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Taking a break from packing up his office, Wes Pratt reflects on his career as chief diversity officer at Missouri State University.
Rebecca Green | SBJ
Taking a break from packing up his office, Wes Pratt reflects on his career as chief diversity officer at Missouri State University.

‘A pioneer in the field’: Wes Pratt retires from chief diversity role at MSU

Posted online

 Back when Wes Pratt was a teen, Missouri State University didn’t much care about having him on campus.

As a high school athlete, Pratt earned all-district and all-conference honors and was honorable mention all-state in football. He also excelled in track and basketball, to say nothing of his strong record of academic achievement.

“I came to the university and met with the head coach in the locker room,” Pratt recalled. “He said, ‘I may give you half a scholarship if you try out for the team and make it.’”

But Pratt took a different path. His Central High School counselor helped him to secure an academic scholarship at Drury University in the late 1960s.

“I talk about a master plan – there’s a method to the madness,” he said. “I think about that journey and sometimes I get emotional about it. The journey’s been hard.”

Even at a young age, Pratt was known for his activity in the civil rights movement. He still has an unsigned piece of hate mail he received as a youth. It says, “The white people of this town have been good to you n-----s. Don’t be a smart aleck and mess it up.”

Pratt was openly critical of institutions – the city, the police, the university – and his reputation as an activist preceded him to that locker room meeting.

But the views of some people at MSU didn’t define Pratt’s path.

“A lot of people could see the value of that little Black boy from Sherman Avenue in the redline district of the city,” he said. “Folks who didn’t look like me gave me the opportunity to grow and excel.”

Pratt went on to become an attorney and later a member of the city council in San Diego, California – this, after losing an election for Springfield City Council.

Pratt was reflecting on his journey last month from an office on the top floor of Carrington Hall, the administration building on the MSU campus, where he’s worked for 15 years. Around him were stacks of boxes he had packed with particular care; the university wants to hold on to his archives, and Pratt had to weigh each item for its historical value while deciding what to take home and what to leave for posterity.

With a retirement date of Aug. 1, Pratt is leaving MSU, which he has served as chief diversity officer since 2016. He started at the university in 2007, teaching African American studies to mostly white students.

He helped to establish the Student African American Brotherhood’s local chapter, Brother to Brother, in Springfield, and through his work with the organization’s leadership, he helped relocate the national headquarters to campus in 2020.

In the community, Pratt helped to revitalize the local NAACP chapter and served as co-founder and president of the Multicultural Business Association.

Pratt’s name and work is held in high esteem by university leadership.

“Wes Pratt’s work as chief diversity officer has been critical to our creating a more inclusive environment for our students, faculty and staff of color on campus and in Springfield,” said President Clif Smart. “His leadership in this field has made us a better university and a more inviting community.”

Since Pratt began in his role, the nonwhite student population rose from 13% in 2016 to 15.1% in 2022, excluding nonresident alien numbers. 

Pratt counts Smart, who was the university’s general counsel when he joined faculty, as someone who understands diversity, equity and inclusion. He said before accepting the top diversity role, he made sure they were on the same page about the philosophy that would come to drive the university’s efforts: inclusive excellence.

“I talked to the president and I said, ‘This is the change model,’” Pratt said. “He said, ‘I’m cool with it.’ I’d been educating him all along.”

Smart got it, and in Pratt’s absence, he intends to continue the work.

Inclusive excellence
Pratt likes to say that as goes MSU, so goes the rest of the community. Today, inclusive excellence is embedded in the core values of the university.

According to Pratt, inclusive excellence is a value that works across disciplines, in public and higher education, and even in business.

“The reality is everybody’s diverse,” he said.

It goes beyond skin color, according to Pratt. Diversity may include religion or lack of religion, sexual orientation or gender identity, rural or urban upbringing, political ideology or any other area where people differ.

“Diversity is the individual and group social differences that we bring to the pursuit of higher education,” he said.

Pratt said it’s one thing to talk about diversity, but it’s another to talk about valuing the inclusion of diversity. The latter concept is where the rubber meets the road for the transformative value of inclusive excellence.

Some may think of diversity as the specific terrain of people of color or urban populations, but Pratt said someone from a small town can still be diverse. They may have different opportunities and different abilities or disabilities; they may be Catholic, Protestant, evangelical or atheist. 

“They’re all diverse, even though they may look alike,” he said. “Diversity includes all of us. Once we started saying that, people started to register with them that, OK, this is a little different than what I had in my mind’s eye.”

Pratt said the university has embraced the inclusive excellence change model, but the broader community may be apprehensive about the idea of diversity, in part because of divisive politics. An example is the current fascination with critical race theory, a concept critics say is being taught in public schools but is actually a graduate-level theory that explores race as a social construct that is embedded in legal systems.

“How in the world do you teach a law-school-level course to students in primary education?” he said. “You don’t. It’s simply being used as a bludgeon to create more divisiveness and polarization among folks.”

Pratt’s influence
Many of Springfield’s DEI professionals credit Pratt with setting the stage for their work.

“I’ve known Wes Pratt for many years. He has challenged me to be a better community member and DEI leader,” said Keke Rover, system director of DEI for Burrell Behavioral Health.

“Wes has this unique ability to have the difficult conversation and hold folks accountable. It doesn’t matter your age, gender, identity, class, status or position; he will always challenge you with the question: ‘What are you going to do about it?’”

Daniel Ogunyemi, DEI director for Ozarks Technical Community College, also looks up to Pratt – he even refers to him as Uncle Wes.

“He’s a trailblazer – a pioneer in the field,” he said. “When you look at DEI as a profession, it is still relatively young. Because of that, when you have people like Wes Pratt that have been in the field a long time, it truly is bittersweet to see him retiring.”

Ogunyemi said people often feel they don’t have the right words to talk about diversity, partly because the language is constantly being updated. “The problem comes when people are reluctant to have these conversations or even try,” he said.

But Ogunyemi said Pratt has been having the key conversations his entire life – starting with his early activism.

“He’s one of those people that is going to hold truth to power,” he said. “He experienced much discrimination in his life, including around the community of Springfield. But he was invested in Springfield. He was going to have this conversation and pull as many people along as possible.”

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