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Ethridge remembered for commitment to equity, inclusion

Robert W. Ethridge, who served Emory for more than 25 years as leader of Equal Opportunity Programs, was remembered in a memorial service May 24 at the university's Cannon Chapel. Emory Photo/Video

Robert W. Ethridge, who served Emory for more than 25 years as an advocate for equity and inclusion, passed away May 18, 2017, at age 76. He was remembered in a memorial service May 24 at the university's Cannon Chapel.

Ethridge joined Emory in 1981 as director of Equal Opportunity Programs, a division created just three years earlier to keep the workplace safe from discrimination and to promote a more diverse and communal campus.

Known for his even-tempered approachability, Ethridge grew the office from four employees to 12 and was promoted first to assistant vice president, then to vice president for Equal Opportunity Programs in 2005. He retired in 2008.

Speaking at the memorial service, Emory President Emeritus James T. Laney, who led the university from 1977 to 1993, recalled how when Ethridge arrived on campus, "he immediately calmed the troubled waters."

"That was his way," Laney said. "He had that special spirit of determination and a sense of justice that was not going to be stopped, but he also had that warm heart and goodness of soul that made it possible to bring that about in a university that sometimes was resistant to what he was trying to do."

Laney described how he came to depend on Ethridge "enormously" through the 12 years that they worked together.

"The Emory that we have today owes an incalculable debt to Bob Ethridge," he said. "For its diversity, its inclusion, its sense of justice and the fact that fairness is woven into the heart of the university — Bob Ethridge was the one who helped bring that about."

Born in Monroe, Michigan, Ethridge received his undergraduate degree in English from Western Michigan University and served as a teacher in the Detroit public schools. He later returned to WMU as an employee, putting in place the university's affirmative action plan while earning a master's degree in Spanish from WMU in 1970 and then a PhD in education administration and supervision from the University of Michigan in 1979.

He moved to Atlanta with his family in 1981, joining the Emory administration and leading the growth of the Equal Opportunity Programs. Here, he made his mark as a skilled administrator known for his calm, measured demeanor even as his office handled difficult topics related to diversity and discrimination. 

“Revolutions tend to generate what I call counter-revolutions,” Ethridge explained in a profile by Emory Report in 2003. “You turn everything upside down and take over, but what happens is the people who are revolutionaries generally aren’t very good managers. My goal is to have people try and understand what we’re trying to do, embrace it, then do it without us having to serve as the police.”

John Ford, Emory's senior vice president and dean of Campus Life from 2001 to 2012, spoke at the memorial service about how Ethridge was one of the first people to reach out to him when he joined the university, "and we bonded instantly." 

"Bob was incredibly responsible, intelligent and caring," Ford said. "He was also sharp, meticulous in his appearance and visible in his expressions of good will. I knew that I could trust him with anything, and I respected him a lot for that."  

Equal Opportunity Programs became part of Emory's Office of Equity and Inclusion in 2014, and the foundation that Ethridge laid continues to impact the university, says Lynell Cadray, vice provost for the Office of Equity and Inclusion and university Title IX coordinator.

"Dr. Ethridge was an icon and civil rights activist who helped to shape Emory into the university it is today. His legacy lives on through the policies and practices he instilled in our community," Cadray told Emory Report.

"He represented the highest levels of integrity, kindness and compassion as he dealt with some very sensitive issues and topics. He was always gracious in dealing with others and was highly respected," she noted. "We continue to do his important work — and I think of him often as we struggle today with some of the very same issues he struggled with some 20 years ago." 

Ethridge brought the same integrity and leadership to his extensive work with community and professional organizations focused on inclusion and diversity.

He served four terms as president of the American Association for Affirmative Action, now known as the American Association for Access, Equity and Diversity, and served on the education committee for 100 Black Men of DeKalb County.

His community involvement also included service with a variety of organizations and planning committees, including Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Greater Atlanta United Way, Atlanta Regional Minority Purchasing Council, the American Contract Compliance Association (including chairing the board of directors from 1886 to 1991) and more.

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