Published: July 16, 2020

Alphonse Keasley, associate vice chancellor in the Office of Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement, came to CU Boulder in 1975, beginning what he calls his life as a university citizen.

Keasley speaks at the 2016 fall Diversity and Inclusion Summit

I have really enjoyed being able to engage in the life of the mind and the pursuit of the humanities. That is what has been the most joyous for me.”

If you’ve ever been to commencement or attended the campus Diversity and Inclusion Summit–which Keasley works to organize and pull off twice each year–you’ve heard Keasley’s voice over the speakers at Folsom Field and in the University Memorial Center. Worked with first generation students through a campus program? Keasley probably had a hand in its creation or expansion. Directed students to CU Boulder’s Leadership Minor? Keasley teaches the introductory and capstone courses. Seen a production on the Mary Rippon Stage, Keasley has boomed his voice from there.

As you can see, Keasley’s life as a university citizen has touched many corners of the university.

In his office is a leather chair. It’s not only a chair, though. It’s the chair. It’s the chair that countless students—often first-generation students as well as McNair, Honors Program and MASP scholars—have sat in over the years. They came for advice, for academic help, in search of a mentor. And when they finished their time at CU, they went on with their lives and careers. But they also represent the part of Keasley’s time at CU in which he is most proud.

“Seeing these young professionals who have done so well, and to know that I had a small part in what they are able to do now, really makes me most proud,” Keasley said. “I have a whole bunch of folks out there who are physicians, who are working in different science fields as well as in schools and the like. I am most proud of that compilation of all those students who are now successful young professionals.”

Keasley plans to retire at the end of the summer. While he will remain in the Boulder area and may teach a course in the spring, he plans to step back from his other duties on campus. Here’s a look back at his time on the CU Boulder campus.

Getting started in higher education

Keasley started his academic career path as a graduate student at Phillips University in Enid, Oklahoma, where he studied audiology. It was there where he met a mentor named Pete Pederson. Professor Pederson connected Keasley with Oklahoma State University, which hired him as one of 10 Black faculty members out of nearly 1,000 faculty members at the university. This relationship also was a catalyst for Keasley’s mentoring ways.

“So that is how I got started in higher education," he said. "It was because I had this mentor Pete who was able to look out for me as far as my next step in being able to practice my profession in audiology.”

After a stint at OSU, Keasley joined CU Boulder’s Speech, Language and Hearing Science Department in 1975 as faculty member in the area of audiology to teach and conduct hearing tests, fit hearing aids and teach hard-of-hearing and deaf people. At the time, Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences was a relatively new field, having begun in 1947. Keasley remained in the department until 1983, when he left the university for a short period of time.

His interest in the subject goes back to when he was an undergraduate. As is the case with many things in life, Keasley didn’t necessarily see himself following this path.

“This is a very interesting story about how these things happen. I was in a play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, with this particular woman who was a graduate student at Southern University, a historically black institution. I was smitten with her and decided to take her Introduction to Speech and Hearing class. Because my school didn’t offer it as a major, I decided to go to Louisiana State University to do the degree and found myself in this really nice speech department that was renowned for its scholarship and its graduates, and that was the beginning.”

Diversity and inclusion efforts on campus

In 1986, Keasley began working as a part-time instructor in the University Learning Center (now called the Student Academic Success Center). 

“My first role in this program was making sure that students who were provisionally accepted into the university—typically students of color and/or first-gen students—had the skill set to succeed. It was in that space that I began my work in the area of diversity.”

There was no such thing as equity and inclusion at that point, he said. It was just about having a diverse population. 

“The whole program was devoted to some aspect of those kids who were historically marginalized. This role I had in ULC was so pivotal for my development in this work around diversity and inclusion," Keasley said.

Since his time as a writing instructor, Keasley has worked as the assistant director of ULC and served as director of the Minority Arts and Science Program, before being appointed assistant vice chancellor in the Office of Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement (ODECE) in 2008. He became associate vice chancellor in 2017.

In addition to the several positions he has held, Keasley also has served on many committees and participated in numerous diversity and inclusion initiatives on campus. He worked with the Upward Bound Program, participated in the Council for the Enhancement of Undergraduate Education to help infuse diversity into the undergraduate curriculum (his Honors Program Diversity and Inclusion class was a product of the committee in 1994, and he has taught the course until now), published the award-winning "Belonging," a collection of student papers from marginalized backgrounds and coordinated the first CU Boulder Martin Luther King Jr. celebration in cooperation with local campus ministries (1997) to name a few.

