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Alumni Q&A: Kenneth Elmore ’01, Championing Diversity in Higher Education

Kenneth Elmore ’01 is the Associate Provost and Dean of Students at Boston University, where he works to create a supportive learning and living community for all students.

Has your legal training influenced the work that you do as dean of students?

Absolutely. Every day, in so many ways: I’ve got free expression issues that come up. There are liability and human resource issues. To be trained to have a discerning eye on those questions is important. I spend a lot of time trying to work with folks on being precise in what they say and how they say it. And I think I learned that in my legal training. Every day I do something where I think, “Thank goodness I went to law school!"

What are some changes you’ve made as dean of students?

I advanced this concept—developed by the educator and civil rights leader Howard Thurman—that meaningful, shared experiences among people can build community. They allow us the spaces to disagree with each other but also to come together. And I think I have been out and about more than my predecessors were, as a way to participate in the community and engage it a little more.

How do you support students of color at the university?

A lot of the work that we do is about mentoring, both professional and personal. We are expanding the Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground, which is a place where our students of color, and all of our students, can really engage around issues of identity and culture. It’s not just about our students of color graduating and persisting here; it’s about the quality of the experience while they’re here. So for example we want to make sure that our students of color are studying abroad, and that they’re participating in work and internships, because those are all about quality of life, and we want to be sure that they are participating in the same way that any other student would be.

What about first-generation college students?

We’ve got a lot more students who are first gen now. One important piece is messaging—saying to that student, I was a first-generation college student, I was a Pell [Grant] student, so I was in that realm of poor folks too. And to say to them, you’ve got this. You’ve earned it, you’ve worked for it, and you can do this. And if you get to that juncture where you feel like you can’t, come and see me, let me give you some encouragement—and if need be, a good kick in the seat of the pants too!

We read about how parents today hover so much that students are unprepared for adulthood, for making their own decisions. Do you think that’s true?

I think we forget that not only does the student transition from high school to college, but so does the parent, and I’m sympathetic to that. There are times when you want parent and guardian involvement. But I do try to coach parents a little about how engaged they should be, and when to let the young person in their lives make some decisions for themselves—and also to allow them to falter a little bit.

What are some of the more challenging parts of your job?

We are still grappling with today’s politics; that’s a common conversation. We struggle with what it means to be civically involved. We grapple with whether we know each other, and are we doing enough to help our students to deal with the big, hard questions out there.

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