Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
Vice Chancellor, Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer
Dr. Denise Pearson
Dr. Denise Pearson joined the State System in August 2020 with three decades of experience in the classroom and as campus leader, including having served as assistant provost of faculty affairs and then interim dean/senior associate dean of the School of Education and Human Performance at Winston-Salem State University and associate academic dean at the University of Denver. She previously served as vice president for academic affairs and equity initiatives at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO).
Dr. Pearson earned her Ph.D. in administration and supervision of education from Marquette University and master's degrees in conflict resolution from the University of Denver and educational administration from Concordia University. Her undergraduate studies were at the State University of New York at Delhi and Pace University.
Why did you pursue a career in higher education?
I was pursuing a career in human resources management in New York during my early years as a mother in the early 1980s. When my family relocated to Wisconsin in the late 1980s, I accepted an opportunity to teach courses at a local college, in a certificate program for adult learners (I only had an undergraduate degree in Human Services at the time). It wasn't long before I was able to see the impact I could have on students and higher education in general and I never resumed plans to become a HR executive. I went on and completed my M.S., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees in Education, Conflict Resolution, and Education Administration & Supervision with an emphasis in higher education. During my career, I have worked at diverse institutional types – including public, private, community college, HBCU, urban, suburban, and faith-based, and taught undergraduate and graduate courses in the fields of education, communication, and conflict resolution. Some of my most rewarding professional experiences have happened in the classroom (including online), especially those when I can help students develop their sense of belonging and contribution to the learning environment. I couldn't imagine a better career choice.
What first sparked your interest in educational equity and policy?
The complexity of the higher education ecosystem, in addition to the clear connection between policy and practice, piqued my interest in educational equity and policy. During my tenure at Winston-Salem State University (one of the University of North Carolina's 16 institutions) I had the opportunity to observe how policy enables practice as well as how practice informs policy – ideally in ways that have positive impacts on student outcomes. When I joined State Higher Education Executive Officers in 2016, I recognized that such synergy could not be assumed and that strategic intentionality was required. Joining SHEEO also gave me unique opportunities to explore and advocate for stronger collaborations between policy makers and institutions of higher education, especially around critical policy areas such as teacher preparation, dual enrollment, and postsecondary education for incarcerated populations. Acquiring the knowledge and skills necessary to apply an equity lens to policy and practice discussions has increased my effectiveness to advocate for groups historically excluded from American higher education. I value the effort required for intentional and meaningful deliberations that place equity at the center.
Years of work in higher education later, what keeps you motivated?
I stay motivated because of my unwavering belief in the power of education. The zip code where someone is born should not be the deciding factor on the educational opportunities they are afforded or the heights they can reach in life. I believe in the power of education to improve the human condition, support economic development, increase community and civic engagement, transform lives of incarcerated populations, and disrupt generational poverty. State systems of higher education are uniquely positioned to collaborate with a diversity of stakeholders in search of scalable and sustainable solutions to so many societal problems. I am eager to serve as Vice Chancellor and Chief DE&I Officer in search of solutions to persistent challenges to educational equity. A career in higher education is a privilege that carries tremendous responsibility, which I do not take lightly. Albeit serious, that does not mean the work can't be fun too.
What are your priorities for the first few months of your new job?
My immediate priorities include visiting each campus and meeting leadership, faculty, staff, and students. These visits will be part of my plan to learn about how diversity, equity, and inclusion is positioned on each campus and how we can partner to create and advance a shared DE&I agenda. Essentially, I want to learn how I can support campus leadership in their efforts to foster environments that allow students, faculty, and staff to thrive. The first few months will focus on learning to inform planning.
What are you passionate about outside of work?
I am passionate about my health. I made the decision more than a decade ago to consume a plant-based diet and am always looking for ways to expand my knowledge and practice of veganism (although I haven't given up my leather shoes or purses yet). My favorite vegan cuisines are Afro-Cuban, Indian, and Mediterranean. I have three lovely sons who bring me great joy. I also have a 2 ½ year old granddaughter. Family time is precious especially since all my children live in Colorado, and I always look forward to the times we get together. Reading is a way for me to escape and expand my mind. I enjoy reading (Audible included) about a wide range of topics – education, public policy, the environment, culture, health, and even a good love story.