Katrice Albert leads the U’s diversity initiative. Her down-to-earth approach is to welcome everyone with open arms.
By Andy Steiner, Photo by Chris Cooper
Katrice Albert is a self-described Type A personality, a high-flying achiever, and a master maker of lists. So, before accepting the job as vice president of equity and diversity at the University of Minnesota, Albert—then vice provost for equity, diversity, and community outreach at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge—began compiling what turned out to be an epic pro-and-con list.
One of the first pros was that Minnesota had offered a dream job. The most obvious con was the weather—though maybe not for obvious reasons. “The weather in Minnesota doesn’t allow you to drive very fast,” Albert laughs. “In Baton Rouge, I was busy, and I drove everywhere fast. It got to the point where officers from the sheriff’s department would just turn on their lights when they saw me coming because they knew I was probably running late and trying to get to a community meeting.” The lifelong Louisianan smiles at the memory, and then her tone shifts. It wasn’t actually the dry roads and fast driving that Albert worried about missing. “It was that small-town feel where people welcome and protect you,” she admits. This new job was bigger than her last, in a cold, unknown place. Was she ready for the challenge?
Clearly, Albert was more than ready. She’d spent 12 successful years at LSU: among other achievements, the initiatives she led resulted in the highest Latino and African American enrollment in school history and she spearheaded the development of new, free-standing, brick-and-mortar centers—the African American Cultural Center and the Women’s Center. She also pushed for domestic partner benefits for faculty and staff. Albert has a Ph.D. in counseling psychology from Auburn University, and served as an adjunct faculty member at LSU’s College of Human Sciences and Education. She also founded Third Eye Consulting Group, a diversity management consulting firm.
“When I talked to my mentors about this job,” Albert recalls, “I’d say, ‘This is an opportunity of a lifetime, but I don’t want to leave home and I don’t want to leave LSU and what I’ve built here.’ My mentors helped me to see that Minnesotans bring their very best selves to everything. Before any federal judge said, ‘You need to diversify or else,’ Minnesota decided it was the right thing to do and went ahead and did it. To be at a university with a long history of commitment to diversity was very appealing.”
One indicator of the U’s commitment to diversity became clear when Albert took a closer look at the budget and organizational chart. “There are a lot of resources committed to equity and diversity here,” Albert says. “I actually had sticker shock, because diversity outfits across the country are severely understaffed and woefully underfunded.” The University of Minnesota, Albert discovered during the interview process, has 125 people on the Twin Cities campus alone supporting diversity efforts. “This was a pleasant shock,” she says.
Revelations like this eventually tipped the scale in favor of the pros. While Albert knew she’d miss her home state, she also knew that something bigger awaited her in Minnesota. “Once I decided to come to Minnesota,” Albert says, “I was all in.”
It turns out that Albert hasn’t actually had to slow her pace since moving to Minnesota, not even during winter. Since she arrived in June 2013, she’s been zipping along at breakneck speed. Each morning, from the moment she arrives at her Morrill Hall office, Albert bustles from one meeting to another, walking at a brisk pace back and forth across the Minneapolis campus, meeting, greeting, listening, and leading—all in the interest of making sure the University is a place where people of all races, genders, religions, abilities, and sexual orientations can thrive.
It’s not just bustle and glad-handing. Albert is intent on interacting with students. She recently attended the annual welcome luncheon for graduate students of color, an opportunity for a diverse group of scholars to connect with one another. Albert made her way through the buffet, making small talk with students. Finding an empty seat at a table occupied by female grad students, she asked, “What’s the best part of being a community of scholars?” and “How are you getting along with your research?” On the way out, she stopped to introduce herself to a potential graduate student, a young woman who moved to the state with her husband. “I’m going to help you get here,” Albert assured her. “We want you at Minnesota.”
