By: Albert Ivory, Staff Writer
Photo Courtesy of the Towson University Alumni Association
After working at Towson for nearly 35 years, Debbie Seeberger will be stepping down from her position as as the Assistant Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion. This coming fall, Seeberger will act as a professor for two sections of the class Teaching and Learning in a Diverse Society. The following conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What made you decide to become the Assistant Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion?
Well, that is a long story. Everything went into total complete opposite directions. My first position at TU was as an Administrative Assistant I in the Office of Residence. I transferred from the State Highway Administration, where I had worked for eight years, for the purpose of taking advantage of TU’s tuition waiver. I had set a goal of securing a baccalaureate degree in computer science.
I was determined to reach this goal. Following eight years of employment at TU, the birth of two sons – during summer so I would not miss an academic semester, I graduated in May of 1992 with a B.S. in computer science.
One year into my employment at TU, I was promoted to an Administrative Assistant II in Academic Computing Services. Although I had hoped to be able to transition into an exempt position in Academic Computing supporting networking services after receipt of a bachelor’s degree, I was not eligible to apply for the exempt position because I did not have the required two years of experience working in the networking area.
Eventually, I accepted a promotion to an Administrative Assistant III in the Office of the President. I reported to the individual that served as TU’s Affirmative Action & Fair Practices Officer and began to learn the responsibilities related to oversight of the University’s affirmative action compliance. It was at this time that I made the decision to begin matriculating in graduate studies – Human Resource Development.
In May 1996, I graduated and received a master’s degree in Human Resource Development. Due to the heavy workload of the Office of the President, it was necessary to create a position for an Affirmative Action Compliance and Reporting Specialist and I transitioned to this new exempt role.
Following having opportunities to work in this capacity first reporting to University Counsel and later reporting to the University’s ombudsman, I was promoted to the position of Affirmative Action Officer.
While serving as Affirmative Action Officer I met individuals serving in similar positions from across the University System of Maryland. Conferences and training seminars lead me to fully understand my privilege as a white, middle class woman, educated in private and public schools in Maryland in affluent regions of the state.
My eyes were opened to the oppression that others experienced. It was during this time that the Director of TU’s African American Culture Center, and I established TU’s first diversity committee as we understood that the issues were broad and that the approach that the university took to address them needed to be as well.
As Affirmative Action Officer, I was reported to the president and as my role expanded and I was promoted to Assistant to the President for Diversity, TU’s first Chief Diversity Officer. During my sixteen years in the role of Chief Diversity Officer, TU became a founding institution of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, NADOHE, and I was elected to serve as a member of the Board of Directors of NADOHE.
Several years ago, it was decided that TU could strengthen and advance the university’s equity and inclusion goals if there were a dedicated position in the Division of Academic Affairs to lead diversity, inclusion and equity programs and initiatives. I was interested in the position and promoted to Assistant Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion in the Office of the Provost in June 2016.
What are your responsibilities and duties to fulfill this position?
Researching, developing, and implementing programs and initiatives in support of attracting and retaining diversity faculty, staff and librarian bodies, faculty and staff development diversity and equity educational seminars, as well as initiatives to foster welcoming and inclusive climates in TU’s classrooms and academic workplace.
This position within the Division of Academic Affairs is crucial as it provide deans, chairs, and faculty members with resources to be successful in this work.
What changes have you seen at Towson during your time?
Student enrollment growth from 8,000 to nearly 23,000 students. The student body has become increasingly diverse, matching the population of local and regional high school graduates. Another thing is the heightened awareness the need to dedicate resources to equity and inclusion in support of student success.
What was your favorite initiative/moment while you were in office?
During the period that the USM Chancellor Robert L. Caret served as President of TU, 2003-2011, the University was able to make great strides in the advancement of the University’s mission as it relates to diversity and inclusion:
TU’s Diversity Vision Statement and commitment to diversity were adopted by the president’s council. The Diversity Council and the Diversity Action Committee were established. Diversity awards recognizing departments and individuals for outstanding support of diversity and inclusion were instituted. Work was conducted to address needs of TU’s LGBTQ community – gender neutral restrooms, preferred name on OneCard and class rosters. Campus climate surveys for faculty and staff were conducted. TU’s reflective process for diversity that consists of one hour dialogues meant to assist departments in setting goals to support diversity and inclusion was conducted in 99 administrative and academic departments and led to the inclusion of diversity evaluation being included on the performance evaluations of exempt staff was conducted.
