Tufts Appoints Chief Diversity Officer

For Mark Brimhall-Vargas, a career focusing on social justice is the natural progression of his life’s circumstances
Mark Brimhall-Vargas
“Tufts is genuinely concerned about these issues and has the capacity to really start thinking about what it means to create an affirming, welcoming campus for everybody,” says Mark Brimhall-Vargas. Photo: Toby Jorrin
January 29, 2015

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When Mark Brimhall-Vargas arrives at Tufts on April 6 to become the university’s chief diversity officer, it will be a natural step in a career that has been devoted to the themes of diversity, inclusion and social justice.

“I’ve been working on these issues my whole life,” says Brimhall-Vargas, who has been the deputy chief diversity officer at the University of Maryland at College Park since 2013. At Tufts, he says, “I feel like I’m walking into an institution that has done its homework.”

The hiring of a chief diversity officer was among the recommendations contained in the final report of Tufts’ Council on Diversity. The university’s strategic plan, Tufts: The Next 10 Years, also sets the goal of creating a more welcoming environment on all three campuses.

“In the strategic plan, we state emphatically that Tufts will demonstrate an unprecedented institutional commitment to diversity, inclusion and cultural competency over the next decade,” Tufts President Anthony P. Monaco says. “I am confident that Mark Brimhall-Vargas will lead us in advancing that important goal by building bridges and fostering creative relationships across the university.”

Brimhall-Vargas, who will also serve as an associate provost, will report to Provost David Harris and serve as a member of his senior leadership team.

“From the very beginning of the search process, Mark displayed those personal qualities and the broad expertise we sought in a chief diversity officer,” Harris says. “He is a Ph.D. with deep experience leading university and broader diversity and inclusion efforts, and he is also an engaging individual with a passion for social justice.”

One of the central tasks of the Council on Diversity was to assess the best balance and relationship, in a decentralized academic environment, between central administrative support for diversity initiatives and school and divisional offices and programs. The model for Brimhall-Vargas’ position emerged from the council’s deliberations and final report.

Brimhall-Vargas says he is impressed with the groundwork that has been laid by the council, which Monaco chaired, as well as the strategic plan. “This is what attracted me to Tufts,” he says.

“The president and the provost want to do something that makes Tufts even greater, and they are willing to put ambitious goals out there,” Brimhall-Vargas says. “What that tells me is that I need to be equally ambitious and bold—and that the campus is ready for that.”

Brimhall-Vargas has held a number of positions in Maryland’s Office of Diversity & Inclusion since 1997, and has taught intergroup dialogue and conflict resolution in several higher education settings. Prior to entering academia, he was a financial and research analyst.

He holds a doctorate from the Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership at the University of Maryland at College Park, a master’s in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and an undergraduate degree from Pomona College.

Unity in Diversity

Regardless of the positions he has held or the research he has conducted, Brimhall-Vargas says the issues of inclusion and social justice have continued to inform his worldview.

“I’ve been working on these issues my whole life, not always because I had intended to, but as part of my life circumstance,” he says. “I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. My mother is from Peru, and my father is white, from the United States. We faced housing discrimination; there were just certain things that were part of my upbringing that made me aware of the various issues and inequalities that exist. It was a part of the conversations in my home, and it became a part of my educational experience. I was a politically active student, and I just never stopped.”

Initially, Brimhall-Vargas says, he considered a career in the policy arena. “I thought that’s how I would make my stamp on the world. In all of the various policy venues in which I worked, there was always an element of diversity and social justice, so that’s where my career ended up developing. In some ways it was part accident, but in some ways it was the natural progression of the course of my life.”

Among his first goals at Tufts, he says, will be to create a deeper sense of unity among the Medford/Somerville, Boston and Grafton campuses; to examine faculty recruitment and retention; and to support Tufts’ goal of becoming accessible to more students from varying socioeconomic backgrounds. He says he also will strive to make both undergraduate and graduate students feel included in the workings of the university.

“I want to start my time at Tufts meeting people and getting a sense of their experiences on the campuses. My goal is to be as accessible as possible,” he says. “I am a person who is learning still—I don’t want to come to Tufts and pretend to be the expert on all things. I want to work in partnership with people and provide expertise where it makes sense.”

Although the University of Maryland is a public institution, it shares common challenges—such as how to retain a diverse faculty—with private universities such as Tufts. One difference, Brimhall-Vargas says, is that the bureaucracy of a public institution can make instituting change “like turning a battleship. I suspect Tufts may be more nimble in its ability to react to things that it needs to do.”

Among Brimhall-Vargas’ responsibilities will be prioritizing an implementation plan for the recommendations of the Council on Diversity and guiding the work of the university’s Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Council and the Diversity and Inclusion Working Group, which will include representatives from each school and division. He will also develop related programs and educational initiatives and devise methods to benchmark their success.

“I feel like I’m walking into an institution that has prepared itself,” Brimhall-Vargas says. “Tufts is genuinely concerned about these issues and has the capacity to really start thinking about what it means to create an affirming, welcoming campus for everybody—and one that marries diversity and academic excellence in a way that is trendsetting and that others will want to emulate.”

Helene Ragovin can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu.