‘Wright’ for the job: the man behind UK’s diversity office


Dr. George Wright on September 12, 2019. Photo by Pete Comparoni | UKphoto

Sarah Michels

At 70 years old, Wright is starting a whole new career.

UK hired him as a visiting professor in 2019, the 70th anniversary of Lyman T. Johnson’s successful lawsuit which desegregated the university and the 400th anniversary of the first British slave’s arrival in Jamestown.

As a UK alum and author of three book, dozens of essays and articles about history – particularly as it relates to racial relations and civil rights – Wright was an obvious choice for the job.

He gave about 15 presentations around Kentucky before COVID shut campus down in March. In the meantime, Wright picked up several new titles and responsibilities: Distinguished University Research Professor, senior advisor to President Capilouto and interim director of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Most would be overwhelmed by this combination of responsibilities, but Wright enjoys variety. He describes himself as energetic, an avid sports fan who can’t stay put for an entire game—not even the Super Bowl. As Wright talks, he jumps from story to story, thought to thought, with the speed and easy navigation of a NASCAR driver. It’s not hard to imagine that quickly shifting between his teaching, administrative and research responsibilities on a daily basis comes just as naturally.

When Wright was young, he knew he was going to be a big-time basketball star. As a perpetual benchwarmer in high school, he ended up pretty much as far away as possible, he said. Fortunately, Wright had a second love—history. He spent his childhood in the young biography section of the library, where he read about George Washington, Christopher Columbus and other famous figures. Later, he moved on to other biographies, both of women and men, Americans and non-Americans. He discovered geography and a fascination with far-away places, where amazingly, Christmas wasn’t always associated with the cold. Today, he remains a prolific reader of a variety of titles, from National Geographic to Sports Illustrated to Times to Newsweek.

When Wright was 18, he asked God to let him be something. Half a century later, his prayer was answered. He credits the constant encouragement and pats on the back from mentors and peers for much of his career success, which includes professorships at the University of Kentucky, UT Austin, Duke and Texas A&M, an executive vice president and provost position at UT Arlington and a 14-year presidency at the historically Black Prairie View A&M University (PVAMU).

He’s also published three books—”Life Behind a Veil: Blacks in Louisville, Kentucky, 1865-1930,” “Volume II; Racial Violence in Kentucky, 1865-1940: Lynchings, Mob Rule, and ‘Legal Lynchings,” A History of Blacks in Kentucky: In Pursuit of Equality, 1890-1980”— along with other writings.

Wright sees himself as a person of average ability who is blessed with the capability to work extra hard. His accumulation of teaching awards, recognition and honors throughout his career is impressive by even the highest of standards, but he believes that everyone could achieve his success if given the same opportunities.

“Every time I’ve been acknowledged it meant that I had to work that much harder, that for the students who would take my class, if I won a teaching award, meant that I had to live up to that teaching award,” Wright said.

After his successes, he decided that was time to give back. At Duke, UK and UT Austin, there were already pushes underway to increase the number of underrepresented Black, minority and female faculty, but the universities always found ways to rationalize or excuse change away.

Wright resolved to be the one fiercely committed to turning the momentum into action. Furthermore, he said he is determined to have just as many white students and faculty involved as Black students and faculty in everything he does, from Black history classes to his administrative efforts to increase diversity, equity and inclusion.

“(I’m) clear about trying to make sure that whatever I do includes everybody,” Wright said. Wright garnered national attention by “giving back” during his time at PVAMU. Even though he had a busy job as an administrator, he began teaching an American history class every semester—the largest class on campus—to help with a significant budget shortfall.

Wright said that teaching and engaging with students on a daily basis gives him a better pulse on the student body. While he may have read an assigned book 50 times, a student reading it for the first time often offers a completely new perspective. Casual interactions with students show Wright a side of students that he isn’t always privy to as an administrator.

Now back at UK, Wright has taken on part-time teaching. He leads a seminar, Global Black Freedom Struggle, that looks at racial issues in the United States and other countries like South Africa. Alongside Dr. Vanessa Holden, he is also starting a research institute, the Central Kentucky Slavery Project, which will use city and county records to document the region’s history.

No matter which hat he’s wearing at any given moment, Wright makes an impression. When he first recognized President Eli Capilouto at an NCAA conference, “minding his own business,” (both were representing their universities’ respective athletic conferences) he ran over and just started talking all about his love and knowledge of UK. The pair connected over their dedication to UK and generational experiences. Now, years later, Wright is Capilouto’s senior adviser.

“It’s overload, that I do to people about that, but at some point, it makes something of an impression,” Wright said. Wright’s voice reverberates through every room—or Zoom call—of which he is part.

But despite his strong presence, he is always creating a welcoming space for others to share, said Stephanie White, associate dean for diversity and inclusion in the College of Medicine.

