Willie McKether: VP of Diversity & Inclusion at University of Toledo

Willie McKether: VP of Diversity & Inclusion at University of Toledo

Willie McKether: VP of Diversity & Inclusion at University of Toledo

Share

In the middle of the 1970s, when Willie McKether was a student at Saginaw High School, about 100 miles north of Wayne State, he knew he always wanted to attend college, but, he had no idea how he was going to pay for it. And he had no idea what to expect because he didn’t know anybody else who had gone to college. 

Today, McKether has a doctorate in anthropology, specializing in business and organizational anthropology, and a master’s in labor relations from WSU. And he’s the Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion and Vice Provost at the University of Toledo in Ohio. 

He’s also currently revising his WSU doctoral dissertation, which documents African-American migration to Saginaw in 1920-1960, for a book contract with the Wayne State University Press. He will be submitting it to the editors in a couple of months and hopes to see the book published in the near future. 

McKether, who grew up in Saginaw, was one of six children in a single-headed household and was not privileged with a savings plan to pay for future college costs. 

“We grew up pretty much living in poverty,” he said. 

As a child, he watched his mother work two jobs and at the same time raise six kids by herself. Living in a household without a father seemed normal, “because most people in my neighborhood—almost nobody had two parents in the house,” he said. 

When McKether attended Grand Valley State University as an undergraduate student studying economics, he became the first person in his family to go to college. Those first couple of years at GVSU, however, were filled with self-doubt and culture shock, without any academic role models at a college with a predominately white student population. 

“The biggest thing was going in thinking that all of the white people were all smarter than me,” McKether said. “Because whatever it means to look smart—they just looked smart. And I was intimidated.” 

After McKether graduated from GVSU in 1984, he returned to Saginaw and worked in several different jobs while pursuing a master’s degree in business administration at Saginaw Valley State University, and then eventually transferred to Wayne State. 

He recalled having a conversation with WSU Labor Studies Center Director Hal Stack about pursuing a doctoral degree during which Hal asked him if he ever considered anthropology. 

“Well, no,” McKether remembered telling Hal. “What does anthropology have to do with business—I’m interested in business—not digging in dirt.” 

Once McKether began to discover anthropology, he said he knew he found what he was missing from his background in economics, business and labor relations. 

“And the [anthropology] professors were phenomenal,” he said. “All those courses helped me to understand how the world worked from an industrial perspective and also a cultural perspective, as well.” 

After McKether finished his Ph.D. in the Spring of 2005, he was offered a position at UT as an assistant professor in anthropology in 2006, and he said he absolutely fell in love with it. 

Within a year or two at UT, he realized that African-American and Latino students were not graduating at the same rate as their white peers. He said he used his skills in qualitative analysis as an anthropologist, and asked the question: “What are we doing to ensure that all students have an equal opportunity to be successful?” 

McKether helped spearhead several organizations and programs to help this issue. Today, UT has Brothers on the Rise, a volunteer-based student, faculty and staff association established in 2011 to help UT address the low retention and graduation rate of African American and Latino male students; Talented Aspiring Women Leaders (TAWL), a multicultural mentoring program for young women at the university; and the Summer Bridge program, which, now in its third year, brings in 25-30 African-American and Latino students who earned an $8,000 scholarship to participate in a six-week summer program where they take classes and live in the dorms prior to their first fall semester. Students who participate in the Summer Bridge program, “tend to have higher grades in their first year of college, have a higher retention rate for the second year, and are more likely to graduate,” according to UT’s website. 

The most rewarding aspect of these programs, Mckether says, is seeing students who came into the program as a freshman and are now seniors, getting ready to graduate. They tell him that if it wasn’t for the program, they wouldn’t be where they are today. 

“Now they’re saying, we want to help mentor the young men, as well,” he said. “I think that’s what keeps me motivated, that’s what excites me.” 

McKether credits his anthropology training and mentorship he received at WSU to his current work at UT. 

“For someone who never imagined himself to be a professor, to now be a vice president, it’s just a blessing,” he said. “This is nothing that I really saw myself doing as a child growing up in Saginaw.”