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New face of diversity

Noor Azizan-Gardner leads the way for a multicultural Mizzou

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  • Story by Nancy Moen
  • Photo by Shane Epping
  • Published: Nov. 1, 2012
Noor Azizan-Gardner

Noor Azizan-Gardner is Mizzou's new Chief Diversity Officer.

We students, faculty and staff of Mizzou come from a variety of cultures and socio-economic backgrounds. We represent different ethnicities, races, religions and sexual orientations. Some of us have disabilities that need accommodation, and we all have differing abilities.

Does it matter? You bet it does. The very diversity that makes us different also makes us better.

Being a salad bowl of diversity gives Mizzou and its students a competitive advantage, says Noor Azizan-Gardner, Mizzou’s newly appointed chief diversity officer. “We come up with better solutions when we have people with different backgrounds. Alike people can be unaware of some issues.”

Mizzou’s success with diversity helps prepare students for a diverse and global work setting. MU students learn to be comfortable, competent and effective in a business and non-profit world made up of people with different backgrounds.

Vive la difference

Diversity is about all of us, and Mizzou celebrates those differences through the Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative, established in 2006. 

Today’s CDI offers an engaging selection of programs and activities that promote diversity, inclusion and civility, including the 2012 Mizzou Diversity Summit.

“We realize we are all dealing with human beings with needs, and all of us are working to find more meaning in our lives. We care about the people we’re with,” says Azizan-Gardner, who has worked with intercultural issues in the United States and Europe for nearly 20 years.

Azizan-Gardner’s responsibility is developing understanding among people and building community. She serves as an advocate for multiculturalism by guiding the direction of Mizzou’s welcoming campus.

Handling bias

Bias — a breakdown of respect and civility — tears the fabric of a community and is not tolerated on campus. In February 2011, Mizzou investigated and resolved an incident of a student arrested for spray-painting racist graffiti on a campus statue. In February 2010, they similarly dealt with a racist vandalism incident in which students scattered cotton balls on the lawn of the Black Culture Center.

“Even one or two high-profile incidents indicate there’s still work to be done. We’re a community, and you won’t do that to a member of the community you care a lot about,” Azizan-Gardner says.

During the past year, Mizzou handled 44 reports of alleged bias incidents. To the extent possible, they were promptly investigated and resolved. Azizan-Gardner says bias often brings back historical pain and can develop out of disrespect for gender, religion, culture or other differences. 

“It’s more serious than people think. Bullying behaviors are problematic when power is in play,” Azizan-Gardner says.

In the past, people didn’t necessarily report bias on campus, so the Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative team simplified the reporting process.

People with concerns can fill out online forms, or they can meet with Noel English, director of MU’s Equity Office, who handles discrimination cases. If a faculty member alleges discrimination, an investigation proceeds through a process outlined in the University of Missouri Collected Rules

“The point is there’s somebody to hear you and care about you,” Azizan-Gardner says.

Born to public service

Mizzou’s diversity initiative for students and faculty began about two decades ago with an academic program of training sessions and classes called MU to the Future, led by assistant professor Mabel Grimes. After Grimes retired in 1999, Azizan-Gardner took over the coordination of campus diversity.

She seems to have been destined for her job. The eldest of five children born in Malaysia to Malayo-Polynesian-Chinese parents, Azizan-Gardner learned to live around the world from childhood, moving as needed to accommodate her father’s work on resolving conflict and building communities. 

The children understood they too would eventually be engaged in their parents’ ideal of performing public service to leave the world a better place. Her siblings work in public service as an attorney, an oncology physician, a financial adviser and a director for the Environmental Protection Agency of Malaysia.

Azizan-Gardner’s role at MU is to produce culturally competent students ready to function in an increasingly diverse world.

In 2006 Deputy Chancellor Michael Middleton expanded the program beyond academics into students’ extracurricular activities and, for the first time, included MU staff members, from maintenance to administration.

“It was a brilliant move of inclusiveness because staff make a university run. Now we are there for everybody: faculty, staff and students. Being that inclusive is critical,” Azizan-Gardner says.

Responding to need

The deans of the schools and colleges, who set the tenor of the campus, are close colleagues of Azizan-Gardner, and she’s proud of the dramatic steps they’ve taken toward multiculturalism in their units.

Because success in business is directly tied to diversity, inclusion and cultural competence, the Trulaske College of Business offers students a learning tool designed to create a global mindset.

Business faculty members developed Root Map Learning in a public-private partnership with Ernst & Young. The activities facilitate discussions designed to help undergraduate students understand the importance of thinking globally as part of their professional development.

“I don’t think any other college has anything like it,” Azizan-Gardner says.

In the School of Medicine, Dean Robert Churchill became the inaugural speaker of MU’s Leadership Diversity Lecture Series with a public report on the school’s involvement in medical care for the LGBT community.

Churchill said the medical school had not delivered appropriate training to prepare doctors for LGBT issues. The school now incorporates LGBT issues into its curriculum.   

Campuswide, Mizzou has a strong Transaction Team to accommodate the needs of the student transgender community, and the university is working toward providing unisex bathrooms in every building.

There are numerous other examples of success at Mizzou. To name a few, the psychology department has a lecture series that recently featured a nationally known scholar on social isolation; educational, school and counseling psychology in the College of Education sponsors an annual lecture series on multiculturalism in education; and the English department is home to many scholars who contribute to the writings and creative works in literature of the African Diaspora.

In areas that are typically male dominated, mathematics has been encouraging women to enter the fields for years; forestry recently appointed a woman, Rose-Marie Muzika, as chair; and physics, which began recruiting women faculty members decades ago under the leadership of Henry White, is now respected as one of the nation’s most diverse departments.

Measuring success

Mizzou’s priority is the development of a community of scholars and a curriculum that enhances diversity. To that end, attention to demographic numbers and affirmative action is critical because all groups need access to education.

But universities have evolved, and faculty members are studying how to integrate diversity into the schools and colleges rather than the general program.

“What medicine needs differs from what law requires. We are looking to build cultural competency programs in the many different fields,” Azizan-Gardner says.

Part of that plan is reaching out to students who might not think of a college education, including rural and inner-city students. The Missouri College Advising Corps in the Division of Enrollment Management places 25 recent Mizzou graduates in Missouri high schools and community colleges to partner with the schools and advise students on attending college — any college, not just Mizzou. The effort is supported through a grant from the Marion Ewing Kauffman Foundation.

“Consequently, we are seeing a steady increase in enrollment of first-generation, underrepresented students. We do this because it is part of our core mission of providing a world-class education for the citizens of Missouri in an increasingly complex and complicated world.

“And if we do our job here, our students will be significant contributors to their communities,” Azizan-Gardner says.

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Last updated: Nov. 1, 2012