By DONOVAN HARRELL
When Pam Connelly became Pitt’s inaugural vice chancellor for the Diversity and Inclusion in 2015, she faced a learning curve.
Since 2000, she had provided various legal services to Pitt as an associate general counsel, litigation counsel and legal consultant. But thanks to the leadership of Kathy Humphrey, senior vice chancellor for Engagement, who hired her for the ODI job, Connelly had a role model to help ease the transition.
Then the general election of 2016, which saw Donald Trump being elected president of the United States, caught her off guard.
“I didn't expect the last election, which added a whole ‘nother layer to the work that we do,” she said. “Populations that are minoritized and discriminated against and harassed, that got ratcheted up a level.”
The election set the stage for some tough, unique challenges during Connelly’s years as head of ODI.
As she prepares to leave her position at Pitt to return to practicing law, Connelly is hoping that her successor can bring in a unique set of tools for the job, which can be challenging. Skills in conflict resolution and restorative justice are some of the things on her wish list.
Connelly will become a shareholder at the Pittsburgh law firm Strassburger, McKenna, Gutnick & Gefsky, a firm that’s more than 100 years old. She had originally planned to step down from her position last year, but decided to stay on a little longer. However, it’s her philosophy that leadership should change every five years or so.
“I feel that 100 percent, like in my bones — that when I wake up in the morning or go to bed at night, and I think about this place and this position. It's just better to have a new perspective coming in.”
Because of this, she said she knew “going in that this wasn't going to be where I retire.”
During her time with ODI, Connelly has worked to make Pitt a more inclusive environment through a variety of trainings, workshops, Pitt community initiatives and more.
She grew the office from four to 18 employees. In October, ODI announced that its three-unit structure — the Office of Institutional Equity, the Title IX Office and the digital accessibility initiative — will be reorganized into two units: Inclusion and Access, and Civil Rights and Title IX. And the reorganization has created more positions to be filled.
ODI also champions affinity groups, now called Pitt Communities, to give faculty and staff, especially from underrepresented groups, a chance to network, train and provide community outreach.
Her office also introduced annual diversity retreats aimed to get the Pitt community to engage with uncomfortable subjects surrounding mental health, community engagement, racial and social justice, LGBTQ+ community issues and more.
Connelly looks back on 2017 through 2018 as the time she was most proud of her office. It helped present the naming of the K. Leroy Irvis Residence Hall; and played a role in the removal of the controversial Stephen Foster statue and renaming of Parran Hall.
“That was very gratifying,” Connelly said. “It was interesting, though, because I went over and sat on that bench where the statue used to be, and it wasn't as satisfying as you might think because it's the absence of an irritant. It's like you've got something poking into you. And once you remove it, it feels better, but it doesn't really change.”
Other University leaders praised Connelly and her work with ODI.
Chancellor Patrick Gallagher told members of the Senate Council on Dec. 11 he’s thankful for Connelly’s work and it’s “been an enormous privilege and pleasure” to work with her.
“She's really imprinted that office with her vision and attracted sort of a topflight group there, and we're so proud of Pam,” Gallagher said.
During the same meeting, Anthony Verardi, president of the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences Graduate Student Organization, said Connelly’s work positively impacted him and other graduate students.
Connelly described her time with ODI as a “learning opportunity of a lifetime.”
“In this position, you have to be authentically humble and realize how much you don't know ….” she said. “You really have to be adaptable in strategies depending on who you're working with.”
Knowledge of the different cases for diversity also has helped her and her staff manage challenges from others.
One of the most challenging aspects of her job, she said, has been to try and “reach the people in the middle” on matters of diversity and inclusion.
No matter what, there will always be people with definitive stances on these issues, she said. But the people in the middle, who may be well-meaning but ignorant of certain systemic injustices against minority groups, also can be tough to engage.
They have to be open to hearing new perspectives, Connelly said, adding that she counted herself among those people in the middle 15 years ago.
The people in the middle often hold the philosophy of “colorblindness,” or not acknowledging certain racial dynamics, she said. People of color, she said, have expressed that this perspective makes them feel “invisible,” like discrimination doesn’t happen and the world is fair.
Over time, after multiple personal conversations with academics such as Larry Davis, the founding director of Pitt’s Center on Race and Social Problems in the School of Social Work, and other people with diverse backgrounds and cultures, she has become more cognizant of other social issues.
“Opening that window, sort of having people step through that door of discovery, I think, is always a challenge,” Connelly said. “And something we have to keep working on.”
While Connelly is stepping down from her vice chancellor position, she won’t leave higher education entirely. She’ll focus on higher education law and litigation and employment law in the law firm’s nonprofit and education branch.
Humphrey said the search to fill her position will begin January 2020.
Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com or 412-383-9905.
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