The "Focus: Atlanta" 2020 Launch Conference streamed live on Nov. 19, 2020, with University of West Georgia President Brendan B. Kelly, Ph.D., appearing as a panelist discussing “Inclusive education: Diversity and its impact on upward mobility.”

The panel was moderated by Dr. Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, and featured Dr. Kelly; Dr. George French, president of Clark Atlanta University; Dr. Anne Skleder, president of Brenau University; and Leocadia Zak, president of Agnes Scott College.

Below is a transcription of Dr. Kelly’s comments during the panel. To view the entire presentation and hear all panelists’ remarks, a recording has been posted on YouTube.

YouTube Link

Dr. Belle Wheelan, Moderator

Please tell us your name and what institution you lead, and also what they’ve done during the pandemic that they didn’t have time to do before the pandemic hit.

Dr. Brendan B. Kelly, President, University of West Georgia

Thank you, Dr. Wheelan. At the University of West Georgia, we – like all of the other public universities in the state of Georgia – transitioned to remote, as well, but then reopened during the fall using a hybrid model. The University of West Georgia is very much dedicated to dual modality. As we go into spring, we will dedicate ourselves to a deeper face-to-face instruction, so this has been a giant experiment in 2020. All of us have learned a lot from it – certainly the faculty and staff here at UWG have. In terms of what I have done in the pandemic that I haven’t done before, I came to Georgia on March 23, 2020. That’s when I started this position, having left as chancellor at the University of South Carolina Upstate beforehand. I’m one of the handful of people who started a university presidency while the university was closed, there were no students, there were no employees, we were in a global pandemic, and that’s been my hobby for the last eight months.


The pandemic is on the forefront of everybody’s minds. Can you tell me a little bit about what lessons you’ve learned from having to move virtually or whatever the changes are that you’ve had to make as a result of the pandemic?


I would agree with my colleagues on all of those fronts, specifically mental health and the increasing need among students, and I would extend that to faculty and staff, as well. Those are serious challenges that we have to be focused on to add services. We certainly did. We added an online app that we made available to students, the Sharpen platform, over the summer to help build resiliency and help to address some of those mental health challenges.

In addition to the comments my colleagues made, the one thing I would add is we’ve probably just found a generation of young people who discovered how fragile the world is, and the one thing that was interesting to me as I met with so many students is they never, ever stopped having high expectations for their own lives and believing in themselves and their future despite the fact that we were facing such incredible challenges as a nation and as a world.

Feeding those expectations – making certain that we don’t forget about their ambition and we provide higher education in a way that allows them to go and fuel that fire for years to come – was maybe not an obstacle that we needed to overcome as much as a reminder that that’s what we should be investing in.


Dr. Kelly, since we’re talking about diversity and inclusion, can you talk a little bit about UWG and how [you’re] deepening [your] commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and specifically what changes have been made to the university’s Center for Diversity and Inclusion?


When I had just been named president and visited the university, one of the first groups I met with was students. That was top-of-mind for them, so we immediately started working on deepening that commitment. What that means, really, is reorganizing the university around trying to get better outcomes, and those outcomes have to be reflected in students’ lives and experiences.

We had a pretty traditional chief diversity officer model that floated in the executive space, but it wasn’t producing the outcomes the university was seeking; we were continuing to talk about them. So, we tried something very new. We tried to put diversity and our work as close to our points of weakness as possible.

One of the challenges at the University of West Georgia was diversifying faculty, making certain that our faculty represent the student population to which we are in service and, as a state university, the population of the state of Georgia, as well. We moved the academic initiatives associated with diversity – African American Male Initiative, which is a [University System of Georgia] initiative, as well as Achieve Atlanta and others – into Academic Affairs with a chief diversity officer who reports directly to the provost focused on talent acquisition and diversifying the faculty.

We took all of our initiatives for inclusion and actually coupled them with the Center for Student Involvement so that inclusion wasn’t something we did over here, but it’s just the way in which we did our work in terms of the student experience.

Then, we immediately started equity audits across the university, and that process is just about to be completed. We have a consultancy that’s assessing policy, procedure, and the way in which we do business so that we make certain that we are a public university that functions and does business with a focus on getting everybody what they need rather than assuming that that work is being done.

It’s really putting a larger team on the field and making certain that we’re honest about our performance and what we’re trying to achieve.


With the last 90 seconds of this panel, I’m going to ask you to tell me as we end the fall semester, what makes you optimistic about the future?


The energy. That’s why all of us are in higher education because you are a part of a community where everybody is going someplace better.