“He just presents himself very authentically,” White said. “That humanistic quality I think is something that that transcends the way he conducts himself, and even from the standpoint of making it very intentional to recognize others.”

White and Wright work together on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Leadership Team, a 20-person panel charged with implementing UK’s DEI plan, announced over the summer. After the former officeholder, Sonja Feist-Price, left UK, Wright took over. White said the interim position is a difficult one, especially during this time.

“He has to guide the conversation and keep the ball rolling because the University of Kentucky has made such strong commitment that it doesn’t want to just wait,” she said. “At the same time, he also comes from the perspective of being a new person in the University of Kentucky— not inexperienced, but in his current role and coming back to UK, he is a new entity for many.”

Wright said that this push for racial equity and inclusion is more serious than ever. In the June Board of Trustees meeting, there were two main priorities: reopening campus and DEI. Wright said he thinks that UK considering those two issues on the same level of urgency shows that the university is dedicated to real change.

Some of these tangible plans include hiring, supporting and retaining more underrepresented faculty, redesigning UK101 to address important issues like race, creating more spaces like the MLK Center for multiple identity groups so students can learn from each other, dedicating more funding to research on health disparities among underrepresented racial groups and intense anti-bias training for the president, provost and 50 additional administrators. Wright said Phase I of the DEI implementation plan will be the first of many.

He add that this is more than a lofty “we want to be inclusive” statement of goals and visions, but an action plan.

“But you also don’t want to just have a knee jerk reaction to do things without making sure that it incorporates as many perspectives as possible and so George is able to navigate those nuances of wanting a product, but then wanting to make sure that product is as holistic as possible,” White said.

When the table is made more inclusive, there needs to be space for the new perspectives to be shared. Wright understands that, White said. He is not afraid to take a pause to allow more voices to chime in so that the team can come up with plans of which everyone can feel proud. He is sure to recognize people and groups when he sees them do good work, which White considers an admirable trait in a leader.

Wright has never been one to let a 5% difference get in his way. In fact, whenever he heard someone commenting on how “different” another student was in undergrad, Wright made a beeline to that person.

“I wanted to find out what was ‘different’ about them,” he said. “In most instances, they were not different than me at all.” Decades later, not much has changed. Wright tries to get to know everyone who walks through his office. He asks about their hometown, the origin of their last name, their favorite movies, music preferences and sports teams’ allegiances. His idea of a successful conversation is one where he makes the other person smile.

Wright said he thinks he could have an hour-long conversation with anybody, because people share many more commonalities than differences. However, Wright is concerned that many people have lost this ability to listen to the “other side” and concede when their viewpoint is just as, or more, valid than their own. He wishes everyone could be as sincere as him.

“I have learned a lot from folks who I think are different and what I come to find out, and I know this isn’t true in every instance, a lot of times it may be 5% of the issue that we differ on, but yet we say where I’m in this corner and you’re in that corner— it’s only 5%,” Wright said.

Recent divisions in the state and country were highlighted by the attack on the U.S. Capitol in January by pro-Trump supporters. Wright said he doesn’t know what will happen to Gracyn Courtright, the UK senior charged and later released on bail for participating in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

When he was an undergraduate UK student in 1968, four students were arrested for possession of marijuana and expelled before their day in court. After student protests, UK let the students back in, but promptly changed their student conduct policies so that they had some disciplinary control over future off-campus activities. Wright thinks that Courtright will also likely be allowed back, but that UK will change its policy to make future student conduct similar to hers grounds for expulsion.

“She is going to be given the same rights as students were given when I was in undergrad,” Wright said. Wright said he tries to represent remembrance and reconciliation everywhere he goes.

For remembrance, he helps everyone understand the history of Black people, from Africa to today, including all the struggles and triumphs. For reconciliation, he points toward people like Nelson Mandela and Thurgood Marshall, who chose to sit down and work and reconcile with the exact people who had been opposing them all the way. Wright thinks this is about as radical as it gets. He is constantly trying to bring people together before it’s too late, such as before the tragic events that reactivated the Black Lives Matter movement this summer.

“I tell folk that we have to talk about these things all the time, that you can’t wait until the death of George Floyd, or the death of Breonna Taylor, to along racial lines have dialogues,” Wright said. “Whenever you start a new relationship you have to build up trust, and so here it is you’re talking about issues that might divide people, and you haven’t developed the relationship.”

Wright said he’s probably learned more than he’s been able to share in his first year at UK. But he has big plans, and undoubtedly will shape the direction of the university moving forward.

Wright shares a birthday with one of his role models, W.E.B. Du Bois, the first Black student to earn a PhD. But the resemblance doesn’t end with their mutual celebrations. De Bois didn’t stop writing about Black history until he died at age 95 in 1963. Wright said he plans to follow in De Bois’ footsteps.

“I always gotta be doing something,” he said. “I think life is meant to be lived, and life is to be doing something.”