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
“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
“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
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
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
“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.