Michael Tapscott, who has served George Washington University as director of the Multicultural Student Services Center (MSSC) since 2003, has announced his retirement. His last day will be June 30.
As MSSC director, Tapscott has overseen the creation and implementation of many GW traditions such as the cultural heritage celebrations, Martin Luther King Jr. week activities, the back-to-school block party, the MSSC graduation celebration and the MSSC Thanksgiving dinner.
“I loved this job,” Tapscott said. “It felt like an extension of my own home and family.”
In his 45 years as an administrator in higher education at GW and other colleges or universities, Tapscott has been recognized as Employee of the Year at one institution, First Runner Up Administrator of the Year at another and served as president of the Virginia Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
“Many members of our community, and especially our students, have benefited from Mike's unwavering support, genuine kindness, and wise mentorship and leadership during his distinguished career," President Mark S. Wrighton said. "He leaves an incredible legacy. Through the Multicultural Student Services Center, he has been a resource for all—helping students not only feel welcome but also truly seen, heard and included. We are a stronger community and better university thanks to Mike."
At GW, his accolades include the 2006 Student Association Distinguished Service Award; the 2008 Black Student Union Architect of the Community Award; the 2010 Departmental Service Excellence Award; the 2011 Black Student Union Lifetime Achievement Award; the 2016 Black Student Union Administrator of the Year Award; and the 2019 Black Student Union Each One Teach One Award. In addition, the Black Student Union named an annual award named after him—the Michael R Tapscott Leadership Award.
Tapscott talked with GW Today about his time as director of MSSC, his legacy after almost two decades in the position and offered words of advice for the GW community.
Q: Please talk a little about why the MSSC and the job of director is important?
A: Multicultural centers have to be able to function with a kind of duality in their daily functions. It requires a sense of introspection around one's dominant, often racial, identity.
The job calls for building a sense of welcome and belonging for everyone, yet, it also requires the capacity to close ranks around a number of ideologies. As a Black man working at a predominantly white institution, the anticipation is that my bias would lean heavily toward the Black community. Frankly speaking, it did. However, I worked hard to be clear about that bias and the value of my constant work in celebrating Black culture and people. That understanding and awareness helped me serve and support other identities with higher levels of curiosity, willingness and interest because the unique aspects of those communities made more sense to me. Many of our communities have so much in common; celebrating those commonalities is the foundation of community building.
We help remind people what it's like to be Black, Latino or South Asian, Asian Pacific Islander, Indigenous, LTBTQ+, or religiously centered. That's a big part of what we've tried to do—give people the tools to be their best when engaging people who are different from them.
It sounds like a cliche, but serving as director of the MSSC is more than a job. It's a role, a daily presence you have to maintain by greeting every student you recognize. I thought it was important to be in the affirmation business regarding students in particular. A critical part of the job is building welcomeness and community and ensuring students feel connected. That's a large part of what makes this job different.
We must focus on identity development for underrepresented students--racial minority students, LGBTQ students and students of different faiths. We work to ensure that people feel that GW is as well equipped as it can be to provide support resources, affirmation and a sense of welcome and belonging. If we don't do that, we could have students who lose interest in the institution and lose the lifelong relationship we want to build down the road.
Q: What about your legacy over almost two decades in the job?
A: When I hear students, faculty or staff share the philosophy or ideology regarding how we treat people, I feel like I've done something special here.
I was blessed with the opportunity to attend a Quaker high school, Sidwell Friends. One of the basic premises of the Quaker religion or the Quaker faith is the expectation that each of us "seek the inner light of God (good)" in others, the fundamental belief that everyone has the capacity for good. Looking for the good in others, I think, elevates people. For example, when you approach a Black or brown man with the expectation that he is wonderful and good and capable, the chemistry inside you changes as you greet him and frames the interaction, I believe.
I've always encouraged folks to seek the inner light of good in others. So when I hear those thoughts repeated in the GW community, I feel like that is a powerful thing. It makes me feel pretty good about my influence on campus.
I've often shared this "enthusiasm pledge," a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson that I modified for use as an affirmation back in 1990. I can't tell you how many students will say, "Mr. T, good to see you. Enthusiasm!" (Thank you, Carolina!) You know, that's uplifting.
I guess the last thing would be that I've always tried to be kind. I've long used the expression "Kindness Always Wins." I got that from my mom, Phyllis. So when we look at policy, we look at a process or kids who are struggling. When we engage the kids who are succeeding. Kindness drives everything we do, and I've tried to express that to everyone I encounter.
"Mike Tapscott is a force of nature who has enhanced the lives of countless students over so many years at GW. Our community will miss his enthusiasm, relational spirit, knack for creating a home-away-from-home for students, and most importantly, we will miss the love that he brings to each event, each encounter and to every person. His colleagues in the Office for Diversity Equity and Community Engagement are so grateful for Mike's wisdom, storytelling, laughter, and the way he inspires us all to find ‘the light in others.’
"We look forward to celebrating Mike's extraordinary contributions at a celebration this fall that will allow us to include all of the faculty, staff, students, and alumni who want to thank him and wish him well."
Vice provost for diversity, equity and community engagement
Q: What work still needs to be done around multicultural student services at GW?
A We must continue preparing for community building for all our students. We must accept and understand that we have students, young people, who come from every state and from countries worldwide. They arrive here with values and perspectives about race and difference fed by both positive and negative impressions of others. We must work harder to ensure that every one of those young people develops a philosophy about diversity that reflects our values as an institution. We need more comprehensive training and expansive assessment of student attitudes and behaviors around race.
And we need aggressive but not punitive intervention when things happen, particularly around race and difference. We have to create opportunities to have guided dialogue more often and encourage students to engage or protest with specific outcomes in mind.
We do a lot of things very well here, and we see the institution taking significant steps to move in a very positive direction. But we must recognize that everybody is not moving with us at the same speed. People are human, and we all make mistakes. We need to find a better way to redirect those behaviors and anticipate those who might need additional guidance. All too often, when we make a little progress, a discovery pushes us a couple of steps backward.
One of the more significant problems I hear is that many people do not realize the impact of their behaviors or their power and privilege. When a professor reads from a text that includes the n, r or f -word, or a professor challenges a student's disability, for example, those interactions damage the faith in our institution, our leadership and our diversity ideology for the individual student. For everyone on the receiving end, that behavior screams the belief that something similar could happen to me. When these incidents occur here, they become very public and the attention drags us backward.
If there's anything that we could do as an institution, figuring out a way to minimalize these types of interactions would be a priority.
Q: What message would you like to leave for the GW community?
A: Our young people have gone through a lot with the COVID pandemic and the mass shootings at schools and other public places. This generation has had to deal with some very challenging things. However, I still encourage students to realize that they are responsible for their outcomes. Never wait for somebody else to help improve your life. You can do so much on your own and find allies when you're struggling. Keep protesting. It is essential to make your voice heard but ensure that the outcomes you produce are consistent with the goals that you seek. Our young people are strong and have everything it takes to make change and make it happen in a way that calls people in and not out.
One of the things I love about higher ed is that everything we do has an outcome. So, for faculty, when you greet your classroom, what is the outcome you expect from that interaction? Do you want to promote diversity and inclusion? How will you do that? And how will you ensure that every student in your classroom feels affirmed like they belong? That relationship is precious, and every student deserves an experience.
That's really important, and it is something we have to address as an institution. Enthusiasm is one of the most powerful engines of success. Seek the inner light in others. Kindness always wins.
You can help support the work of the Multicultural Student Services Center by making a gift in honor of Michael Tapscott.