By Claire Smith
Photo credits to Beylie Ivanhoe.
After a two-decade career as an administrator focusing on DEI at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Dr. Sibby Anderson-Thompkins accepted an inaugural position at the University of the South as vice provost for diversity, equity, and inclusion. She will serve as the University’s first chief diversity officer and connect various DEI initiatives and organizations under her office.
Anderson-Thompkins understood that accepting this role at the University would entail a lot of foundational work, carving out an institutional space for DEI and building a new office around her role as chief diversity officer. Spread over several offices, initiatives, and affinity groups on campus, DEI at the University has lacked the strategic framework or unified language Anderston-Thompkins believes it needs. One of her first tasks, then, will be connecting staff in Multicultural Affairs, Title IX, and non-discrimination under a central office to provide a cohesive approach to policy.
Anderson-Thompkins also hopes that a unified office will expand the reach of their work: “Even though we have a central office, the goal is ultimately to get diversity, equity, and inclusion interwoven throughout the entire campus, through every division, every school, and every unit on campus.”
In the short term, Anderson-Thompkins is focusing on building capacity and infrastructure around the central office, including “the nuts and bolts” of connecting different offices, creating a website, and developing a shared language around DEI. In the long term, she will also co-lead the DEI five-year strategic planning process, which will set specific goals and metrics for the University and evaluate them through annual reports. “So, long term is to be able to have these annual reports and make sure we are holding ourselves and our colleagues and collaborators accountable for what we’re saying we’re going to do, and what we actually accomplish.”
The University began a search for the new vice provost role in the spring of 2020, as the campus made national headlines in The Washington Post and ESPN for the use of racial slurs among spectators at a Sewanee lacrosse game. Anderson-Thompkins, however, emphasized that she saw encouraging commitment to DEI from senior leadership. “I had read about Dr. Brigety in the news and knew about the work that he was doing here and his goals in terms of elevating diversity, equity, and inclusion, and focusing specifically on race and reckoning,” she said. “And so it was exciting to see what was going on here with the Roberson Project, the conversations happening here, and in the Episcopal Church.”
At Chapel Hill, Anderson-Thompkins led the Carolina Postdoctoral Program for Faculty Diversity, then served as the special adviser to the provost and chancellor for equity and inclusion and as interim chief diversity officer. A two-time alumna of Chapel Hill, she said she enjoyed her career at her alma mater, but began to feel limited in her ability to make change. When Nikole Hannah-Jones, a UNC alumna and journalist who developed the New York Times 1619 Project, was denied tenure by the board of trustees, Anderson-Thompkins began seriously weighing the decision to leave.
“I recognized during that process that there were a lot of limits to what I would be able to achieve to make that a truly transformative campus,” she said. “We had a board of trustees that wielded a lot of power and influence, we had leadership that had limited authority and power.”
Anderson-Thompkins emphasized that she was encouraged by statements from Vice-Chancellor Brigety and the Board of Regents on race and reconciliation, saying “having the buy-in and commitment of senior leadership at the top is half of the battle.”
While the University’s previous lack of an institutional framework for DEI will present challenges, Anderson-Thompkins is excited to put her experience to work in a space where “we are going to be able to create real significant change and be transformative in the work that we do.”
For someone with her level of experience, the opportunity to build something new was part of the appeal of the job: “I am a builder!” she said with a laugh. “I had no hesitation about coming here. I want to create a strong foundation that, ten years from now, twenty years from now, will support where this institution will grow into.”
Anderson-Thompkins emphasized the importance of building relationships in her position. For the first 100 days, she says, “I would like to engage with key stakeholder groups— students, faculty, and staff— using a listening tour model where I’m sitting with students and talking not just about the spectator behavior back in the spring, but hearing from students about their experiences on campus.” This will give her a better understanding of the issues on campus and allow her office to identify groups that want to collaborate on programs.
While Anderson-Thompkins is excited about the future of her role, she says the impact of spectator behavior last semester continues to shape her work on campus. In addition to building up a new office, she also wants to address skepticism within the community.
“I think that, given everything that, as a nation, as a campus, what we have gone through over the last through years through the pandemic or the racial climate of our country, I expect there to be people who are disillusioned, who doubt that change is even possible,” she said. “But, that’s why this work is so important.”