Whether it was fate or inclination, something spurred Brenda J. Allen, PhD, to shift her scholarly focus early in her career. The result, many of her colleagues would say, was a win for CU Denver.
As word of Allen’s April 30 retirement spread, emails thanking the vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion began filling her university inbox. Descriptions such as “powerful presence” and “campus conscience” peppered her farewell messages, humbling Allen.
“I’ve appreciated championing a culture of inclusion,” said Allen, as she looked back on her nearly two decades with CU Denver. “I’m going to miss being an advocate for helping students, staff and faculty to thrive and for strategically addressing concerns about equity.”
‘Twofer’ identity spurs new professional path
Allen was recruited to CU Boulder three decades ago as an assistant professor of computer-mediated communication. Her black female identity prompted some colleagues to assume that she was an expert on gender and race. They asked her to represent women and/or people of color on committees and in other contexts.
Then a career-changing idea struck.
“I realized that I did have something to offer,” said Allen, “I saw how those identities and others matter within higher education.”
So she began conducting research on social identity, becoming a noted scholar with over 50 authored or co-authored publications and kudos from her discipline.Scholarly switch leads to new career path
Allen joined the Department of Communication in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 2001. She was promoted to professor and appointed department chair, later becoming an associate dean in the college. In 2012, she was selected to head the Office of Diversity and Inclusion for CU Denver and the CU Anschutz Medical Campus.
Allen said she hopes her work at CU Denver perseveres. While diversity, equity and inclusivity are imperative in any organization, they are even more crucial in higher education, she said.
‘We actually make a difference in the world’
“We have an exciting opportunity to help develop all of ourselves to be humane, to be equitable, to collaborate inclusively, and to reap the benefits of our differences. But we must be intentional,” added Allen, who includes her pronouns on her email signature to show solidarity with those community members for whom it deeply matters.
“We have to be thoughtful about how we are educating our students in ways that they all feel respected and valued, no matter who they are,” Allen said. She also advocates providing professional development for faculty and staff to cultivate a more inclusive campus workplace.
“From our curriculum to our hiring practices to how we engage with one another as colleagues, if we value and apply promising practices for equity and inclusion, then we actually make a difference in the world.”
Highlights of a productive career
Although she emphasized the credit goes largely to the university’s dedicated staff, students and faculty, she will leave some lasting footprints behind. Here are some highlights that stood out for Allen:
Responding to societal differences and student needs, Allen led change in the former CU Denver Educational Opportunity Programs office, renaming it the Center for Identity & Inclusion.
Allen worked with staff to stress heterogeneity among diverse student populations, including changing the name of Hispanic Student Services to Latinx Student Services, signifying inclusivity of all genders, she said.
Allen created the Undocumented Student Services office, a move based on staff, faculty and student concerns, she said.
Under her guidance, the Women’s Resource Center was renamed the Women and Gender Center. “We now have a phenomenal director who is doing path-breaking work on intersectionality and the gender spectrum,” she said.
Many contributions, and a fund in her honor
Conducted countless highly-rated workshops for faculty, staff and students on topics such as implicit bias, inclusive leadership, inclusive workplaces and culturally responsive teaching and advising. She will continue to provide these types of training as a consultant during her retirement.
Founded theCouncil on Diversity and Equity to review and revise recruitment and hiring practices.
Aided a grassroots effort in creating the Anschutz Inclusivity Alliance.
Helped relaunch (on April 17) the CU Denver Inclusive Campus Action Network. At the relaunching, her last public event on campus, colleagues announced a fund in her name for an inclusive leadership award for faculty and staff, and a student scholarship.