Research and Scholarship

Scholarship, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Besi Muhonja (right) during the 2019 Leadership Meeting of the American Association of University Women-Virginia
By Ben Delp (‘05), JMU Research & Scholarship

Research Development & Promotion conducted a Q&A with the newest member of the Research & Scholarship team, Associate Vice Provost for Scholarship, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Dr. Besi Muhonja. Dr. Muhonja also holds a faculty appointment in the Department of English as Professor of African, African American, and Diaspora (AAAD) Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Please read on to learn about Dr. Muhonja’s vision for the AVPSDEI position.

RDP: What motivated you to apply for the Associate Vice Provost for Scholarship, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (AVPSDEI) position? Why is it important to have a position focused on scholarship and diversity, equity, and inclusion in the Research & Scholarship office?

Muhonja: I love research and I love JEDI (justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion) work. Then this job that allowed me the space to do both came along. Of course, I had to apply for it. That’s the simple answer. Globally, the area of research and scholarship is finally reckoning, like most of academia, with certain histories and realities related to equity and inclusion. At JMU, the Research & Scholarship unit (R&S) in/and the Division of Academic Affairs are adopting DEI responsive visions and strategic plans that are critical for humane and practical reasons for our community, commonwealth, nation, and world. With JMU’s reclassification to R2 status, the urgency for the R&S unit to intentionally address DEI associated challenges and opportunities is further heightened. I feel honored to be trusted with the task of cooperatively championing the espousal of this agenda not as additive to, but as entrenched in all policies, positions, practices, and processes of R&S.

RDP: How have your professional experiences, both at JMU and in communities/organizations outside of campus, prepared you for this role?

Muhonja: I’m just glad they deemed me worthy, but I can also confidently say that, on this one, I am able to hit the ground running. Almost all my scholarly, career and service expertise and experiences at JMU and beyond are JEDI related. I’m already involved in most major JMU DEI work— I’m talking about committees and taskforces as well as planning and implementation processes. I am also part of a team that advises the Provost’s Office/Academic Affairs on DEI. I am grateful for my extensive network, which will serve the goals of this job and allow me to have my finger on the pulse of the different constituents at the university, their plans and needs.

RDP: What are some ways JMU academic units, institutes, and centers can amplify efforts to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion in scholarship throughout campus?

Muhonja: We in R&S are welcoming suggestions from all stakeholders on how we can do better in promoting exactly this. I believe there’s a need to redefine the idea of research communities and what it takes to realize inclusive excellence. Then we must consider not just the role, but also the needs of all these units as generators of research and scholarship (inclusively defined) especially in an R2 reality.

These considerations open up opportunities and processes for resourceful and innovative collaborative work among AICs (academic institutes and centers) and with academic units. Increased collaborations will generate new opportunities, resources, and partners at JMU, in the commonwealth, nationally and globally. Certain AICs are especially well positioned for supporting JEDI responsive and interdisciplinary research communities and production, although my belief is that all AICs and academic units should be fostering this work. So, where capacity is lacking, partnering with others who are better equipped for this work would mitigate that, and also help struggling AICs and units build their own proficiency.

Anthony Tongen (Vice Provost for Research & Scholarship), Keith Holland (Associate Vice Provost for Research & Innovation) and I have discussed enhancing promotion of DEI-serving collaborative think tanks, grant applications, projects, and other opportunities. All the colleges and major units in Academic Affairs now have chief diversity officers. This offers another avenue for collaborative promotion of JEDI responsive research. R&S looks forward to working with Deans, DEI leaders, AUHs, AIC directors, and other leaders in developing resources and spaces for inclusive, interdisciplinary and collaborative work. I am happy to already report several requests from faculty and units for meetings and an increase in requests for help with establishing relationships with partners within and outside JMU including internationally. To help meet the needs of all our constituents, we currently have all our departments in R&S currently engaged in intensive DEI responsiveness self-auditing and strategizing.

RDP: How do you see this position supporting and providing opportunities for students with diverse backgrounds?

Muhonja: R&S has made some significant moves recently. For example, we have created the position of Coordinator of Student Research and the Office of Student Fellowships Advising has relocated to R&S. The vision is to develop a thriving JEDI-responsive student support structure in R&S and to ensure that, VPRS Tongen has very strategically located both offices as my direct reports. Our R&S-Student Support leaders, Dr. Dayna Henry and Dr. Meredith Malburne-Wade, are developing services and capabilities that will ensure equitable and inclusive student support. Look out, too, for news on the ChangeMaker Initiative led by AVP Dr. Keith Holland. This R&S effort with room for all students to participate is a game changer. I refer back to the idea of redefining what inclusive research communities look like. It’s too early to tell where our bold dreaming will lead, but the student research unit leaders are very excited about all of the possibilities and what we will add to this list in collaboration with the different departments in areas of student research, creative production, publishing, innovation, and global citizenship.

RDP: What are some of your top priorities for your first year as AVPSDEI?

Muhonja: Whatever comes into focus as the top five priorities of the stakeholders in the fact-finding and relationship building meetings I am currently holding. Our goal is to achieve systemic and organizational change. I am very clear that programs and programming are good for institutions, but they do not change systems or institutional cultures. Change happens at the formal structural and systems levels. So, we are looking at operations, policies, processes, practices (including recruitment and retention, branding, spaces served etc.). This first year will involve deliberately laying down sustainable structures and processes for this work. It’s all about building an institutional culture of inclusivity that will survive generations and current office occupiers. Thus, they can’t be just my priorities. Due diligence is necessary. So, together, we are establishing our DEI values, vision, and mission statements, and strategic plan for R&S in line with R&S strategy standards/goals/research integrity standards, Richmond’s DEI agenda/One Virginia Plan, Academic Affairs’ Anti-Racist and Anti-Discrimination Agenda, JMU’s “Be the Change” and engaged university agendas, and outcomes/recommendations of the Task Force on Racial Equity, the External Climate Study, and the Provost’s Task Force on Gender and Sexuality. Also central to this planning will be recommendations of the Research and Scholarship Task Force. The collective goal is to develop an action plan for effecting a culture of DEI in R&S and partner with stakeholders including college DEI missions, spaces like CFI, and others to advance institutionalizing DEI responsive research, scholarship, development and funding, compliance systems, methodologies of evaluation, and assessment. We will also develop instruments and timelines for implementing, tracking, reporting, and responding to outcomes and impacts of the R&S DEI agenda. For the team and stakeholders, we will develop spaces to facilitate education/advocacy on approaches to realizing inclusive research communities, which enhance/enrich R&S for all. This groundwork is what is necessary to support and ensure lasting organizational change.

Back to Top

Published: Monday, August 23, 2021

Last Updated: Thursday, May 12, 2022

Related Articles