Student Affairs Vice Provost challenges Black students
to use their voice on campus
First of a two-part story
By Charles Hallman
The MSR first met Danita Brown Young at a Gopher football game this fall, just a few months after she’d assumed her duties as the University of Minnesota’s chief student affairs officer this past July.
“I am a sports fanatic and love all Cleveland professional sports teams. I also love NASCAR racing,” wrote the Kent, Ohio native on her wedding website. We subsequently arranged a sit-down interview with U of M Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Dr. Young at her office in Appleby Hall during first-semester finals week last month.
“I am a Midwestern,” she told us proudly. “What’s interesting about my family is that we were the first African American family to settle in Kent, Ohio. We have a longstanding history; my great-great grandparents came up from Macon, Georgia on the railroad. My great-great grandmother really was in charge of educating the children of the railroad families.
“There are numerous teachers and family members working in higher education,” said Young, a licensed counselor who once worked for the Chicago Public Schools and for the Illinois Department of Family Services.
Young’s extensive collegiate experience includes serving “for a short period” as student activities and leadership program coordinator at Loyola University Chicago. She also was associate campus life director at Ohio University.
“I really had good relationships, and [it was] good working with students, especially students of color and first-generation, low-income students,” she said. She also was the interim dean of students at West Virginia University at Parkersburg; and at Purdue, since 2011, Young was an associate dean of counseling, then dean of students.
Now, “as [U of M] vice president for student affairs and dean of students, I primarily serve as the voice and advocate for students,” she explained. “I am student-centered about everything that we do. I’m engaged with the overall well-being of our students: engagement, leadership development, and enriching their overall experience here at the university, whether that’s on campus or off campus.”
She quickly pointed out that her job is not a “dean of discipline” position. “People negatively associate [the] dean of students with the principal in high school. I hear this constantly — ‘Oh, I’m so glad I didn’t have to go to the dean of students’ office.’
“Now, don’t get me wrong — if you violate our student code of conduct or some policy, you will come to our student conduct and academic integrity office,” she said smiling.
There is no such thing as a U of M “typical student,” noted Young. “Our students come from so many different backgrounds and have a variety of needs.” When asked, however, about her school’s Black students and other students of color, Young responded, “Particularly with Black students, it’s really connecting them with resources because they just don’t know.
“I really challenged them to claim their seat, to own their seat — they have a voice too, and they need to use it. They pay tuition just like everybody else who comes here.”
This lack of connection surprised her, admitted the U of M vice-president and dean. “It really did surprise me, because it is a small, tight-knit community. I guess I would have anticipated the Black faculty and staff really being involved more with our students. They [Black students] are not connecting with the Black faculty and staff.”
Young said she and U of M Vice President of Diversity and Equity Katrice Albert have been meeting to figure out “how we can truly connect our students with the Black faculty and staff to serve as formal and informal mentors.”
She said of Black women in roles similar to hers, “There are a number of us who actually are women of color, and that’s atypical. I don’t know the percentage, but if you just look at the Big Ten, there are about nine of us who are women of color in the VP role,” she noted. “I think that trend occurred over the last five years where you see more and more people of color being elevated to positions within higher education, particularly student affairs.
“Nationally our field is pretty small, extremely small” for Blacks and other people of color, Young observed. “And [as a result], when there are opportunities that come along, you’re automatically in the [search] database because of the national organizations we are a part of.”
This in essence partly explains what brought her to Minnesota this past summer: “I was the dean of students at Purdue, and I was not looking for a position or a change, but the search firm kept contacting me and contacting me,” recalled Young. “I knew that the U of M was doing some good work. I got the on-campus interview. I liked more and more of what I saw, and that there could be some real opportunities to make some change to put Student Affairs on the map.”
The recent year has been an eventful one for Young, including a June marriage to her husband John, an ordained minister who works in the Social Security Administration. The newlyweds recently found a church home at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in St. Paul, announced Young.
“Now I am here at the U of M,” she said proudly.
Next: Young discusses her office addressing recent on-campus incidents.
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