Celebrating 25 Years of Inclusive Excellence

November 17, 2021

Chief Diversity Officer and OIE founding director Andrea Cornett-Scott posing with graduating students at the 2021 Ajani Ceremony.

Mary Baldwin’s campus community looked radically different in the early 1990s: About 97 percent of students were white, and most came from affluent families. Efforts to boost diversity brought a slight uptick in incoming Black and brown students, but few were sticking around. And those that did rarely participated in clubs or student associations. 

Associate Professor of Philosophy Edward Scott noticed the problem when he arrived in 1990. He quickly approached then Dean of the College James Lott about an effort to “intentionally recruit Black students, nurture them, retain them, and graduate them.” 

“I felt disheartened to see so few students of color enrolled at Mary Baldwin,” said Scott. “In my informal conversations with them I learned they were so alienated from campus life and classroom instruction that they very often transferred or simply left well before their senior year.”

Students couldn’t see themselves reflected in the curriculum, campus events, clubs, and programming. MBU just didn’t feel like their school. Scott knew the problem was common for Black students attending majority white institutions.

They often complained “of the insensitivity to their needs, a general ignorance of Black cultural values, and the anxieties that arose in themselves as a consequence of unnerving racial hostility they believed to be both implicit and just as often explicit,” he said.  

Chief Diversity Officer and OIE founding director Andrea Cornett-Scott posing with graduating students at the 2021 Ajani Ceremony.

Tensions escalated when an effort to found a Black Student Alliance around 1995 met pushback from a small but vocal group of classmates. 

That was a red flag, said retired philosophy professor Rod Owen. The message was clear: “We had to change the culture to be more inclusive for everyone, and it had to be done immediately.”

Students asked Scott and Lott for moral support in a meeting with then-president Cynthia Tyson. And Both men accepted. 

“They made a formal request for the creation of an office on campus directed to the promotion of a climate and ethos in which Black students would persist and thrive from the moment they were recruited to the moment they would graduate four years later,” said Scott.

The meeting was a success, winning Tyson’s support and ultimately birthing the Office of African American Affairs. Ordained minister and religious studies professor Andrea Cornett-Scott was named its founding director in 1996.

“Andrea was a scholar-pastor with a background in counseling, and a passion for helping people,” said Owen, who helped Scott and Tyson form the office. Her exorbitant compassion made learners feel safe to share hopes, dreams, and worries. She had an intuitive, matronly ability to guide young people along the path to self discovery. 

Cornett-Scott also understood the experience of marginalized communities. She was of Afro-Latine descent and lived through the American Civil Rights movement. Her scholarly and missionary work centered around the intersection of religion, philosophy, the African American experience, and African diaspora culture. Her background in higher education also included helping Monmouth College launch its minority affairs office in the mid 1980s. 

The program blossomed under Cornett-Scott’s guidance and soon expanded to become the Office of Inclusive Excellence (OIE). By 2005, Black and brown students represented about 35 percent of MBU’s student population — and those participating in OIE programming were more actively engaged and likely to graduate. Today that number has risen to about 52 percent, making Mary Baldwin one of the most functionally diverse schools in the United States.

“The work Andrea has done [at MBU] is revolutionary,” said President Pamela R. Fox, who assumed her role in 2003. 

Not only has Cornett-Scott created some of the most innovative and effective diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in the United States, she’s helped transform the lives of hundreds of individuals in the process.

Students celebrating Kwanzaa in 2012.

Building one of the nation’s most exemplary DEI programs from scratch wasn’t easy. It took hard work, dedication, and tons of do-it-yourself savvy. 

“When the office started it was basically just me,” said Cornett-Scott. Budget restrictions at the time allowed for little marketing and no big-name lecturers or glamorous programming. But she refused to let that stop her.

“I realized our biggest resource was hiding in plain sight,” said Cornett-Scott. What better way to convince Black and brown students to invest in Mary Baldwin than to give them tangible equity? She reached out with questions about their interests, changes they’d like to see made, and resources that would help them overcome real and perceived barriers to success.

Cornett-Scott parlayed intrigue from the inquiries into projects: Partnerships with students transformed their ideas into new programs. 

The Black Student Association (BSA) and its sister organization, Latina Unidas (now Latines Unides), were among the first at Mary Baldwin, then a women’s college. They were designed to help Black and brown students connect with one another, explore cultural roots, and unite their voices to push for better representation on campus. 

“The goal was to give these students an outlet they could use to really engage and take on positions of leadership within the campus community,” said Cornett-Scott. She viewed the clubs as a springboard for students becoming “resident advisors, peer mentors, orientation leaders, SGA presidents, and so on.” 

Buoyed by Cornett-Scott’s encouragement, BSA members showed up at important student meetings dressed in suits and carrying professional briefcases. They helped stoke their classmates’ interest and worked with peer organizations and Cornett-Scott to pitch ideas for new institution-wide celebrations like Kwanzaa, Ajani, Las Posadas, Hanukkah, and more. 

