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YOUNGSTOWN Choice of diversity official disappoints some at YSU



Published: Thu, May 30, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Leon Stennis says his work as Vindicator religion editor gives him practical experience with diversity issues.

By RON COLE

VINDICATOR EDUCATION WRITER

YOUNGSTOWN -- For the second time in two weeks, an appointment at Youngstown State University is drawing fire from some observers who say it's another example of the university's lack of commitment to diversity.

YSU President Dr. David Sweet has named Leon Stennis, YSU news editor for nearly 10 years, as coordinator of diversity initiatives.

Sweet said Stennis, a former Vindicator religion editor whose job at YSU mostly involved writing news releases, is well-suited for the position.

"We had the vacancy and the need for a person who we thought could fulfill the job from within," said Sweet, who made diversity a top priority when he took YSU's helm two years ago. "I believe he's qualified to do the job; otherwise, I wouldn't have appointed him."

'Much higher expectations'

But Dr. Victor Wan-Tatah, head of YSU's Africana Studies program, said Stennis, while a skilled university employee, lacks any specific credentials in diversity issues.

"I think some of us had much higher expectations of the administration two years ago, and I've been forced now to reduce my expectations because there's no real commitment," he said.

Wan-Tatah was among several faculty members who two weeks ago criticized the appointment of Dr. Robert Bolla as YSU's new arts and sciences dean.

Wan-Tatah and other faculty members thought Provost Tony Atwater should have hired Dr. Carol Blackshire-Belay, who is black and has since been named a dean at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay.

Bolla was the third YSU dean appointment this spring. All three are white. The other four deans on campus also are white. Atwater, who is black, is the only minority in a top administrative job at YSU. Of the 400 faculty members at YSU, 46 -- or about 12 percent -- are minorities.

Barbara Orton, head of YSU's Office of Equal Opportunity, defended Stennis' appointment but said YSU missed a great opportunity with Blackshire-Belay.

"Everyone has to realize that diversity is more than a word; diversity is action," Orton said.

"The struggle continues. We haven't gotten there, and we're not getting there. There are a whole lot of universities around here who have done much better than we have."

Choice postponed

The diversity coordinator position had been vacant since August. A committee of university employees and community members launched a national search for a replacement and identified three finalists.

The position, however, was frozen earlier this year because of state budget cuts, Orton said. When Sweet released the position, the top finalist had taken another job, and Orton said the other two candidates weren't viable.

Rather than start another search, Orton said Stennis, who is black, was moved into the job. She said Stennis has solid connections with the black and Hispanic communities as well as skills to help make YSU's diversity efforts more visible.

Stennis did not apply for the job but later asked to be transferred. He said it is a lateral move, and his annual salary will remain the same, about $43,000.

Stennis' background

An Arkansas native and graduate of Youngstown's East High School, Stennis said his 19 years as religion editor at The Vindicator gave him much practical experience working with the Mahoning Valley's diverse religious communities.

"It is true I do not have the academic credentials to deal with diversity issues, but I think I can grow in the job," he said.

He said he thinks Sweet's commitment to diversity is genuine.

"We need to increase our intensity toward accomplishing diversity, and that means some teeth are going to have to be put into the rhetoric," he added.

cole@vindy.com




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