Albert’s role is so key that the position stayed vacant for two years while University President Eric Kaler (Ph.D. ’82) searched for the right person to take it on—someone who would be able to take an institution already committed to diversity to the next level. Kaler considers diversity a cornerstone of his vision for the University. Excellence, he believes, requires it. Albert has five key goals that encompass race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability, and other underrepresented identities: increase diversity in the student body and faculty, including women in underrepresented fields such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics; enhance campus climate and build partnerships within the U and in the community; create relationships with diverse alumni; and help close the achievement gap in K-12. In a state with a population that is increasingly diverse—for example, the nonwhite or Latino population is expected to grow to 25 percent by 2035—the University needs to keep pace to remain relevant.
“I see so much promise here. And I see a commitment among so many people to doing what it takes to carry this University into the future.” —Katrice Albert
Josie Johnson, former University of Minnesota associate vice president for academic affairs, agrees. Now 84, Johnson was the first African American appointed to the Board of Regents, in 1971, and she played a key role in the development of the position that eventually morphed into Albert’s job. The U’s annual Josie Robinson Johnson Human Rights and Social Justice Award is presented in her honor. She believes that as the state’s population shifts, the role has taken on even greater importance.
“Minnesota has become quite a melting pot of diversity,” Johnson says. “In order for the University to remain relevant and successful and useful, in order for us to provide the best education for our citizens, we need to be an institution that listens, that discusses, that respects all points of view. And we need to create an environment in which those points of view can be put to constructive use. ”
Albert is the only African American senior leader at Minnesota. And, in her early 40s, she’s one of the younger women leaders at the U. These elements, Johnson believes, combined with Albert’s impressive resume, make her the perfect person for the job.
“Katrice brings creative, young ideas and knowledgeable, professional ways,” Johnson says. “She brings a freshness to an institution that I believe is really eager to honor diversity. I think President Kaler truly wants this to be a diverse, successful institution going into the future. Katrice is the person who can do that.”
Albert’s vision of the University of tomorrow expands beyond campus to the rest of the state. The University of the future retains its position as one of the top public research universities in the nation while attracting and admitting a student body that better represents Minnesota’s increasingly diverse population. “I see so much promise here,” Albert says. “And I see a commitment among so many people to doing what it takes to carry this University into the future.”
Well aware of the state’s yawning academic achievement gap between white children and children of color, Albert has been meeting with the superintendents of the Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools, Bernadeia Johnson (Ed.D. ’12) and Valeria Silva, hoping to develop ways to help children of color—particularly African American males—be better prepared for acceptance at the state’s land-grant university. Albert hopes to see the number of students of color in first-year classes rise; according to the University’s Office of Institutional Research, African Americans, for instance, made up just 3.9 percent of the 2013 freshman class on the Twin Cities campus.
But it’s a long process, like planting acorns and waiting for oaks to grow. That’s why Albert views relationships, such as those with Johnson and Silva, critical to helping the University better reflect the Minnesota of the future. “When we improve the performance of children of color in K-12, all ships rise,” Albert says.
Captaining a rising ship can make a person feel queasy, but Albert, who is open, warm, and engaging, with a bright smile and a ready laugh, seems to have found her sea legs in her adopted state. She and her longtime partner, Brandon Jones, have settled comfortably into a home in St. Paul’s Cathedral Hill neighborhood. “Brandon and I both like this neighborhood because it reminds us of home. We get to see the Mississippi River every day and the French Victorian architecture is just like home. It’s the capital city like Baton Rouge, and we’re Catholic and attending the Cathedral is awesome,” Albert says. They have even found a Twin Cities restaurant that cooks authentic Louisiana-style food.
Since coming to Minnesota, Albert has been working hard to strike a balance between work and personal life, something this hard-driven achiever has always found challenging. Early on, with the stress of the job threatening to wear her down, she budgeted a self-improvement section into her work plan. She has donned a Fitbit, taken up Bikram Yoga, and even competed in her first 5K. If she wants to help lead the University into the future, Albert figures she needs to keep an even keel.
“I used to be a much more emotional person,” she says. “That’s part of what drove me to a career in social justice. But I’ve realized that you can’t just emote if you really want to make a difference. You have to contain your emotions so people can hear you when you say, ‘We’re not where we need to be and this is the path we need to take to get us there.’ It’s a big-picture job. There aren’t that many day-to-day wins. But the struggle is a part of the joy because I know that things are going to change. This University is preparing to head into the future.”