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Chief Diversity Officer Aims to Make Tech a Welcoming Campus

In addition to his responsibilities at Tech, Dr. Owens is the vice-chairman of Cookeville’s Highland Residential Services. Photo from Tech’s Faculty director.

“What does it look like for a student who has a single parent who worked hard, but they just barely made ends meet, and they were poor—what does it look like for that student to come to Tennessee Tech?”

This is the type of question Dr. Rob Owens aims to answer as Tech’s chief diversity officer. 

During the summer of 2019, Marc Burnett became the inaugural Chief Diversity Officer at Tech. Following Burnett’s retirement in December of the same year, Dr. Owens was appointed to the position after being an educator at Tech since 2006. “[Burnett] sort of launched that position, and I’m thankful that the president of the university saw the value of having such a position and role at Tennessee Tech University,” Owens said. 

Owens, who acted as Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs before assuming his current position, contrasts the two roles, emphasizing the university-wide scale of the Chief Diversity Officer’s responsibilities. 

He said, “Not that the Student Affairs role was not [university-wide], but this is a role that’s really about the university at large. Something the president says that I take as one of the taglines as I’m thinking about this work is, ‘We want to try our best to make this a place where every campus stakeholder—specifically student, faculty, administrative, clerical staff—where they can feel welcome and feel like they belong here.’” 

These are words Owens identifies with on a personal level, and he attributes this connection to the moral values his parents ingrained in him from a young age. 

“I was raised to see other people. I was raised to serve; I saw my parents not only work—both my parents are educators, so I saw them work in a paid capacity as educators—but I also watched them serve in the community … I also saw them treat people fairly and not look down on folks and help folks,” he said. 

Owens recalls learning more about his parents’ struggles with racism and inclusion, however, through his own research. He said, “They didn’t really talk about segregation and going to separate schools. They didn’t talk about some of the negative experiences they had; I think they tried to shield me from that stuff—me and my little sister.” 

This ambiguity sent Owens on a search for knowledge about the impact slavery and historical prejudices have on society from both the black perspective and a variety of others.

His fundamental values and sociological analyses ultimately guide Owens’ work as chief diversity officer. 

“We’re the least diverse public university in the state, so we need somebody at the institution that it’s sort of their job to provide a better experience for the majority students, but also provide opportunities to come here for students of color from underrepresented groups because it’s a fantastic institution.”