From left: OIE students at one of MBU's first Ajani ceremonies; students sharing intercultural appetizers at Las Posadas in 2010.

Personal interests and talents fueled more offerings.

For instance, Tonquise Jabari Evans’ ’03 loved theatre, but recognized the medium rarely featured young Black and brown voices. Cornett-Scott encouraged her to fill the niche by founding an African-American student theatre troupe called Kuumba Players in 2000.

There Evans and fellow students explored their identities by producing stories that reflected their lives, experiences, dreams, and concerns. 

Similarly, Jennifer Oliver Patterson ’03 arrived at MBU as an accomplished liturgical dancer — an art form dedicated to expressing spiritual devotion and prayer through bodily movements. 

“Jennifer was active in the church, and a chemistry student with wonderful talents in the arts, but she was quiet as a mouse and almost never spoke above a whisper,” said Cornett-Scott. Yet, Patterson became a different person when she danced. “It was her way to express her faith and herself.”  

Cornett-Scott urged her to create a forum for sharing her gifts with like-minded students.

The result was Greater Things Dance Ministry. Club members focused on choreographing fluid, complex dance sequences combining modern and historically African-American styles, which they presented at annual recitals. Along the way they discussed concepts like defining “spirituality,” the meditative value of dance, the nature of religious experiences, and more. 

Patterson said the club’s impact on her life was profound. Cornett-Scott’s belief in her talents — and the deep friendships she made — boosted her confidence and inspired her to be more outgoing. She quickly became a fixture around OIE and, in time, a mentor to younger students. 

“Working with Rev. Scott shaped my understanding of community,” said Patterson, who went on to earn a master’s degree in divinity and become an ordained minister. OIE was “a safe space where we could develop our leadership skills, get academic support when we needed it, and explore and take pride in our identity as African-American, Latina, and African diaspora women.”

Students in the Greater Things Dance Ministry club perform custom-choreographed dances for live audiences.

President Fox calls Cornett-Scott’s approach ingenious and wildly successful.

“Andrea found out where the talents were, and she built these [clubs and organizations] around them,” said Fox. That gave students ownership and a way to bolster self-conception while still being connected to the mainstream campus community. The offerings proved themselves to be “incredible leadership incubators. They were a laboratory for community and character building, self discovery, and professional development.” 

Better still, the deluge of new programming created a snowball effect. 

Within a few years students had partnered with Cornett-Scott to create about a dozen clubs and organizations. They went home for breaks and holidays raving about the over-the-top, hands-on education and social experience they were getting at MBU. Friends and family were astounded by their confidence, direction, and self-assertiveness. Word spread and the campus population of Black and brown students began to grow dramatically. 

“I was amazed by my daughters’ personal development,” Donna Goodman told MBU’s news team in late 2015. Her youngest, Kourtney ’20, was following big sister Kirsten ’18 into the health sciences department. Both took advantage of OIE programming. “The opportunities it has afforded to step up and lead, be heard, and offer their voices to make changes have been phenomenal.”

The late Tonquise "T.Q." Jabari Evans '03 founded MBU's all African American theatre troupe, Kuumba Players, with OIE support in 2000 — and it's still around today!

But Cornett-Scott did more than establish new events and organizations. She also crafted groundbreaking retention initiatives — which she prefers to call dream realization measures. 

The distinction has to do with the fact that many students working with OIE come from underserved and/or low-income backgrounds. Some are the first in their family to pursue a college degree. U.S. Department of Education studies show that, nationally, more than one in four students in that demographic will drop out after their first year; about 90 percent will leave college without a degree within six years of matriculation.   

“These beautiful, talented young men and women are at a systemic disadvantage through no fault of their own, and it’s our job to tip the scales in their favor,” said Cornett-Scott. “If we’re serious about empowering the inclusive leaders of tomorrow, this is where we need to start — with those that understand too well what it is to be disincluded.” 

Cornett-Scott held more discussions with students, faculty members, and administrators to build a comprehensive understanding of hurdles. The research birthed six programs aimed at giving students targeted and personalized support. 

The Ida B. Wells Living Learning Community was among the first. It was designed to celebrate the values and spirit of its namesake, a revered Black civil rights activist, suffragist, investigative journalist, and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People co-founder born in 1862. 

The program encourages first-year African American students to excel academically, and to explore culture, identity, leadership, and civic engagement as the foundation for their university experience. It features added support measures like a special orientation process to help new students integrate and fully tap into the resources of both the Office of Inclusive Excellence and greater campus community. 

Students also got significant one-on-one time with Cornett-Scott, who served as their advisor. She did things like interview participants about their backgrounds, experiences, interests, and career goals to help them craft personalized schedules that would pique their intellectual curiosity and further professional ambitions without being overwhelming. 

