Marco Barker is applying disciplines learned as an industrial engineer to establish a network dedicated to expanding inclusivity and cultural understanding on campus.
Nebraska Today sat down with the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion to discuss his progress, direction and fondness for bow ties as his first academic year begins. You can also learn more about Barker’s hire here in Nebraska Today or go visit with him one-on-one during his office hours.
Why did you want to be Nebraska’s first vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion?
With my background in engineering, this role was attractive in terms of the opportunity to identify creative solutions and new ways to maximize efforts. The study of industrial engineering teaches us how to maximize people and machines for the most efficient output. I plan to use those same concepts to identify what is great about diversity and inclusion at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and build upon that. At the same time, we will identify areas where we need to add to and make us better.
I also like the challenge of creating a new office and how that allows you to increase the creativity and innovation in how we approach diversity and inclusion. And, returning to a Land Grant institution interests me. I attended one (University of Arkansas) as an undergraduate and didn’t appreciate it at the time. Having later launched my higher education career at one (Louisiana State University), this allowed me the opportunity to return to one in a leadership capacity and play a role in helping the university be a leader and innovative while also strengthening its commitment to the public good.
How would you define the state of diversity and inclusion at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln?
First, as the creation of my position indicates, there is a real commitment coming from university leadership. That continued support will be a key part of our success as we move forward.
I would describe the state of diversity and inclusion on campus as being a bit disjointed — there have been some amazing pockets of work but it’s disjointed. That’s where our office comes in. I believe we can help better link that important work, leveraging people and talents across campus to better coordinate diversity and inclusion initiatives and programming. I also believe we can do a better job tapping into our research, scholarship and expertise that exists here on campus.
We also have some opportunities across students, faculty and staff to build our diversity on campus in terms of representation of people and perspectives. And that is in all facets of diversity — from ethnicity and gender to sexual orientation and political affiliation.
From my perspective, we have a good way to go in terms of diversity and inclusion, but the university is building capacity right now. We have the pieces to be better. Now, it’s up to us to organize those pieces to make the work more impactful as we strive for greater inclusion.
What are some areas of programming that you are excited about?
I’m really excited about Husker Dialogues and the impact that program is making. Not many of the institutions I’ve been with have been able to successfully connect with first-year students and have the reach that Husker Dialogues has. I love the meaning behind the program — just not coming with a viewpoint and being open, having a dialogue and learning from one another. I feel it is a really amazing program that we can build upon.
I’m also interested in Nebraska Athletics’ inclusion summit and I feel that diversity symposia offered by Admissions are impactful. We also bring a good number of speakers to campus who offer a variety of viewpoints — but, I feel we can do a better job connecting campus with those speakers.
The number of ways Nebraska Extension works to connect with youth and community members across the state is extremely impressive. I look forward to working with them in the future. And, I’m intrigued by Nebraska Innovation Campus and working with them to formulate ways to connect inclusion with innovation. I see those two things as working hand-in-hand.
What accomplishments have you made since starting in April?
One of the most exciting things currently underway is the formation of a Council on Inclusive Excellence and Diversity. It will feature a group of leadership liaisons from across the institution collaborating and sharing what’s happening, developing a common language in terms of diversity and inclusion. When complete, the council will have representation of the entire campus community — undergrads, graduate students, faculty and staff.
I think the council will be the place where we start to build capacity this year.
We also continue to build our office and contacts across the university. We are organizing our website and identifying better ways we can use the calendar and tell our stories about successes in diversity and inclusion.
We’re excited to have Nkenge Friday coming on board as in an assistant vice chancellor role later this month. And we’re forming a diversity engagement team that includes professionals and administrators on campus who have specific roles related to diversity, equity and inclusion.
And, we’re starting to identify partnerships and collaborations that will further diversity and inclusion on campus. You’ll definitely be hearing more about all of these initiatives as we move forward.
What are your priorities for the new academic year?
My entire focus this first year will be in eight priority areas — communication; coordination; campus climate; leadership development; our strategic approach to diversity and inclusion; branding; education; and policy.
I’ve started working with the N2025 team and evaluating past efforts and recommendations on diversity and inclusion. It’s important that as that document moves forward, we do as much as we can to include diversity and inclusion into the university’s strategic planning process. In that same vein, I’m working directly with senior leadership, equipping them with the necessary language and information about strategic diversity practices while also making sure they know where we are headed.
In terms of campus climate, I’d like to know more about how people form community at this university.
Being a new office, I also want to establish our common practices for diversity officers. They will be based on standards outlined by the National Association for Diversity Officers in Higher Education.
And, along the way, I’m trying to learn about policies and practices at this university. It’s a big place and there are a lot of them. But, knowing them will help me be more thoughtful about what we are doing and making sure we’re not doing anything harmful. The last thing we want to do is act in a way that creates barriers for university groups and individuals.
Looking ahead, how would you measure success in five years?
Well, I would hope there will be some clear metrics from student surveys and campus climate studies. I would definitely be looking for indicators that we did indeed build the university’s capacity for diversity and inclusion. I would like to achieve a critical mass of people who feel there’s an appreciation of what others see and feel on campus. And, I’d also like to see more retention and less attrition in our faculty, students and staff of color. That would be a true indicator of improvement in the campus climate.
Really, I think the greatest measure of success in five years will be the utilization of this new office. Have we been successful in reaching out to campus, forming collaborations and working to make diversity and inclusion work more intentional and impactful.
Ultimately, I hope we can move the University of Nebraska–Lincoln toward being a place where people of color and those across the gender identity spectrum feel that they are valued and included — in addition to our students who represent other intersections of diversity. I think we’ll maybe not see a lot of shift in numbers in the next five years, but I believe you will see a shift in culture. And, you’ll definitely see a shift in how we talk about these issues, the education we provide and that our policies and processes are more thoughtful.
Shifting gears, how did you become a herald of the bow tie?
It started as a fashion statement and actually just became something that was more convenient. I started wearing them right after my undergraduate years. I saw someone wearing one and really appreciated the look. I bought one, that led to some compliments and I’ve gradually expanded my collection.
I’ve also found that they are more practical than a necktie — I don’t have to readjust them all the time and they’re easier to tie. Today, I have around 60 of them — including that first one that got me started.
What’s one thing you want everyone to know about you.
I was a band geek, a trombone player, and very awkward in high school. I’m still an awkward nerd at heart. But, in these roles, I’ve had to increase my social skills.
Now, to the most important question. After stops at LSU, Arkansas and now Nebraska, who will you be cheering for on football Saturdays in the fall?
I always tell people that my real allegiance is to where I am now. Absolutely, in any game where Nebraska is playing LSU or Arkansas, I’ll be rooting for the Huskers. Go Big Red!