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Building bridges: DSU president aims to reduce barriers on campus and beyond

The vision of Delaware State University is to be the “most diverse contemporary HBCU in the country,” President Dr. Tony Allen said. Diversity, however, runs beyond program offerings, to students, staff and faculty, he said. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — Equity, said Tony Allen, is in the DNA of Delaware State University.

“Thinking about how we reduce barriers for student success and then making sure that, when we do that, we’re also bringing that beyond the campus walls becomes critically important to us,” he said.

Dr. Allen, who began his tenure as president in a year that saw the campus closed partway through the spring semester and protests sparked over the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, noted that institutions can’t be silent in moments that matter.

“I felt like this was a moment that not only matters today, but has such historical underpinnings around these notions of systemic racism and what it means for a black father to have ‘the talk’ with his young black son around how to be safe in civil society — all those kinds of things I thought needed to be brought to the fore,” he said.

In a piece he penned last month in response to the civil unrest facing the country, he wrote that it was important to “think, feel and do.”

“I live by that philosophy generally,” he said. “When the world is connected on something that is horrific [and], again, has a long history attached to it and there is a potential for something to be different, we all have to jump in with both feet.”

The vision of DSU is to be the “most diverse contemporary HBCU in the country,” Dr. Allen said. Diversity, however, runs beyond program offerings, to students, staff and faculty, he said.

“The conversions around racial equity become centrally important,” he said. “We recognize that many of our students come from backgrounds where they have not always been advantaged. So the idea is to make sure that they are well-prepared to enter into the world after college in a thoughtful way, in a way that’s highly competitive and motivates them to be better.”

Beyond academics, however, Dr. Allen said it’s important that students are “exceptional citizens,” too.

“[Who] are engaged in the issues of the day that they care about, know how to do that proactively, can advocate for themselves and the things that they think are important and civically and socially responsible,” he said. “Equity is a big part of that. But it’s a part of our holistic mission around developing the right student.”

DSU students have been part of the protests in the area. Dr. Allen has attended, too.

“I thought it was important to do for a couple of reasons,” he said. “One, I knew that a lot of university stakeholders were there, particularly my students, and I wanted them to know that their president was with them. And the second piece is we can’t be silent in the moments that matter.”

Speaking broadly, though, he noted that the university needs to live by its values, and think of equity within the institution as an organization, too. That relates to the number of women around him providing counsel, and the diverse pool of talent that surrounds him to make sure he’s getting a broad view to “practice what we preach.”

On campus, he noted that a group of students this year began the Faithful Black Men Association that endeavors to “honor our heritage, who we are, our beliefs and our goals as we move forward in American civil society,” he said. He serves as the advisor.

“The things that they do really bring together a lot of men on campus around those issues and are probably more important now than they’ve ever been before,” he said.

A number of students also come to campus with student aid and support. The parts of higher education that seem minor — like purchasing books — can be problematic for students. Two years ago, the university began the Apple project, where they gave every incoming freshman an iPad or a MacBook Pro.

“We wanted to eliminate what we knew would be inequities and access to technological support, use the open source material that the faculty has at their disposal and really create an opportunity for costs around books and the like to not be a barrier to their educational success,” he said.

That proved almost immediately beneficial to DSU, he added, as about 40% of the campus was digital when COVID-19 struck and shuttered campuses across the country this spring.

“It’s both looking in the mirror to make sure that our rhetoric matches the reality of how we take care of each other, and then extending ourselves in the broader community in a very similar fashion,” he said.

As Dr. Allen alluded, the work of DSU doesn’t stay in the vacuum of the campus in Dover. Through different programs, the university tries to bring the “intellectual capital” to the state that houses it, Dr. Allen said. He pointed to the Center for Neighborhood Revitalization and Research, an initiative that started about a year ago that connects scholars with the disadvantaged communities in the area. It’s not just about studying those communities, but advocating for them, he said.

“And giving them the tools to understand what’s important with respect to what they should be fighting for and, probably more importantly, how they can actually fight for it,” he said.

Through their work, the university produces more “teachers of color, accountants of color, social workers of color, [and] more STEM majors” in the state than any other institution, he said.

He said that he recently participated in a forum with the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce. One of the questions that came in during the Q&A was not being able to find enough people of color for various work positions.

“My answer was this: you’re not looking hard enough,” he said. “The notion that there is not enough talent out there from students of color is a misnomer. What that means is folks are not as proximate to people of color to understand where those channels are.”

He noted Bryan Stevenson, a Delawarean and civil rights lawyer, talks about “being proximate.”

“Getting closer to communities and people, for which you have little understanding or no understanding, and recognizing that that will open up a whole new world of possibilities to you,” he explained. “It really comes down to making sure that when you think of opportunities for your organization and you want that to be diverse, you think of Delaware State University first…When people start talking about diverse talent pipelines, they need to go to the institutions whose business that is, in many respects.”