Initiations, oaths, celebratory milestone ceremonies, rites of passage, and more, were incorporated to build camaraderie and a sense of peer-to-peer responsibility. 

“This is a community in the truest sense of the word,” said Cornett-Scott. She invoked Ida B. Wells’ determination to affect meaningful ethical change against all odds as a source of strength, inspiration, and solidarity. Students were encouraged to think of themselves as members of a greater civil society with deep historical roots. Participation in projects like the Black Baby Doll Drive — where OIE students distribute Black and brown dolls to children of color while teaching them positive self conception skills — drove the message home.

“None of us can achieve our greatest potential alone,” said Cornett-Scott. For that to happen, “we have to look out for one another, believe in one another, lift one another up.”

Students help reinforce positive self-conception among young Black and brown girls at the 2006 Black Baby Doll Drive.

Ida B. Wells students responded by forging incredible bonds of friendship. They internalized the call-to-action and went the extra mile to enforce it. As a result Cornett-Scott was soon able to pair incoming participants with peer and alumni mentors that’d come through the program. 

“We created [clubs, events, and organizations] that we cared about deeply, and that were important to us,” said Patterson. That investiture and desire “to honor and pay forward the amazing experiences [we had in OIE] is what keeps us coming back year after year.”  

Accordingly, OIE alumni are, as a group, among the most actively involved on campus. Kwanzaa festivities, for instance, routinely draw upward of 200 alumni participants.  

Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership alumna Jazmine Brooks ’16 participated in the Ida B. Wells community and sister programming. She called OIE’s “culture of like-minded support” formative. It inspired her to aspire to university leadership roles like SGA vice president, criminal justice honors society president, and more. 

“That sisterhood and Rev. Scott quickly made [OIE] my favorite place to learn and grow,” said Brooks, who is also a former OIE fellow. The academic, social, and leadership expertise “they shared with me was essential to my success as a student, and critical in my development as a leader. It left an indelible mark on my will to succeed and ability to lead.” 

Today the MBU Office of Inclusive Excellence offers some of the most innovative and effective diversity, equity, and inclusion programming in the U.S.

“The impact this office is able to affect on a student-to-student level is remarkable,” said Joel Goodman, a principal with Austin, Texas, based higher education marketing strategy company Bravery Media. He helped audit MBU’s offerings for an ongoing website redesign project, and has overseen similar processes for dozens of institutions. 

“The specificity, thoughtfulness, and reach of these programs is just incredible,” he said.   

Professor Edward Scott agrees — and is quick to point out OIE’s success has significantly benefited the campus community as a whole.

The diversity of voices “makes the classroom environment infinitely richer,” he said. Students bring an array of cultural and social experience to discussions. The resulting dialogic melting pot enables them to consider new perspectives, expand their horizons, and “think more broadly about the world and their position in it.”

Cornett-Scott’s achievements have not gone unnoticed: She was named the university’s inaugural Chief Diversity Officer this past summer. Both President Fox and Dr. Scott agree the position will help lead the next evolution of MBU’s 25-plus-year push to become an industry-leading beacon of DEI principles in action.

Clockwise from left: Current Latines Unides officers gather for a group photo; Chief Diversity Officer Andrea Cornett-Scott; students celebrating a recent Kwanzaa.

Cornett-Scott is already busy working with the Coalition for Racial and Social Justice to implement a broad range of new strategic measures.

These include reworking university marketing and communications guidelines to ensure content meets or exceeds current national standards around inclusivity, bias, gender-neutrality, and more. Services for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students are being rapidly expanded. Better systems for assessing and mitigating issues of discrimination around race and gender are under development. Deans are discussing adding new majors and minors in the area of African American and Latine studies, and programming for DEI certificates and badges. Residual elements of colonial bias are being stripped from curriculum and balanced with content that includes alternative perspectives and voices. The list goes on.

While acknowledging the work ahead is plentiful and will invariably bring challenges, Cornett-Scott calls it a marvelous opportunity. She hopes to use it to close remaining DEI gaps and expand the reach of OIE in an unprecedented manner. 

“After 25 years we have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn’t,” she said with a laugh. With more resources at her disposal, “we’d like to try to bring this kind of [hyper-personalized] approach to every student on campus.”

“The impact Mary Baldwin's Office of Inclusive Excellence is able to affect on a student-to-student level is remarkable. The specificity, thoughtfulness, and reach of these programs is astonishing.”
Joel Goodman, principal of Austin, Texas, based higher education marketing strategy company Bravery Media.

TAKE NOTE: A series of special events will be held on April 22–24 to celebrate the Office of Inclusive Excellence’s landmark anniversary. The theme will be “Precious Memories, Oh How They Linger.” Stay tuned for further announcements and details!