January 13, 2003

The manner of the man

By Eric Rangus erangus@emory.edu

With his mild demeanor, salt-and-pepper hair and scholarly glasses, Robert Ethridge gives off an air of quiet cool. And that’s exactly how he likes it. There is perhaps no one in the Administration Building more even-tempered, more approachable, than the vice president of Equal Opportunity Programs.

Still, he’s a manager. He has to raise his voice every once in a while. Doesn’t he? According to Sylvester Hopewell, EOP’s assistant director for equity, the answer is no.

“He’s really laid back,” said Hopewell, who moved over to EOP last summer from the Office of Multicul-tural Programs and Services. Ethridge was on the search committee that hired him, and the two are members of the DeKalb County chapter of 100 Black Men in America—just one of the many community and professional organizations with which Ethridge is involved.

“I know that I can go to him and ask him anything about this field because he’s been in it for so long,” Hopewell said. “I can count on his knowledge.”

Ethridge has acquired that knowledge over more than 30 years of management experience in higher education, the majority as a diversity professional.

“I like to tell people there are two ways of doing things,” said Ethridge, who came to Emory as EOP director in 1981. Since his arrival the office has grown from four people to 12.

“One is push hard and get everything done today,” he continued. “But you may make some enemies along the way. Your longevity may be shortened because of the way you approach it. The other is to take a more measured approach—map out what you want to accomplish in the long run. Think about alternatives you may have to put in place along the way. Rather than fight an issue out until the bitter end, you may be able to compromise and take the fallback position, which normally gets you what you want anyway.

“Revolutions tend to generate what I call counter-revolutions,” Ethridge said. “You turn everything upside down and take over, but what happens is the people who are revolutionaries generally aren’t very good managers. My goal is to have people try and understand what we’re trying to do, embrace it, then do it without us having to serve as the police.”

Not that Ethridge’s mellow approach has always been the favored course of action.
“Believe it or not, I used to raise more hell than you could shake a stick at,” he laughed. “I used to stay in trouble.”

Now his job is to diffuse trouble, and—whenever he can—prevent it. That’s not always easy, either, not with the often murky areas of diversity and workplace discrimination.
“When I think about Dr. Ethridge, I’d describe him as mannerable, not necessarily mild,” said Gloria Weaver, assistant director of diversity programs in EOP.

We stand corrected.

“That is because he is passionate about his work,” Weaver continued. “He is a consummate gentleman and a giant in the field.”

That field has recently expanded, too. Last April Ethridge began a two-year term as president of the American Association for Affirmative Action (AAAA), a national nonprofit association of diversity professionals. It is an office Ethridge has held three times before.

This spring the 1,300-member organization will hold its annual meeting in Atlanta.
His leadership of AAAA is just the latest position in an involved career that began when diversity was barely recognized. Ethridge was an undergraduate at Western Michigan University in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the school had a relatively diverse student body, but practically no minority faculty. It was a situation Ethridge would remember.

“I thought it would be good to have a role model or two on the faculty as well as the administrative staff,” he said.

He wasn’t alone in that thought. After graduating from Western with a bachelor’s degree in English, Ethridge taught in the Detroit school system.

Seven years later, he returned to Western to work and soon was contacted by the university’s president, James Miller, asking if Ethridge could identify any candidates for a position that was being filled. Part of the person’s responsibilities would be to oversee diversity on campus.

Ethridge related this story to a friend, and she told him, “Well, they asked you, so they must be interested in you.”

So, Ethridge inquired about the position for himself. He ended up staying at Western for 13 years, earning a master’s in Spanish there, as well as a PhD in education administration and supervision from the University of Michigan along the way.

At the time, “diversity” was brand new; affirmative action laws passed in the mid-1960s mostly applied to business. Higher education was a blank slate.

“We had to find our own way,” said Ethridge, who wrote Western’s affirmative action plan and later, in the 1970s, did the university’s Title IX compliance for the athletics department. He credited Miller with mentoring him through his early years in higher education.

“[The administration] was trying to use the guidelines of corporations for schools,” he said, “but the terms ‘managers and executives’ don’t include faculty. We needed a category that identified faculty as a separate group.”

Ethridge’s work at Western led to his move to Emory, which had created EOP just three years before his arrival. Its primary task was—and still is—to keep the workplace safe from discrimination and to promote a more diverse and communal campus.

The office accomplishes this not only with a variety of programming, but also a variety of deliveries. Just because Ethridge is somewhat reserved, that doesn’t mean his staff members are. They, in fact, are among the most animated people on campus.

“Dr. Ethridge allows our personalities to thrive; he’s cool about it,” Weaver said. “Diversity means differences. When you have people with different altitudes of style, you’re sure to be able to accommodate the differences in people.”

The president’s commissions on the status of women, minorities and LGBT concerns, as well as Employee Council, also fall under the umbrella of EOP. Ethridge makes a point to address each commission at least once a year and is known for encouraging them to fight for the constituencies. This year he hopes to reinstitute an abandoned practice of getting council and commission leaders together so they could remain up-to-date on each other’s activities and be able to assist in their often overlapping interests.

Training and president’s commissions work represent EOP’s more public responsibilities. Privately, senior staff address complaints of discriminatory harassment, including sexual harassment, sexual orientation, gender and race, brought by members of the Emory community. It is this work—bringing about resolution—that staff find most challenging and, ultimately, most rewarding.

“Our goal is to keep them as low-key as possible,” said Ethridge, adding that the office enters into each situation with no opinions of guilt or innocence. The focus is on the facts. “If two people are involved in the sexual harassment, if we can get the accuser and the accused to agree on a resolution with our assistance and leadership, then that’s our preference.”

Effective. Unabrasive. Low-key.

Just like Ethridge.






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