role.

For the last decade, she’s served as assistant to president and staff ombuds officer, but when University of Maryland chief diversity officer Kumea Shorter-Gooden stepped down in January 2017, Edmunds stepped in until education Professor Roger Worthington took over that summer. When he announced in July 2018 he’d return to his faculty job, Edmunds packed up for another temporary move.

“I’ve been thinking about my last tour of duty and really paying attention to what I can do to better serve on this tour,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “I am someone who really shows up in relationships with people, and I want to be of service to the institution however I can.”

Worthington left a beefed-up staff that includes “great hires” working on exciting projects, Edmunds said. She plans to enlist them to bring the campus together even as the university prepares to conduct a national search for her replacement, she told Maryland Today in an interview that has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What’s on your agenda?
I’m just starting my second week on the job; last week, I made it a priority to meet with folks in ODI one-on-one, to talk about their responsibilities, strengths and contributions and how they spend their time. What can I do to help you get your work done? A priority for me is to support and best utilize the expertise of the ODI staff. We have experts that uniquely understand equity, diversity and inclusion on our campus and have years of experience that inform their expertise. 

In the limited time you’ll spend in this assignment, what do you hope to accomplish?
My greatest hopes are to increase confidence among our campus that ODI and others are working hard to create and sustain a vibrant, inclusive community; and to considerably reduce the hurt and harm people experience and feel—individually and collectively—when hateful acts occur. It’s important to have relationships with people for these hopes to be realized, and no one group can do this work alone. It’s also important that we utilize and build off of the work from ODI, the Inclusion & Respect Task Force recommendations, climate study data and the external review commissioned by my predecessor. 

What’s your sense of the atmosphere surrounding racial issues on campus compared to your previous tenure? Is it more fraught, or less? Are people more frustrated now about efforts to create equity and an environment that’s fair to people of all backgrounds, or are they more optimistic?
I think it’s all of the above. In some ways it probably is more fraught because it sometimes feels like there’s an “us-versus-them” situation where we’re not actually in the same conversation, but using only our own lenses and perspectives on issues. But we also have colleagues who are doing a lot of good work—ODI staff, diversity officers, equity administrators and people serving on commissions and administering programs. Each of these roles is represented across campus, and the people fulfilling them are doing great work to institute and navigate change, which takes time. In some ways we’re making great progress, and in others, progress may be happening more slowly than we’d hoped.

What kind of progress has the task force made, and how will this office build on that?
One very important thing done early in the process was to establish a set of common, university-wide values [united, respectful, secure and safe, inclusive, accountable, empowered and open to growth] that will inform all our work. For instance, one of the things we’re doing to turn that into action is through our hate-bias incident tracking system. We have a responsibility to collect that data so the community can fully understand what people are experiencing, and to have a vehicle to connect with people around these experiences, even as we’re following up on and fully investigating each of them. As another example, over the summer, the ODI leadership team drafted an implementation plan to address the task force recommendations. I’m currently reviewing that plan.

We're really trying to get a lay of the land, and connect with folks all across campus try to understand what people are experiencing and how we can have a more engaged, restored community. I’m hoping to work closely with people who want to be part of creating solutions and best practices.

With a national search planned, what qualities are needed in a chief diversity officer?
I think we need a leader who has expertise in the field, has a strong sense of emotional intelligence, and is a great strategist. A high EQ is really important. It can be very hard to do work around equity, diversity and inclusion if you don't have capacity to see people for who they are and to have the capacity to hear people from the perspectives that they're sharing.

This story has been updated to remove a reference to Professor Roger Worthington's tenure as chief diversity officer, at his request.