Leadership Journeys: LSU’s Kenya LeNoir Messer

While “diversity” has become a common term, it often has a fairly narrow definition, focusing only on the racial or gender mix of a group of people. For Kenya LeNoir Messer, working as first associate vice provost for diversity and academic affairs at Louisiana State University, the term diversity means so much more, culminating in the idea of access — to ideas, to spaces, to opportunities.

Her background of working at private institutions of higher learning, including a historically black university, as well as living abroad have given her a rich perspective on the meaning of diversity and how it might look at LSU. “The intent of a land-grant institution is to take some space and give people an opportunity, and that’s critically important,” she says. “For a state like Louisiana and all the resources we have here, our university isn’t only a brain trust but a heartbeat.”

We spoke with her recently about the mission of land-grant institutions in today’s world and how her approach to leadership and diversity helps support that mission.

Upholding the Land-Grant Mission

Messer is a big proponent of the land-grant model — which, under the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890, was meant to emphasize instruction in science, agriculture, engineering and other practical arts for the public. But that mission didn’t always extend to the whole public;. some people were obviously left out based on race, class or other issues. “For me, now that the focus is access for all, that can be a challenge,” she says. “What does ‘all’ look like, and what should that access look like?”

Continuing innovation is also critically important, especially being innovative in a way that people can access it, she says. “Resources are also huge — not just human and financial, but space and other pieces. Being collaborative and interdisciplinary in nature is a challenge. Higher education can be very siloed.”

The idea of diversity is broad as well, she says. “It’s not only what we look like and where we come from, but also how we think. The world is interdisciplinary. For us to continue to remain a viable entity, we’ve got to be collaborative in our approach. What does diversity mean when you think about access and communities where people can have transformative experiences and thrive?”

Leading Through Service

Messer says her idea of the role of a land-grant institution is similar to her view on leadership in general: service. “I think of leadership as an awesome responsibility,” she says. “I tend to approach it from a notion of service; it’s important to serve as a leader.” Her role, she says, is to develop and facilitate an organization’s strategy and processes to reach goals — but in doing so, she also supports and serves the populations she works for and the people she works with.

As a result, she says, leadership is synonymous with caring. “It’s important to care about what you do, where you do it, who you do it for and why you do it,” she says. “That ethic of care permeates every decision that’s made — that’s the glue that holds it together.” As a result, she says she never wants to be in a position to ask someone do so something she wouldn’t do or hasn’t done. “It’s one thing to say we’re going in a certain direction together, and another to live it,” she says.

Authenticity Through Approachability

Messer says she was pressed into leadership at a fairly young age and has had to work against preconceptions throughout her career. “There’s a perception that the older you are, the more you know, and I run into a challenge around that,” she says, noting that this issue has been compounded by her being a woman and a woman of color. “I didn’t perceive it as a challenge but an opportunity to find a place at the table, and while there were obstacles to get security and strength in my own voice, now I’m at the table or I bring the table or create the table.”

She recommends that leaders not take themselves too seriously. “You’re a leader because people recognize that you’re smart and you know what you’re doing, but you need to remain authentic and approachable.” She says her faith helps keep her grounded. “That’s one of the true signs of really effective leadership — you’re approachable and not afraid to make yourself available.”

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