Changing Clemson: Leon Wiles advocates for a diverse campus climate
By Julia Turner, Class of 2014, Office of Media Relations
For Leon Wiles, the Civil Rights Era was a time for change…and for inspiration. The young Cincinnati, Ohio native saw and lived through injustices against people of color and was motivated by the efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr., Lerone Bennett, Dick Gregory, Andrew Young and many other leaders. Their message of equal rights and equal opportunity resonated with him and shaped him into an advocate for underrepresented populations.
Today, as Clemson’s chief diversity officer, Wiles serves as the voice for underrepresented populations on campus. Reporting to Clemson’s president, Wiles, coordinates a number of initiatives that focus on inclusion projects for African-Americans, Latinos, the disabled, the lesbian, bisexual, gay, queer and transgender community, international and other populations.
In his time at Clemson, his achievements include creating an ADA task force and developing a five-year plan for capital improvements, which places a priority on handicap accessibility. He also has established a Minority Student Success Initiative (MSSI) group to promote the success of minority students enrolled at Clemson. Additionally, his office has been responsible for the implementation of a campus-wide civil treatment program for administrative and faculty supervisors to maintain an inclusive workplace environment. Currently, Wiles’ focus is campus climate enhancement.
Not only during Black History Month, but every month of the year, Wiles strives to improve the black experience at Clemson, both for students and for faculty. With the help of now President Emeritus Jim Barker, the chief diversity officer worked to make available more need-based grants for undergraduate students, to help increase the African-American student population on campus. This, along with an initiative to hire more faculty of color, will help Clemson to enjoy a more diverse population.
“We have developed a five-year diversity inclusion plan that will increase the population of underrepresented students and faculty on campus. I proposed to double the numbers of African-American students here at Clemson in five years. The African-American population has generally been at six to seven percent, but what I want is, by much more aggressively recruiting faculty and students over a five-year period, to be closer to a 20 percent diversity rate,” Wiles said, when asked about his goals as chief diversity officer. “Just study top-20 schools all over the country, we generally have lower representations of diversity, and we are actively working to fix that.”
To increase campus diversity, you have to access the current campus climate. He has paid close attention to the climate over the past few years, with his help, the number of campus complaints has dropped. That, he said, makes him believe that the campus climate is improving. Continuing in this pursuit, Wiles is actively working to bring even more to the table. Starting tentatively in the fall of 2014, he has proposed a Climate Enhancement Award, which recognizes students, faculty and staff for their contributions to creating a better climate at Clemson.
“It’s my job to think about climate enhancement, but students and faculty here on campus are the ones who have an incentive as well. Not only are they the creative thinkers, but they experience it personally. I know that some people might even have recognized a way to enhance climate that I have never thought of. This award would allow for funding of ideas that people bring to enhance the climate. This way, these individuals will be recognized for their help and then get to implement and see the difference they will make,” Wiles said.
Although the chief diversity officer can boast of many achievements, he’s not done yet. Wiles also seeks to introduce a new lecture series in which high-profile individuals would come to Clemson to speak about the value of diversity and inclusion.
However, Wiles goes on to say that, while his job is important to the university, to truly help the climate, everyone on campus has to get involved. He maintains that we have to educate ourselves on where we were with racial relations just fifty years ago and realize where we are now. We have improved, but only by everyone making a joint effort.
“Diversity and inclusion is everyone’s responsibility. It can’t be isolated – it has to become part of the fabric of the entire institution.”
Wiles encourages faculty and staff to help take the initiative in making our campus a friendly environment for the underrepresented students here at Clemson.
“Getting to know the student is important. Read about the population you serve, and don’t limit yourself to stereotypes of your students. African-American students don’t have special admissions; they are here to learn just like the rest of the student body and are held to the same standards.”
The chief diversity officer invites anyone who has any questions about underrepresented student populations to collaborate with him. The diversity office can provide insight, information and resources to help faculty and staff successfully meet the needs of students. With knowledge, perspective and understanding, Clemson can continue its goal to be an inclusive institution.
Leon E. Wiles was named chief diversity officer at Clemson University, a position reporting to President James F. Barker, in July 2008. Wiles earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark. His doctoral in higher education administration was received from the University of South Carolina. Wiles is a charter member of the Upstate International, an initiative created to foster appreciation and recognition of international cultures represented throughout Upstate South Carolina. At Clemson, the chief diversity officer serves as the president’s senior executive responsible for all major equity and inclusion effort.