Q&A with Dr. Thomas Stewart: How One Adult-Serving University Leader Tackles DE&I Through Lived Experience—and A Board Level Commitment

As published in Forbes

Growing up as a young man in Washington, D.C., Tom Stewart was separated from his parents, spent time in foster care and joined the military to escape his troubled community. But military service and higher education helped him transcend the cycle of poverty and build a better life. Today, as a vice chancellor with the National University System, Dr. Stewart leads a comprehensive system-wide initiative on social justice, equity, diversity and inclusion known as S-JEDI to help support underrepresented working adult learners.

Like many colleges and universities across the country, the National University System, —parent organization for National University, a 50-year-old non-profit university based in San Diego— has been in the process of rethinking its approach to DE&I work in the wake of important national discussions around gender, race, and social inequality in America. In that role, Stewart is tasked with reshaping the university’s programs, services, curriculum and workplace culture around the principles of social justice, diversity, equity and inclusion.

And, at a university of more than 25,000 students and more than 1,000 full-time faculty and staff supported by 2,300 adjuncts, that is no small task. Perhaps best known as one of the largest providers of teaching credentials in California, what really sets National University apart is their explicit focus on serving what has become better known as the population of “today’s students.”

More than two-thirds of National University students take the majority of their classes online, and 80 percent of undergraduates bring existing college credit when they enroll. The average age of a National University student is 33. And about 1 in 4 students are active-duty service members or veterans. While these demographics are not typical on every college campus, they are in fact more reflective of the vast diversity of today’s higher education students. The university is a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI), with more than 25 percent of its students identifying as Latinx.

I was curious to better understand: what does DE&I leadership look like at an institution that is already so diverse in so many ways? And what motivates the person who is tasked with executing on that vision? As the chair of the board of trustees at Colorado Mesa University, I was inspired by the board-level commitment that the National University System has made to these critical and timely issues. I learned so much from Dr. Stewart not only about his inspiring personal story of someone who had overcome such adversity in his own life—but how he is living out that commitment to social justice imperative by meeting the needs of every type of learner.

Alison Griffin: What brought you to the work of equity, diversity and inclusion? And how have your life experiences prepared you for the role with National University?
Tom Stewart: My role as vice chancellor for social justice, equity, diversity and inclusion for the National University System is the best way for me to fully express not only all the things that I’ve learned professionally leading up to this moment but also my personal experiences.

My work starts with upbringing—growing up in the housing projects in northeast Washington, D.C. I spent a couple of years in foster care because of income and other family challenges. I have a brother who died of AIDS, and I watched firsthand how he had to live in a way that didn’t allow him to fully express his identity. I have another brother who did nine years in prison for a nonviolent offense that didn’t require incarceration let alone a decade of his life. I have family members who battled substance abuse and gambling. My parents didn’t graduate from high school, and none of my siblings hold a credential higher than a high school diploma.

When I graduated from public high school, like the average student who leaves many District of Columbia schools, I was reading and writing at a ninth-grade level. I did three years in the military — I had an exceptional experience, but for me it represented a refuge and a long-term career move. It allowed me to flee a community that was being devastated by crack cocaine. In addition to being a relatively safe and structured environment. The military taught me how to learn.

Because of the momentum, exposure, and confidence I gained from my military service, I went on to earn an undergraduate degree from the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), a historically Black university in the nation’s capital. I was later fortunate to be the first person from UDC to be accepted into a Ph.D. program at Harvard University, where I received a Ph.D. in government.

I’ve been very fortunate to meet and often live with all different types of people, identities, and culture. I feel well positioned and obligated to leverage that exposure to differences as a way to connect people to each other.

Alison: What makes the S-JEDI initiative different from other diversity and inclusion initiatives that we often read about in postsecondary education?
Tom: I believe that higher education institutions, up until the last decade, have not done as much as they could to be inclusive of all types of learners—regardless of their age, race, income, and other characteristics. But there has been a bit of a revolution in the last few years. There’s an expectation at universities that you have to demonstrate a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, and most of it focuses on human capital-related issues — student recruitment and diversifying your student population and workforce which is what we’re doing at the National University System.

But, in addition to making a long-term commitment or institutionalizing diversity and inclusion from a governance and funding standpoint, I was charged with looking at how we integrate diversity and inclusion into everything we do at National University. One thing we’re doing is to ensure our vendors and investments represent our student population, which is roughly 60% women and mostly from communities of color.

The majority of our students are working adults, which means many of them have families. Family and work are their number one and number two priorities, and school tends to be priority number three. It’s a social justice issue for us to make sure that we offer an education that allows anyone anywhere to have access to a program of study and use their time and resources wisely. That’s why we offer what we call short-form learning experiences. Many of these short-form learning experiences are a month to a few months long, and they lead to a credential that has instant market value. They’re stackable, so that learners can come back and get multiple short-form experiences that satisfy undergraduate and graduate degree requirements.

How do we prepare learners? Our model begins with the end in mind. For us it’s not preparing our learners for jobs of today, but for jobs of the future. Because a lot of our students are from low or lower-middle income backgrounds, we have the opportunity to help them leapfrog into the future. That’s what happened to me, right?

Alison: How has the National University System supported this work?
Tom: Equity first became a critical issue in the national dialogue around higher education on the heels of the civil rights movement, but the challenge has been that diversity and equity have vacillated from being top of mind for people or organizations for months and sometimes years, then just falling off the radar.

One of the beautiful things about social justice, equity, diversity and inclusion or S-JEDI work within the National University System is that the board of trustees, the chancellor, and the entire leadership team want to institutionalize this work.

The board created my office so it can’t be abolished by any current or future leaders within the organization, should they ever change. The board also put my role at an officer’s level. Many institutions create directors and coordinators who are two or three levels removed from the leadership team. In addition to having a direct reporting relationship to the chancellor, I have a dotted-line reporting relationship to the board chair and the chair of the board’s human capital and compensation committee. So if I discovered that a board member, the chancellor, or some other member of the management team is misaligned with the board’s charge around social justice, equity, diversity and inclusion, I can’t be stymied.

My office has the resources, and the National University System has hired some of the best diversity, equity and inclusion professionals from other sectors. Most importantly, we are codifying everything we do with the goal of being best in class and making all that we do an open and free resource for others. So as a nonprofit, our model, approach and learnings are not proprietary; we want to give it away and share what we’re learning to create a multiplier effect.