MEET USD’S VICE PROVOST FOR DIVERSITY, EQUITY AND INCLUSION
There’s an instant sense of warmth and connection when speaking with the university’s new Interim Vice Provost for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Richard Miller, DPE. While he spoke to USD Magazine from his den in Bowling Green, Kentucky, via the now-ubiquitous Zoom platform, he has since relocated to San Diego. His one-year term in the newly created position began on September 1.
In a conversation that ranged from his early years in upstate New York to his athletic prowess to his long and distinguished career in academia, Miller was eloquent in discussing systemic racism, bias and the work that we as a society need to do to make real progress.
“These are issues that are contemporary, especially in light of the murder of George Floyd and others,” he says. “The level of consciousness — not only on the part of institutions, but on the country as a whole — has reached the point where this dialogue is not only necessary, but critically important. There’s been a lot of talk about diversity and inclusion and equity over the years. But it’s taken on a much different view and approach now.”
Miller grew up in Ithaca, New York, a predominantly white college town. One of four children, he was athletic from an early age. “Most of my young adult life, I was consumed with sports,” he recalls. ”I was very active in all three major sports, and was fortunate enough to be gifted to excel in all three.”
He was also studious. His mother was the secretary to the dean of Cornell University’s school of electrical engineering and had a second job typing doctoral dissertations and masters’ theses for students. “She would say to us kids, ‘One of these days, I’m going to be typing your master’s thesis,’ which turned out to be true, in my case.”
While Miller had played baseball, football and basketball throughout high school, once he got to college, he realized that he simply didn’t have time to pursue all three.
“I played basketball and baseball in college, but baseball was the sport I excelled at,” he recalls. When he graduated from Ithaca College in 1969 as an All-America baseball player, he was drafted by the San Francisco Giants organization into one of their minor league teams in Great Falls, Montana, playing third base and in the outfield.
When asked what stands out about his baseball career, he doesn’t have to think twice. “The first two times up to the plate as a professional baseball player, I hit two home runs. It was kind of a signature moment of my baseball career.”
A career-ending injury occurred a few years later. “I would have loved to move up the ladder to get to the major leagues, but the good Lord had other plans for me, and that’s OK,” he says with a rueful laugh.
Miller believes the values he learned on the athletic field have proven invaluable when it comes to dealing with the various issues that have arisen over the course of his career of 40+ years in academia.
“The carryover has been essential for me. There are lessons that you learn in competition that carry over into a variety of fields of study and areas of work,” he says. “It teaches you confidence. It teaches you that you’re not always going to succeed. It teaches you that you have to be persistent in order to gain perfection. You have to have patience, and that’s something a lot of people lack these days. But the most important thing is that it teaches you to respect your opponent. That is absolutely essential.”
After his baseball career ended, Miller earned a master’s degree in health and physical education from Ithaca College, and his doctorate in exercise physiology from Springfield College in 1975. He subsequently took a position as an assistant professor at Bowie State University in Maryland, a public historically Black university. It was there that he says he was first exposed to an ethnically diverse environment.
“When you’re raised in an environment that’s predominantly white, there’s little focus on African American history or getting more immersed in African American culture. I didn’t have that when I grew up,” he recalls. “When I went to Bowie, I began to learn more about my race and the history of my race than I did when I was growing up. It was a wonderful learning experience for me to become more inculcated in my race and my culture.”
In the early 2000s, Miller first started getting more involved with diversity-related issues and concerns. “My passion for these issues really grew, and carried on into my time at Western Kentucky University,” he notes. In addition to his role as vice provost there, he also assumed the role of WKU’s first chief diversity officer, which he held for 12 years.
When announcing his appointment, Vice President and Provost Gail Baker, PhD, explained her vision for the position at USD, to “identify areas of concern, explore new pathways for improvement, promote the creation of accountability structures, budgetary priorities and other programs throughout the institution.”
The first step, according to Miller, is to learn and listen. “How can we establish a level of comfort in discussing these issues? People have always expressed some reluctance to talk about issues related to race and bias,” he notes. “But they have to reach a level of comfort to the extent that they can feel free to express their views and concerns without fear of showing ignorance or fear of being politically incorrect.”
For true change, tough conversations are a good place to start. “Once that level of comfort has been reached, you can begin to make some real headway,” says Miller. “I think it’s important for students — as well as faculty and staff — to constantly be exposed to seminars, colloquia and workshops dealing with a variety of issues that relate to diversity, inclusion and equity.”
Miller sees this particular moment in our country as an opportunity for growth and change. “I think the level of consciousness has reached a point where people realize we need to take a strategic approach. A discussion about implicit bias definitely needs to happen. The time is right.”
And the focus on students is paramount. “We are preparing students for careers in a society that is very multicultural. And so it is all the more important for institutions like the University of San Diego to focus a lot of attention on providing students with the opportunity to engage with more diverse constituents, including students, faculty and staff. They will learn from them, and when they leave, they’ll be more confident, and able to better address some of these challenges.” — Julene Snyder
This story appears in the Fall 2020 issue of USD Magazine, which is slated to hit mailboxes the week of September 14.