He has also worked on numerous diversity and inclusion committees and spearheaded efforts to help diversify the Boulder campus and community. His efforts include working with former AVC Ofelia Miramontes and colleagues to establish the CU LEAD Alliance programs; serving on the the Blue Ribbon Commission, which was set up to recommend plans for improving diversity on the CU Boulder campus; coordinated the annual Diversity and Inclusion Summit, which began in 1995; and coordinated the annual Equity and Excellence Celebration, which began in 1985. He has also been involved in the campus' Inclusion, Diversity and Excellence in Academics (IDEA) Plan.

Keasley speaks during a dialogue at the 2018 MLK Day celebration at the Old Main Chapel

Keasley speaks during a dialogue at the 2018 MLK Day celebration at the Old Main Chapel. Photo by Glenn Asakawa/CU Boulder.

Challenges for CU and the Boulder community

During his time in Boulder and on campus, Keasley said he has been part of a campus community that is trying to become more diverse and more inclusive, but not without challenges.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

–Robert Frost

“Boulder, the campus and city, would like to be more diverse, but I’m not convinced that we have built the infrastructure or climate such that people from different racial, gender, ethnic and sexual orientation will want to flock here. In other words, our work on this issue is not done," he said.

Value of mentors

“I’ve enjoyed living life in America as a Black man,” Keasley said. “Even with all of the troubles. I grew up in the segregated New Orleans in a community of Black people who really, truly, deeply cared about the young. As a young person, I had a lot of pride. I didn’t have any doubts about myself as a young Black person. I never have had that kind of doubt, even though people have tried to make that the case.”

And Keasley has brought that caring attitude to the students he has worked with over the years at CU Boulder. 

“It was because of my professor Pete that I was able to find my way into higher education. I know how instrumental this man was for me as my mentor–not just teaching me in my graduate program. He was so important, not just for my education, but also for my first steps into the professional ranks. He still contacts me! So I know firsthand that a mentor relationship is most definitely critical to student development," Keasley said.

“The reason I am able to be in touch with all of these former students is because that is the kind of relationship we had. It was one where students could come in and talk about whatever they needed. That mentor relationship is a culturally important part of what it means to go to college, especially for students who are first generation or who are coming from backgrounds where they are not part of an elite group. If you’re just unfamiliar with the way the institution of higher education works, there’s real value to having someone next to you to guide you in what you need to be doing and thinking about.”

Trips to South Africa

Since 2007, Keasley has traveled to South Africa to conduct research with South African Professor Sylvester Bongani Maphosa. The two have co-edited two books, written numerous articles and conducted several presentations together. Maphosa is chief research specialist with the Africa Institute of South Africa. 

Former students Tom and Paul Fishback created the Alphonse Keasley Endowed Scholarship Fund. “The importance of this scholarship is to ensure lives continue to be positively impacted by Alphonse long into the future.”

During each trip, Keasley has brought CU Boulder students along (on his dime) to expose them to the culture and political system of post-Apartheid South Africa. Keasley said he brings the students along so they can explore South Africa’s culture, history and day-to-day dynamics. 

“The whole experience has been so great, on so many levels. Watching the students gain experience and new perspectives was something I value very much,” he said. 

Leadership education

“I was fortunate to be asked to teach the leadership capstone course back in 2005 when we began offering the leadership minor on campus. I’m very passionate about helping students synthesize the different ways of understanding leadership.

“We, in the United States, and even around the world, don’t have a good definition of what’s involved with leadership and where leadership shows up. A lot of people have the understanding that leadership is only about politics or corporations. When in fact, leadership occurs in families, it occurs in neighborhoods, it occurs at the workplace. It is much broader than the typical way that a lot of people think about it.

“I like to be able to provide the educational basis of what is leadership and where it can be practiced so that we can have more and more leaders. The field of leadership has evolved over the years and will continue to evolve.”

Hope for the future

“I am really happy that our campus leadership brought Heather McGowan, who is an expert on the future of work, to campus. I think higher education’s challenge is how to get well-trained researchers to be more interdisciplinary to help create the kind of young professionals and citizens we need in the United States.

“As I understand the data, not many students are majoring in the humanities, whether it’s history or English or the arts. We can’t afford to have citizens who have big, giant holes in their knowledge about what it means to be a productive citizen of our democracy. These ‘human’ skills are essential for future citizens and workers.”

Favorite parts about CU Boulder

“My office used to be in Norlin Library, and I have loved libraries since I was kid. So being in Norlin, I could always go find any book I needed and start reading," he said. 

Keasley has also enjoyed being able to engage in the humanities and the arts on campus. “I was able to perform on the Mary Rippon Stage and engage with my friends in the history department and the School of Education. At one time my office was also located in the area of biological sciences. I have really enjoyed being able to engage in the life of the mind and the pursuit of the humanities. That is what has been the most joyous for me.”