Beginning at 6:20 a.m. each morning, Taran McZee, the new Chief Belonging Officer of Albion College, leaves his home in Grand Rapids, listening to the radio and podcasts along his hour-long commute.
Once he’s in the office, he gets straight to work and keeps listening, not to podcasts, but to Albion.
“Right now, I’m on a listening tour. I’m like a record producer, I’m just listening to talent right now,” McZee said. “I walk into a random office and say, ‘Hey, I’m Taran, who are you?’”
McZee was hired on Jan. 9, following a period of vacancy in the position. Previous to McZee’s hiring, Albion College was without a CBO following the resignation of former CBO Keena Williams, ‘09, who recently ran to be mayor of Albion. During that time period, there were multiple bias-related incidents that would typically involve the CBO.
CBO is a position within the president’s cabinet, which works to promote diversity, equity and inclusion on campus. Interim President Joe Calvaruso said he was eager to fill the recently vacated position.
“I am very pleased that we were able to get this extremely important position filled,” said Calvaruso. “Taran brings a wealth of experience related to diversity, equity and inclusion and is already making a difference in his second week being at Albion College.”
McZee said that his first order of business at Albion is to build relationships.
At liberal arts institutions, “you have to create relationships in order to get the work done,” McZee said.
His methodology of creating relationships has been proven to be effective. He has worked at four small liberal arts colleges before Albion, all with similarly sized student bodies. He also spent time at community colleges and large public universities.
While working at Blue Grass Community and Technical College in Kentucky, he worked with a group of black students called, “A Few Black Men.” When he started working with the program, there were about 10 men involved. When he left two years later, there were 110.
McZee has a proven record of leadership at diverse institutions. Soon, he hopes to have a doctorate degree to back it up.
“My dissertation is on successful mentoring programs for African American males in community colleges,” McZee said. “I will be finishing that this semester. Hopefully, by Mother’s day weekend, I’ll be Dr. Z.”
McZee said he seeks to find talent in Albion as well, a skill he has and will continue to apply to his work with students and staff.
“I’m all for educating versus discipline, “ McZee said.
Alongside his goals of understanding and educating, McZee seeks to use his position as CBO as a way to unite the community and shift the culture of this campus.
“I want to change the culture the way Albion wants to change the culture. Granted, I’m going to guide that change of culture,” said McZee. “But if Albion says they want to change the culture, let’s change the culture.”
The shift in culture is something that many of his colleagues believe him to be capable of tackling. One of his colleagues, Professor of Ethnic Studies Dr. Dominick Quinney, is among them.
“I believe his work is important and necessary,” Quinney said, adding that McZee brings new innovation and a new approach that the college needs. Quinney hopes that his work will change the scope of the college.
“In terms of how I would bring the campus together: I think let’s face it,” said McZee. “Let’s have the hard conversations, let’s talk about it.”
McZee also thinks the language used in reference to belonging should change.
“I think it’s time to move past the word “diversity,” McZee said. Instead, McZee intends to move beyond diversity, toward being inclusive and equitable.
However, McZee said he can’t do the work alone. He has to work with the college and the students to build an institution that everyone wants to be part of.
“I think everybody matters on this campus and that everyone should feel like they matter and belong on this campus,” McZee said.
And he says he’s ready to do the work for those who don’t.
“If they don’t feel like they belong, then we’ve got some work to do,” McZee said. “If someone feels like they don’t belong on this campus they need to contact me ASAP.”
McZee says, “I am a truly transformational leader. I have learned that about myself in the last seven years. I come in and I transform institutions. I transform cultures.”
However, Mczee said he cannot do the work alone. He must work with the students of the college to build an institution they want to be a part of.
“I’ll be here a lot of evenings next week meeting with the student senate, black student alliance, international student organizations, LGBrits,” said McZee. “Again, I’m on a listening tour, and I want the good, the bad and the ugly. Because I can’t fix anything if I don’t know what’s going on.”
In his few short weeks here, he has already started developing projects that he hopes will improve the culture and community of Albion including safe zone training and diversity training on microaggressions and implicit bias.
These events will be open to both staff and students of Albion College.
He will also be starting a Social Justice Speaker Series this semester. Likely starting in February, the events will be a collaborative effort with student organizations involved in the celebration of Black History Month.
McZee says he has enjoyed the warm welcome he has received from the community and institution. He plans to return the sentiment in his role as CBO.
“I want to make sure that students, faculty and staff do feel that sense of belonging,” McZee said.