I Understand
I remember vividly when it happened. I was talking to my boss, Dr. Greer Wilson, the director of the Newcomb Hall Student Center at the University of Virginia. I was about three months into my time as assistant director for programs, and the conversation shifted toward a personal experience she had that I interpreted as embarrassment. I’d felt embarrassed before, so I said, “I understand,” one of the most common ways to signal what I thought was empathy. She responded with, “Unless you’ve walked in my shoes as an African American female, you can’t understand what it is like.” She was, of course, absolutely right. It wasn’t empathy I expressed, but a blind spot to my experience masking as empathy. I immediately had the discomforting feeling that it made me a racist and I flailed internally for something to assuage my cognitive dissonance—“I am a good person,” “racists didn’t look and act like me,” “how dare she be so blunt like that and discount my life experience.” Sensing my discomfort, she leaned in. “Josh, you have much to learn, but if you listen, I and others will teach you.”
That 1990 moment began a decades-long pathway of learning that continues to this day. I was blessed to work in an environment at UVA (yes, Thomas Jefferson’s university) where I was not in the majority—the director and other assistant director were African American women. On my staff was a Jewish woman and a gay man. Every day they taught me something about myself, and new ways to signal genuine empathy, including by allowing myself to feel and be vulnerable. I learned what microaggressions were before the term was in the common lexicon. I started to see why I saw Black students sitting together in the cafeteria and not the White students who did it even more often. And in the words of Peggy McIntosh, I began to unpack the invisible knapsack and understand White heterosexual male privilege. Eventually Greer put me, yes me, in charge of the late-night parties sponsored by the Black Greek organizations. I, pretty much the only White person at the event, had to lean in and really get to know the event organizers as we together planned these incredibly important social outlet events, and fend off the perception that they couldn’t be done safely. And, Tiki Barber, (yes, the famous NY Giant), was frequently there; he was on the UVA team at the time.
I eventually took what I learned to Indiana State University, where I helped build one of the most diverse faculties of any department at the university; served on, and then co-led, the Council on Diversity for many years; was the university’s interim senior diversity officer at one point; and deployed a pre-doctoral fellows program for historically underrepresented faculty. In my capacity as associate vice president for student success, I, with others, took the campus through a unique learning experience built around the award-winning documentary, Race, the Power of an Illusion. It culminated in partnered projects between a student and a faculty or administrator, presented at a campus symposium.
A few weeks ago, the William Paterson University Cabinet and the Council for Equity and Justice met to engage the challenging topic of decolonization, one of the pillars of the Strategic Plan. How we should define the term here at WP was at the center of this dialogue. It was a difficult, and at times, revelatory conversation. In its middle, I suddenly had this powerful sense that the late Greer Wilson was with me, pressing me to lean in. I didn’t lead with “I understand,” but rather with acknowledgement that in that room anyway, I was the most traditionally privileged, and that I had the responsibility to exercise that position of power to help make the campus more equitable and just. I have the unique ability to engage others with similar power, and perhaps in a way where their defense mechanisms will not go up like mine did that day in 1990.
I’m asked from time to time what experience or skill most helped shape the leader I am today. I speak of my time at UVA with Greer, and of her teaching me to first seek to understand before being understood. Whatever your base of power may be, try this sometime: listen before responding and allow yourself to be vulnerable and see what comes from it. Thanks, Greer.
Academic News
Browse Certificate and Badge Ideas that are Developing in the Colleges. Exciting ideas for certificates and badges are developing in the Colleges and can be found here. Please browse them. The Strategic Plan seeks for every department to have a certificate that a student can earn in their first two years of study. Certificates are also designed to be attractive to external non-degree communities.
Academic Affairs Mid-Semester Update Presentation. The presentation slides, recording, and the Provost’s remarks are available on the Provost’s Office website.
Faculty as Mentor. Thanks to the good work of a special Faculty Senate-appointed committee, the framework for the faculty as mentor role is taking shape. Senators have circulated the draft document for comment among their departments, and the feedback is informing the Faculty Senate on the topic.
School of Nursing. The Department of Nursing will become a School of Nursing on July 1. The school will be situated within the College of Science and Health. The search for a founding associate dean is underway. This person’s role will be critical to building external partnerships, both for clinical site purposes and for building a pipeline of clinical faculty to serve in the program.
Facts & Figures
  • 20-24. The largest age bracket in the United States in 1983. 
  • 30-34. The largest age bracket in the U.S. in 2023.
  • 60-64. The largest age bracket in NJ in 2021.
The growth opportunity of NJ higher education is adult students and any career opportunity for our students linked to the health care industry.
“The racialized society we live in has been under construction for three centuries. How can we unmake race unless we first confront its enormity as a historical and social reality, and its emptiness as biology?”
— Narrator, Race: The Power of an Illusion
“It is all around us. It is an illusion and yet profoundly real. What we perceive as race is one of the first things we notice about each other. Skin: darker or lighter. Eyes: round or almond, blue, black, brown. Hair: curly, straight, blond, or dark. And attached to these characteristics is a mosaic of values, assumptions and historical meanings. Even those of us who claim we don't believe the stereotypes can easily recite them.”
— Narrator, Race: The Power of an Illusion
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
— James Baldwin
The Provost’s Office is Claudia T., Claudia C., Jonathan, Kara, Rhonda, Sandy, and Josh. You can reach us at 973.720.2122 • [email protected]
Office of the Provost | 973.720.2122 | [email protected]