Interview by Grace Hagan – Former Print Editor
After an extensive search, the University of Dayton has selected Dr. Lawrence Burnley to serve as UD’s vice president for diversity and inclusion.
Like the title he will hold, effective July 1, Burnley’s background is diverse. After finishing his undergraduate education at the University of Cincinnati, Burnley returned to his native Cleveland where he worked with youth programs in the inner city. Eventually, he became a probation officer in juvenile court. Burnley also spent some time in the U.S. Air Force.
From there, Burnley’s path led him towards Christian ministry. He attended the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, IN. Following that, Burnley went east to the University of Pennsylvania where he served as a program associate for the Christian association there, also becoming the director for the Greenfield Intercultural Center. During this time, Burnley began his doctoral work at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education in a combined program with the history department.
After his time at Penn, Burnley returned to Cleveland for nine years to work with the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). “That ministry,” Burnley explained, “was to develop and implement a model of education designed to get people of color within these two denominations more involved in mission in a global context.”
Going east once more, Burnley took on a new position at Messiah College in Pennsylvania as associate dean for their multicultural program and special assistant to the provost for diversity affairs. “This was a new position which was exciting for me,” Burnley stated. It was also his introduction to a faith-based college. His last move before his anticipated move to Dayton was to Spokane, WA. There Burnley served as chief diversity officer and associate vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion at the Presbyterian-affiliated Whitworth University.
Burnley’s theological background drives and informs how he approaches his work. “When I think about diversity, equity and inclusion,” Burnley said, “it’s really grounded in my understanding and my faith, and mine is one where, while I am Christian, I am also one who values the complexity, the breadth and scope of the spirit, that permeates life in the human experience.” He emphasized that he is open to and welcomes opportunities to engage those of other faith traditions.
Drawing on UD’s core, Burnley reflected on how the Marianist tradition gives a great deal of attention to community and border crossing, service and social justice. Burnley hopes to continue the tradition of border crossing here at UD with his work in diversity, equity and inclusion, work that is rooted in his faith. “As I see his [Christ’s] earthly ministry, he indeed not only crossed borders but identified those individuals who were on the margins or excluded from community and brought them to the center and challenged traditions that tended to cause human suffering and marginalization.”
Just as with his diversity work at Whitworth University, Burnley’s work at UD will continue to be driven by a theology. “My theology,” Burnley said, “is one that wants to celebrate the diversity of God’s creation and really move toward modeling what it means to be inclusive, and to create systems, and policies, and practices and relationships that would allow for greater potential of more equitable outcomes across multiple dimensions of human difference.”
At UD, Burnley will continue to work with the University’s diversity initiative. According to Burnley, a diversity initiative is an initiative that values and tries to leverage and benefit from difference, in opposition to initiatives that tend to privilege particular identities. Burnley is clear that this is not just about race. “One of the mistakes we make when we think of diversity,” Burnley explained, “is we tend to reduce identities to either race or gender or any singular thing.” He stressed the importance of valuing multiple identities and critiquing structure that marginalize or privilege certain identities.
Burnley approaches his work as a process that is fluid and complex rather than focusing on a rigid outcome. “It’s a process, it’s how we think, it’s how we engage. It’s not a box to check, and it’s not simply or reduced to quantitative outcomes,” Burnley said.
Part of Burnley’s work as vice president of diversity and inclusion is to communicate the educational value in diverse communities. In higher education, there have been what Burnley calls ‘historic patterns of exclusion’ where structurally-informed underrepresentation of various social identities and populations is evident. Burnley seeks to emphasize the importance of understanding the practices and policies that have created such disparities and have impacted society economically, socially and politically. A lack of diversity, according to Burnley, “[disadvantages] all students from being in learning spaces where they can have the opportunity to benefit from diversity, different voices, different lenses.” Burnley maintains that the disadvantages of exclusion, and the advantages of inclusion, are made clear by research. Diversity— among students, faculty and staff— according to Burnley, is necessary to advance UD’s aims of both education and social justice.
When Burnley steps into his position on July 1, his leadership will be marked by his own learning and listening. “I’m coming from the outside,” Burnley said, “and I’m certainly not one that comes to impose a particular outcome based on my thinking. I do have core concepts and values and a sense of what inclusion, diversity and equity would look like through my own lens, but my lens that I bring needs to be shaped, informed and colored by multiple lenses at UD.”
Burnley said he feels that the excitement and anticipation from the University matches his own. When it comes to his future work at Dayton with diversity and inclusion, he hit the nail on the head, mentioning UD’s favorite buzzword: “This is something we are doing for all of us. We’re all in this together. This is about community with a capital C.”