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SOU appoints VP of diversity, equity and inclusion

Toya Cooper, who has worked in Oregon before, will begin her duties Nov. 15
Photo courtesy of SOU Toya Cooper, a lawyer and higher education official with ties to Oregon, has been named a vice president at Southern Oregon University.

Southern Oregon University announced the appointment this week of its first-ever vice president of equity, diversity and inclusion.

Toya Cooper, a lawyer with some Oregon ties who comes from Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, will begin her new job Nov. 15.

“I think SOU is ready to engage the questions of equity, diversity and inclusion that this moment in our nation's history brings to bear, and to model for students what it means to respond effectively to them,” Cooper said in a prepared statement.

In an interview Tuesday, SOU President Linda Schott said she picked Cooper based on the search committee’s recommendation.

“[The search committee] reviewed 30 or so applicants and interviewed four. Toya quickly rose to the top,” Schott said. “She’s a very warm, genuine person.”

Schott, who wanted to fill the position before she retires this year, spoke to the qualities that Cooper will bring to the table in her new role.

“She wants to be at an institution that really wants to do the hard work to improve this culture,” Schott said. “She was very clear she does not simply want to be a compliance officer or someone that reprimands people for not doing things well. She wants to help everybody learn and grow and do better. I felt like that was a great match for our campus and community.”

How SOU came to institute a new vice president position had its twists and turns. SOU had a diversity, equity and inclusion position in place for several years, and it was filled by several people who, for one reason or another, chose to step down, according to Schott.

Around the time the most recent diversity leader chose to leave, SOU saw some racist graffiti on campus. That incident collided with the murder of George Floyd and the summer of Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

“It highlighted for us at the university that we needed to strengthen our commitment,” Schott said. “We felt like we were doing pretty well, but like everybody, I think we sort of went through a soul-searching and said, ‘How can we do even better?’”

At the same time, a pandemic was going on, and Schott was not sure whether a national search would yield a candidate who would want to move across the country. So she looked at SOU internally and found three people to lead a diversity, equity and inclusion office. Jonathan Chavez Baez, assistant director for Latino/a/x programs, is part of that team.

“We were excited and committed to the work,” said Baez, referring to his colleagues, Kylan de Vries and Patricia Syquia McCarthy.

But the search committee would soon pick up pace and work to find a diversity, equity and inclusion vice president.

“I wanted to hire a person who could work across the entire university and out in the community,” Schott said. “It felt like the title of vice president would give the credibility and stature to this position that would enable them to have that kind of scope as well as depth.”

Marvin Woodard Jr., SOU’s equity coordinator for racial justice, was on the search committee. He echoed Schott’s comments about the selection process, saying Cooper “rose to the top” of the applicant pool.

“For me, her background in law was huge,” Woodard said. “It was her level of questioning. They weren’t surface questions; it was to find out what’s at the root. I think of my uncle, who was a lawyer, and how he would question to get at the root.”

When she arrives on campus, Woodard agreed with Schott that Cooper should work to complete a new campus climate survey, but there’s so much more to be done.

“The first part, get the survey. The second part, what teams are you building and what do those teams look like that are going to be able to come and … help you institute a vision of DEI that’s going to last -- really last,” Woodard said.

When Cooper arrives on campus, she will take on many of the duties of the current team of three working on diversity, equity and inclusion, according to Baez.

“When senior leadership made the decision to elevate this position to VP, I think that really reflected on the commitment that President Schott had to EDI,” he said. “Being the only regional public university in the state that has a VP of EDI really sets a bar.”

Referring to Cooper, Baez said she is a “people person” and “has a great vision of working with everyone.”

Cooper received a bachelor’s degree in political science from Westmont College and a law degree from the Willamette University College of Law in Salem. She spoke in the news release about her excitement about returning to Oregon.

“I called Salem home for three years,” Cooper said. “I was drawn by and fell in love with its natural beauty, which Ashland certainly does not lack.

She added: “SOU's mission, values and vision, that beauty certainly serves as a draw for me.”