For the past two decades, Steve Denson, the director of diversity at Cox School of Business, has been championing the effort to build an inclusive environment for working and learning — a goal important in business education and in today’s corporate world. Denson’s traditional duties have ranged from helping recruit students and faculty of diverse backgrounds and helping support a variety of diverse business student clubs to working alongside organizations such as the American Indian College Fund. For Denson, an active member of the Chickasaw Nation, striving for inclusivity is simply the right thing to do. “We strive to do it more and better with each passing day,” he says.
In the fall, Denson was promoted to the position of assistant dean of diversity for Cox as part of the larger and ongoing effort by SMU to make the campus a more welcoming place for people of all backgrounds. In his new position, Denson is part of a team of 15 diversity officers from each of SMU’s eight schools and student/employee-facing departments who work with campus leader Dr. Maria Dixon Hall, appointed to the University’s newly created position of Chief Diversity Officer in August.
Cultivating a Community of Inclusion
As part of SMU’s newly formed Diversity Council, diversity officers like Denson are the front-line contacts for members of their school or unit for both concerns and opportunities related to diversity and inclusion. They will oversee the training and implementation of the University’s Cultural Intelligence Initiative (CIQ) within their respective areas and work with faculty/staff search committees and student admission committees to support both a diverse work force and student body.
“We are at an important crossroads for our country and campus,” says Dixon Hall. “This group of men and women chosen as SMU diversity officers have a meaningful role to play in delivering on the mission of the University. We are just beginning our work together, and I am energized by what they bring to the table.”
As an assistant dean at the Cox School, Denson already meets routinely with representatives from a variety of Cox organizations, including Women in Business, Pride@Cox, the Black Graduate Student Association, Jewish Business Club, Veterans in Business and the International Business Club.
The work of a diversity officer extends off campus and beyond graduation. Through long-standing partnerships with groups such as the National Black MBA Association, Prospanica (the Association of Hispanic MBAs & Business Professionals) and the National Association of Black Accountants, Denson ensures that all students at SMU Cox have access to the networks they need throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area and beyond. “We want to create opportunities for them outside of the University by reaching out to organizations that are going to help them build their networks,” he says.
Denson is also working to create a more welcoming climate for Cox faculty of all backgrounds — particularly for those new to the School. A large part of making new faculty feel welcome, says Denson, is creating a sense of community among them. “Sometimes it’s something as simple as introducing them to each other so they feel an immediate connection with our Cox community,” he says.
Long before he became the assistant dean of diversity, Denson saw his role as something of a bridge builder — working to connect the broader community with Cox and vice versa, and to build bridges for diverse existing students as well as diverse prospective students. Last June, in recognition of the racial reckoning occurring on the SMU campus and across the country, the Cox School created the Cox Community Scholarship to further support students from underrepresented populations in the School’s graduate and BBA programs.
Diversity Benefits Everyone
In his new position, Denson meets weekly with his fellow diversity officers to work on a broad range of programs and initiatives. Things have changed since he first came to Cox, even more so in the past year. “It’s a lot of the same responsibilities, but everything’s on a much larger scope,” he says. “We’re coordinating with the other schools on campus, as well as with the Chief Diversity Officer and President Turner’s office.”
In the end, Denson says, the push for inclusion benefits everyone. “Corporate America wants diversity more than ever before,” he says. “If we don’t provide a diverse hiring pool of business school graduates from Cox, we’re doing everybody a disservice. Companies would stop recruiting here — they would go somewhere else, which in turn would discourage students from coming here because of a lack of recruitment. Diversity and inclusion improve everybody’s opportunities.”
Learn more about diversity at SMU Cox.