Nancy “Rusty” Barcelo remembers the first meeting she attended as the new associate vice president for multicultural and academic affairs for the University of Minnesota.
It was 1996, and she recalled that the people who attended divided themselves along the lines of their differences.
“Just because they all did diversity didn’t mean they all knew how to work with each other,” Barcelo said.
At that point, Barcelo told them they would have to collaborate if they expected the University to understand diversity issues.
After leaving the University from 2001 to 2006 to combat anti-affirmative action issues for the University of Washington-Seattle, Barcelo returned to the University to lead the Office of Equity and Diversity as its first vice president and vice provost.
This summer, Barcelo will leave again to fill the president’s position at Northern New Mexico College in Espanola, N.M., which is looking to become a more comprehensive university, Barcelo said.
Many say that although her absence will be felt at the University, her more prominent appointment at Northern New Mexico College is a victory for equity and diversity in higher education.
Barcelo has made a career of advocating diversity. That’s exactly what her peers said would never happen when she desired to become a more formal fixture in the diversity efforts at the University of Iowa before moving to Minnesota.
In 1987, Barcelo sat on a committee at Iowa that was examining the university’s commitment to diversity. She had received her doctorate degree from the school and worked to recruit more diverse student populations.
“I was told in no uncertain terms from my colleagues there that if I moved into diversity work, it would be the end of my academic work,” Barcelo said.
They were wrong.
In 2006, Barcelo was working in Seattle as the vice president and vice provost for minority affairs and diversity while the University was looking for someone to lead diversity here. Senior Vice President for System Academic Administration Robert Jones said he and the president were looking around the country for a “high-profile” individual.
“The more we asked questions of consultants and search firms about who were the top chief diversity officers in the country, Rusty’s name always came out at the top or within the first one or two of that list,” Jones said.
At that time, the University had begun voicing its desire to become a top-three research institution. That transition included a more prominent focus on equity and diversity.
Barcelo said she was attracted to the position because President Bob Bruininks expressed the same beliefs that equity and diversity should be at the core of an institution.
“Usually, diversity is an afterthought,” Barcelo said. “Here was a president saying diversity needed to be front and center at the beginning of the process. He wanted me to build this position — make this work sustainable in new and exciting ways.”
The University elevated the equity and diversity position to vice president for Barcelo, Jones said.
Professor Brenda Child, chairwoman of the department of American Indian studies, said she was thrilled when Barcelo returned to the University in 2006.
Child met Barcelo in Iowa where she also earned her doctorate. She first encountered the then-Iowa administrator because the university’s Chicano and American Indian students were in conflict and were considering separating themselves from a space they shared.
Child said Barcelo intervened and told the students that it was important for them to work together because that gave them strength.
For as long as the two have worked together, Barcelo has always lived by her convictions, Child said.
Barcelo joined the University because she said she was excited about the collaborative model the institution was pursuing, which put all the different diversity groups under one administrative umbrella.
“I have multiple identities, and sometimes when they’re separated out you get a little confused,” Barcelo said.
She said she had proposed a similar model in Iowa, but they weren’t interested.
Those who have worked with her say Barcelo is not one to sit in the University’s administrative building and wait for people to come to her.
Eden Torres, chairwoman of the Department of Chicano Studies, said Barcelo often participates in her department’s activities and makes an effort to meet students to a point where they feel comfortable enough to call her “Rusty.”
“The community is really important to her. She’s so approachable that anyone from freshmen up feel like they can talk to her,” Torres said. “Chicano studies is not particularly valued. People like Rusty place value in it.”
Barcelo said she is sometimes discouraged by the repetition of questions and a lack of progress in the understanding of diversity issues. When she starts to wonder why she does this job, she said she looks at the success stories — the cards and phone calls from people who have succeeded and are pursuing their own passions. It’s not always tangible, but it’s forward motion, she said.
“I can’t point to buckets of progress, but I know there has been progress when I get comments like that,” she said.
Jessie Bethke Gomez, president of Communidades Latinas Unidas En Servicio in the Twin Cities, said Barcelo holds a “profound vision for society.” Barcelo has served on the board of directors for CLUES for four years.
“She has a bold vision of helping all people understand diversity [and] the power of diversity,” Bethke Gomez said.
Barcelo said it’s a sense of responsibility as well as her own identity — “all my identities” — that motivate her. She works to pass on that motivation to others.
“Every day when I drive into the garage, I play Mexican music,” she said. “I play my music because when I come into a University that still really doesn’t have the symbols or the representations, that’s when I need that boost of energy to help me, to help me navigate. If I still need that then I know that people who are less acculturated than I am probably need it too.”
—Taryn Wobbema is a senior staff reporter.
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