Additionally, I had the opportunity to provide support to the USM Chancellor, Donald Langenberg, while serving as the Chairperson of the USM Diversity Network from 1998-2008. The Network consisted of individuals serving as chief diversity officers, student affairs, faculty, and student representatives. Annual faculty diversity conferences were hosted by the Network on campuses throughout the USM. The first USM Faculty Diversity Conference was held at TU.
The leadership of the USM Diversity Network was able to meet with the Chancellor’s Council and share vital information that eventually led to the USM adoption of domestic benefit benefits for USM employees.
Having opportunities to meet with USM presidents to have a one hour dialogue regarding their institution’s strengthen and challenges related to diversity and inclusion were particularly enjoyable. The individuals of the USM Diversity Network had an opportunity to establish the foundation of diversity and inclusion work throughout the USM.
What will you miss most about being the Assistant Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion?
Working with the incredible leadership team of the Office of the Provost, deans, and the academic department chairs. Most of all, I will miss the many TU faculty and staff members that I think of not only as colleagues, but as dear friends.
What do you value when it comes to diversity and inclusion?
I value being able to support individuals in their journey to overcome fear of others while gaining a broader understanding and appreciation of the impact that privilege and oppression have one individual’s lives.
Why are you leaving?
September would be my 40th anniversary as an employee of the State of Maryland. When I moved from the position of Special Assistant to the President to the Assistant Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion in the Office of the Provost, it was my plan to stay for two to three years.
In June, I will have been in this position for two years and with the support of Provost Chandler and Vice Provost Maggie Reitz we have been able to institutionalize impactful diversity programs and initiatives that foster equity for our campus community.
I made the decision to retire to have more time with family and friends enjoying life and volunteering in areas where I can make a difference.
What do you plan to do after you leave Towson University?
I want to travel more and spend time with my grandchildren, but I do plan to remain connected with communities that mean a great deal to me. This fall, I will be instructing two sections of EDUC 203, Teaching and Learning in a Diverse Society. I will commute to campus two days a week mid-day, alleviating driving in rush hour traffic. I will have a one and a half hour break between classes and I plan to keep in touch with my dear friends at TU.
I have been honored to be elected to serve on the Board of Directors of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, NADOHE, in various roles over the past twelve years. I will contain my NAODHE connections by serving as a faculty member of NADOHE’s Standards of Professional Practice Institute in June and have been appointed by the NADOHE’s President to provide leadership to the association’s Chief Diversity Officer Fellows Program. This program is a professional leadership program of mentorship for new and early career chief diversity officers.
What advice would you give to students while you’re leaving?
Push yourself to overcome fear of difference by reaching out and learning from individuals that have had experiences that are different from your own. Remember that a great deal of work remains to be done to recognize and overcome stereotypes, prejudice, bias – conscious and unconscious. If you are not working to break down barriers, you are helping to support and sustain them.
What are some thoughts that you had as retirement is coming?
There were a lot of accomplishments since this position been created two years ago, so I am hopeful that TU’s leadership team will sustain the positive steps that have been adopted during my tenure at TU.
The Assistant Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion in the Office of the Provost has been critical to planting seeds within the Division of Academic Affairs to advance TU’s equity and inclusion work. Hiring programs to create a pipeline, establish fellowships, and provide flexible hiring options to increase faculty diversity have been envisioned. I am hopeful that these programs will be implemented when funding allows.
Great movement has begun through providing support to deans and academic department chairs in understanding and appreciating their role in advancing diversity and inclusion at TU. Working with the TU’s Provost and Vice Provost, the next individual to fill this role will play a key role in relation to supporting and advancing equity and justice at TU.
Any additional information that you would like to share?
I have been honored and extremely fortunate to be able to serve the TU community for nearly 35 years. I will always remember the awesome faculty, staff, and students that I have had the privilege of working with and getting to know well.
I want to say thank you to all of you for your kindness and support. You have enriched my life and I will treasure the experiences that we have had together. Mine has been an incredible journey and I am sincerely grateful that many of you have accompanied me on this journey.