Meet & Greet with Whitworth University DEI VP Joshue Orozco
~March 30th, 2023
In February, Joshue Orozco became the vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion for Whitworth University, the institution’s third person to step into the role.
Orozco, 43, was previously the associate dean of DEI at the university. He moved to the Spokane region in 2009 to take a faculty position as a professor of philosophy at Whitworth. Born in the San Diego area, Orozco has roots in Guadalajara, Mexico, from where his parents immigrated. He holds a bachelor’s in philosophy from UCLA and a doctorate from Rutgers University, in New Jersey.
As a professor, Orozco taught about seven courses in philosophy a year. In his new administrative appointment, Orozco becomes part of the university president’s cabinet to consider Whitworth’s institutional policies and decisions. In addition, he leads a diversity cabinet with representatives from across the university who inform each other on matters regarding DEI throughout campus.
The Journal recently sat down with Orozco to discuss his new role, how he incorporates his philosophy background, and his goals for the future.
When I saw your name, I wondered if that was a unique way of spelling Josue, is that it?
My dad wanted to name me Josh. In Spanish, Joshua is Josue. But when my parents immigrated (to California), they didn’t speak English very well and didn’t know how to spell it, but they kind of knew. They knew they needed to add an H, but they didn’t know they needed to change the E to an A.
My name was always this glaring thing for me, a pressure to assimilate. I went by Josh because I didn’t want people to stumble over (the pronunciation). At UCLA, I started to use Joshua, even my degree says Joshua. I was embarrassed by it.
But then I got older, and started to realize my story is not an atypical story for immigrants. It’s the story of people trying to navigate this life, this culture, and doing the best they can to try and make a life better for themselves. In grad school, I made a commitment of writing it out with an E.
Now I welcome people asking me what’s with that name. It’s been a point of connection with a lot of Hispanic students, because they have similar stories. Hearing that they, too, struggle with it has been a reminder of how I can connect with students who may not otherwise feel connected.
How does that personal history connect to your role?
I remember feeling like I needed to blend in. I needed to try to not show that I’m any different and just as capable as anyone else. That is an added burden that not everybody feels.
At Whitworth, I started to think, how can I make our university a place where people don’t have to feel that way, to feel they need to be someone different, retell a story that isn’t theirs, or try to hide from their story and still feel like they can succeed and have every advantage or opportunity we offer? That was an inspiration of mine—to try to make our university a place where that story can be told and be proud of, and where people are not shy about it.
What are the challenges surrounding DEI work at Whitworth?
My role now is to think institutionally about what we are doing to impact the lives of all the people who are involved in the university … even externally. It’s about looking at what our university is trying to do and making sure that we’re approaching our work and mission in a way that is including everybody and treating everybody equitably.
One thing I noticed is that there are a lot of people doing good work in terms of DEI, but the work can feel like it’s reliant on champions within different areas of the university. One of my challenges is trying to be someone who brings that work together so that we are making a bigger institutional impact, so that it doesn’t feel like it’s different groups of people like faculty members, or people in residential life, student life, who are trying to make a difference. It can be a culture so that, no matter where students, staff, and faculty are interacting, it feels like we have the same mission and value in everything we are doing. That is always the challenge of a leader—trying to pull resources together so that the work is bigger than the sum of its parts.
How do you plan to partner with the community?
One thing I think about is the way in which partnering with outside community organizations or businesses can help us be better represented internally.
When I started at Whitworth, about 85% of the student population identified as white. Now, it’s something like 62% of the student body identifies as white. We’ve become a lot more diverse even in just my life. But that growth has not been seen in faculty and staff. We’re still, in terms of faculty and staff, about 85% white. There are a lot of studies that show that underrepresented students do better if they see themselves represented on campus.
How do you do that?
It’s hard to do that quickly. You have to put processes in place. In the meantime, you can draw in people from the community—nonprofits or businesses that have that representation—that have resources for diverse students so they can see themselves here.
As a Christian university, we are always trying to engage in partnerships that help us live up to our mission to follow Jesus’ model of serving humanity, particularly those most marginalized and in need of our help.
I want our university to be an institution that is serving our community as well. We don’t want to just be extracting the resources of the community because it benefits us. Those partnerships always need to be reciprocal, mutually beneficial, so that our community sees that we are there, and we are investing in them as well.
How do you use your background in philosophy to approach your work?
It has allowed me to think a lot about social interactions, what a just society looks like, what our obligations are to people who are being overlooked or treated unfairly, and how we structure ourselves in a way that more properly reflects a just community. All of those are deeply philosophical questions about ethics, about politics, about what the role of interpersonal relationships is supposed to look like.
When I was in the philosophy classroom, I would try to integrate that in my classes. I taught a class on power and propaganda that (questions) the way society is structured a bit in a way that keeps some down and elevates others.
I taught a class on forgiveness and repair. What do we do when someone wrongs you? How do you respond in a healthy way? How do you respond so that the relationship is repaired? Although (these questions) are deeply philosophical, they are deeply personal and have applications in our lives. We all mess up, and we all need to repair. That is part of DEI work. There is no DEI work if everything is perfect. We are doing this work because we recognize that, even though we have diversity, that diversity isn’t interacting in a way that is treating everyone perfectly and fairly.
What do you hope to accomplish?
My short-term goal is a lot of listening and learning. For me, the only way to make important change is to listen to the needs of our community. I can’t start with an idea of what needs to happen until I listen to people. I’ve been meeting with student groups to understand their experience on campus and get a sense for what challenges they have. It’s the same with our external community—learning about homelessness and the finances of the community. Those are the things I need to learn about before I say, OK, here is how we approach this.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.