Mark Brimhall-Vargas discusses career of fostering campus activism in open interview

Chief Diversity Officer Mark Brimhall-Vargas gave an open interview with Provost David Harris on Feb. 12. Alex Knapp / The Tufts Daily

About 50 people, mostly faculty and staff, gathered to hear Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) and Associate Provost Mark Brimhall-Vargas speak about his career and his experience at the university in the Coolidge Room last Friday afternoon.

Brimhall-Vargas, who joined the administration last April, was informally interviewed by Provost and Senior Vice President David Harris.

Harris began the discussion event by asking Brimhall-Vargas about the path that shaped his career.

“I’m guessing that Mark Brimhall-Vargas, age 10, was not thinking, ‘Someday I’m going to be a CDO,’” Harris said. “So how did you end up in this space?”

Growing up in New Mexico, Brimhall-Vargas explained that he had several experiences that led him to realize his interest in diversity and inclusion. His mother, who moved to the United States from Peru, faced housing discrimination and other types of racism while working to save up for a home, he said.

“It was always part of our family conversation to unpack the things that happened to us, particularly because we were an unusual family,” he said. “A Peruvian home, biracial kids in a largely Mexican American community…That created the awareness and interest.”

He recounted that his mother once signed up herself, Brimhall-Vargas and his brother to be extras in a movie being filmed in their town, only for his mother eventually be excluded because of her race.

“They needed a woman with two kids to walk down the street,” Brimhall-Vargas said. “The people came and looked at her, and then looked at me and my brother — and, you know, my father was white. So, [the movie representative] looked at my mom, [asking,] ‘You’re their mother?’ She said, ‘Yeah these are my kids. We’d love to do this.’ And they said, ‘No, we need somebody else.’ And they ended getting a white woman to be our mother.”

Harris then asked Brimhall-Vargas about his activist work in college and his experiences working with faculty members and administrators.

“One of the things I always think is interesting — and maybe students sometimes have trouble thinking about this — is you were a student yourself, and we were dealing with some of these issues on the other side,” Harris said.

Brimhall-Vargas, who attended Pomona College for three years as an undergraduate, recalled reestablishing the Lesbian and Gay Student Union as a student.

We didn’t have a B or T at that time,” he said, referencing the two letters that stand for “bisexual” and “transgender” people in the commonly used acronym LGBT.

He added that at the time, he also worked to get more Latino students into college.

Brimhall-Vargas said that as a student, he developed strong relationships with members of the faculty, who not only encouraged his activism but also shaped his academic career by helping him apply for fellowships and programs. However, he said that his relationship with certain administrators was sometimes less amicable.

“I was kind of at odds with the Dean of Student Affairs,” Brimhall-Vargas said. “But I realized that they were really there to help foster a sense of how do you engage with people who don’t agree with you…[Even though] I was sometimes angrily yelling at them, then they’d be like, ‘You want to go to the coop and get some coffee or something?’”

Harris asked Brimhall-Vargas why he chose to leave his position as the Deputy Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Maryland (UMD) and to work at Tufts. Brimhall-Vargas answered by saying that UMD was always taking two steps forward and one step back in its diversity efforts. He said that after seeing Tufts’ 2013 Diversity Report, he felt that he could accomplish something more productive by building off of the groundwork that Tufts had previously established.

“It was so clear about where the institution was and wasn’t, and [the report] had very clear recommendations that were brought about through what I observed to be a democratic process involving faculty and students and administrators and staff,” he said. “So for me that indicated that Tufts had done a certain level of work that I could pick up from.”

Brimhall-Vargas then spoke about his role at Tufts and the role of CDOs more broadly, since more and more schools have hired CDOs in the months following November protests at the University of Missouri. He explained that being a CDO means being fundamentally concerned with three things  diversity, equity and inclusion. An individual serving in the CDO position must understand the larger systems and structures of the university and how they treat people living within them, as well as pay attention to the university’s composition and climate, he said.

“We need people going where [members of the university] are and asking about their actual lives on campus,” he said. “So, I try to maintain that double awareness of what does the institution look like as a whole, but also meeting with people and being open to them saying, ‘For me this is working and here’s what’s not working, and this one small piece may be something that I needed.’”

Brimhall-Vargas said that he is excited to the launch the “diversity dashboard,” the university’s upper-level diversity website, in March. The new website will offer detailed information on the composition of the university, displaying demographics according to federally mandated reporting methods and the university’s more precise reporting style, he said. For example, the dashboard will break down Tufts racial demographics by discipline and provide information on students’ religious affiliations — statistics not required by the federal government.

“I think this is going to make Tufts a national leader in terms of transparency about who we think we are,” Brimhall-Vargas said. “We’re going to tell the world, potential students and their parents, ‘This is what happens here at Tufts. This is what we look like, at least in terms of composition.’ And I think that we will, through example, challenge other institutions that think we’re better than us, and I think that we will be better than them.”

Brimhall-Vargas also said that he is pleased with activist efforts he has witnessed on campus.

“There have been some colleagues on campuses that said, ‘Oh student activism. How’s that?,’ giving me the elbow like ‘Enjoying Tufts yet?’” he said. “I think the piece that many people overlook is that the Chief Diversity Officer welcomes student activism.”

If students had not raised their voices, he said the university never would have been made aware of certain bad policies and structures, like antiquated rules surrounding the use of metal detectors at public events pointed out by #TheThreePercent in November.

“I firmly believe in this one phrase that I got from this colleague of mine that said, ‘Complaint reveals commitment,’” Brimhall-Vargas said. “If students care enough to raise their voices about their experience, that says something positive. Even if we’re not engaging in a a way that always feels good, they’re trying to make the institution a better place.

Harris concluded by asking Brimhall-Vargas about the kind of things he would like to see happen at Tufts five or 10 years down the road. Brimhall-Vargas said he believes that Tufts should provide more resources to the faculty is key in helping professors take care of their students. He also stressed the importance of creating an infrastructure to improve campus climate through diversity training — something that is missing on Tufts’ campuses.

“If you think about Tufts as a car and I’m going to be one of the people driving the car, if I don’t shift the wheel a little bit, I’m not really doing anything,” he said. “There are going to be points when I’m going to have to wrestle with people a little bit. There is one place where I think that we’re struggling, and that is as an institution, the recognition that we need infrastructure to support some basic changes.”