A rainbow coalition of Asian, Latino, white, black and Arab-American students can be seen walking down Dominican University’s Lewis Memorial Hall. A huge round wooden sign meets visitors in the lobby. It reads: “As a Sinsinawa Dominican-sponsored institution, Dominican University prepares students to pursue truth, to give compassionate service and to participate in the creation of a more just and humane world.” It was presented by “the Class of 1955 on the Occasion of their 50th Reunion, June 11, 2005.”
A year and a half later, the message also represents the mission of the River Forest school’s new provost, Dr. Cheryl Johnson-Odim, formerly a Columbia College dean and a distinguished historian who receives rave reviews from local scholars, feminists and activists. Oak Park’s Barbara Ransby, a UIC history professor, reports: “Cheryl Johnson-Odim has been a major intellectual and institutional powerhouse, from her role as dean at Columbia College to her leadership on numerous national boards and committees. She has influenced the direction of departments and organizations and has had an indelible mark on the fields of African and women’s history. She is also an outspoken proponent of social justice, human rights and diversity. Dominican is lucky to have such an accomplished scholar and a person of such enormous integrity as its new provost.”
A provost is the chief academic officer at a college and is also a vice president. Dr. Johnson-Odim, a humble, smiling woman who prefers people call her Cheryl, holds a doctorate in history from Northwestern and was a Fulbright Fellow in Nigeria, her husband’s birthplace. She started at Dominican on July 31.
This Evanston native, who relishes our communities’ history of tolerance and ongoing struggle for social and economic justice for people of color, said she feels “at home here.” A published poet, author of two books, founding member of the Vivian G. Harsh Society of the Carter G. Woodson Library, advisory board member of the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, the editorial board of the Journal of Women’s History and vice chair of the Illinois Humanities Council, is also a mother, all of which make her a great fit for Dominican’s mission of academic excellence and social justice.
Did I mention she’s also an African-American of Cuban ancestry? In a recent interview, she discussed her Cuban great-grandfather-Fernando Barrios who migrated to Florida and married Cheryl’s American-born black great-grandmother-in her new modest office adorned with photos of her children, husband, parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Next to the sepia-toned portraits is a huge color poster of “Africa’s Legacy in Mexico.”
One senses her family and educational background are important, considering her new academic mission: to increase the number of international students, increase the international experience for all Dominican students, increase the study opportunities with the Chicago and international communities as part of a service learning program, “and last to increase the interdisciplinary studies aspect of education here,” she said, emphasizing the need for students and staff to find creative ways of connecting with the local community.
Even occasional critics of Dominican’s interest in expanding in neighboring Thatcher Woods welcome Dr. Johnson-Odim. Take Thatcher Woods-Savannah Restoration Project spokesman Vic Guarino who said, “We really don’t have any issues with Dr. Johnson-Odim in particular or the university in general. We’ve resolved our differences with regard their expansion. She sounds like a bright academic. We welcome her as a breath of fresh air and look forward to hearing more about her academic programs.”
All of these programs, part of Dr. Johnson-Odim’s new educational initiative, “continue our trajectory of scholarship and research,” she said.
Programs include partnering with faculty and students where they jointly travel to Mississippi to study the sociology of the South, traveling to Ecuador to research culture there, and hosting international librarians here at Dominican.
“These programs are good for students, faculty and the community,” she said. “I’m proud to help guide these new initiatives. I see them as signature hallmarks of Dominican’s overall mission. I expect to stay here until I retire to help implement them. Hopefully, this will be my legacy.”