Intercultural czar lays out plan

It’s not easy to get Yalies to talk about race. But Kirk Hooks is trying to do exactly that.

In early August, the University announced the hiring of Hooks — its first intercultural czar — with little fanfare. He was a multicultural specialist from the University of Michigan. He was multiracial. And he would be charged with the nebulous task of “facilitating intergroup conversations and supporting offices across the Yale College Dean’s Office,” Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry said in an early September interview.

Exactly what that meant was — and still is — up for grabs. University administrators gave several specific examples of Hooks’ responsibilities at Yale — including a freshman-counselor-training workshop on group dynamics, communication skills and social-group identities — but said much of the post would be left to Hooks to define.

And define it he has. In an e-mail to the News on Friday, Hooks laid out an ambitious and sweeping agenda for his post, citing five major goals for the first few years of his tenure as Yale’s first “Special Assistant to the Dean of Student Affairs for Intercultural and Intergroup Relations.”

First on the list is the implementation of a new model for University cultural supports — a model that merges the roles of ethnic and freshman counselors.

Then, Hooks said, he plans to promote intergroup dialogue on campus, develop programs for students traveling abroad that would address the potential for social identity tensions to inflame when overseas and create additional supports for Yale’s biracial and multiracial student population.

Hooks said he expects to spend much of his first year in New Haven working on those four items. The fifth — for which Hooks will leverage his background as a social worker — will be to assist the University’s mental-health-services staff in “any way that is of mutual interest.”

Hooks also said he hopes to support historically disadvantaged groups on campus, provide “settings” that stimulate faculty research on intergroup issues and even teach a course or two on intergroup relations or the development of what Hooks called “intercultural competence.” Hooks’ plans wrap up with the creation of a University center devoted to research, teaching and training in the fields of intercultural and intergroup relations.

“My overarching, ‘big-picture’ goal … is perhaps realizable in five years or so,” he wrote. “Building upon a body of work, I hope to help fund, found and co-direct a ‘Center for Intercultural and Intergroup Relations’ at Yale.”

Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said the need for an intercultural czar became clear over the last few years, as “increasingly we were being asked to help develop educational programs around the issues of identity.”

Requests for programming came from several parties, Salovey said, including cultural centers and the residential colleges.

Early November 2007 brought ostensibly racist and homophobic graffiti on campus buildings, followed by a sustained student response calling for structural reform at the administrative level to address latent racial and intergroup tensions on campus.

But Gentry said the creation of Hooks’ post was not a response to those incidents and had been in the works since at least September 2007.

Hooks comes to Yale from the University of Michigan’s Program on Intergroup Relations, where he taught before accepting the University’s offer this summer. There, colleagues said he connected with students through a non-dogmatic approach that students felt was genuine.

“What he tries to do is create dialogue and interactions between persons with different political and social points of view,” said Charles Behling, Hooks’ former supervisor and the co-director of Michigan’s program until his retirement in May. “He’s not a doctrinaire. He brings people together.”

Hooks comes to campus with his two children — Carl and Justine — and wife Marcia Inhorn, the William K. Lanman Jr. professor of anthropology and international affairs.

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