Edney Works to Widen the Ladder of Opportunity for All

Published 11:32 am Thursday, March 3, 2022

OXFORD, Miss. – Norris Allen “EJ” Edney’s grandfather was a proud Tougaloo College graduate and outsized figure on the Alcorn State University campus, so when Edney enrolled in the University of Mississippi, he knew he was taking a big chance.

Now he’s the university’s assistant vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion and a valuable member of the campus community.

As an ambitious young Mississippian, Edney was being recruited into high-touch, small-cohort programs at UM. His family was still wary of the university’s treatment of Black students, whether he went to Alcorn or not.

“It bothered me that I had this experience of coming to college, which I’d hoped would to lead to a unanimous sense of pride in my family, instead created a tension and reticence in my family,” Edney said. “It didn’t square with the way I was recruited and it didn’t square with the high-touch programs I was in.

“But it bothered me even more when I got to campus and that tension was here as well.”

Donald Cole, retired Ole Miss student, educator and administrator, was longtime friends with Edney’s grandfather, and has followed Edney’s time as a student and staff member on campus.

“By all means, EJ should have gone to a different school – he broke rank with his family, “Cole said. “But, he loves this institution and he’s studied this institution. He knows the shortcomings and he knows the strengths and he’s an individual that can bring people together.”

So Edney spent his time as a student searching for ways to include people of more backgrounds, experiences and abilities in the Ole Miss community. While pursuing his master’s in higher education and student personnel, he participated in creating the university’s Center for Inclusion and Cross Cultural Engagement.

As an undergraduate, Edney was a biology major with plans for medical school, but he began to envision a future as a leader in increasing diversity, equity and inclusion on campus. So, he decided to pursue a future in DEI instead of medicine.

In 2019, he finished his doctorate in higher education as was named director of the very center he helped establish, a position he had come to consider his dream job.

Edney stayed after graduation and continued to work for change, not because he fell in love with his role, but because he fell in love with the university.

“I fell in love with this field because of this place,” he said. “I think that gives me a unique perspective because when I sit in spaces on campus, work with students to get connected or even write grants, I don’t just imagine myself in that student’s position, I can feel myself in their situation.”

Having attained his dream job and more, Edney hopes to create an environment where all students have that same opportunity.

“I think about my role as one that is seeking for us to more fully actualize our mission as the public flagship institution of Mississippi,” Edney said. “If we are to accept, frame and think about education as the great equalizer – the ladder of opportunity – then as a public institution, it’s our job to make sure that as many students as possible have an opportunity to climb that ladder and not get in the way of making that their reality.”

He’s served in many roles at UM, including program coordinator for the Luckyday Scholarship Success Program and as a coordinator for National Pan-Hellenic Council before joining the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, and in those roles he’s built and grown initiatives to keep students on track to graduation and facilitated a series of difficult public conversations on campus during trying times.

Edney has made outstanding contributions in increasing access to the university, said Shawnboda Mead, vice chancellor for diversity and community engagement.

“He is an incredibly valuable member of our team and has played an integral role in the growth of the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement,” Mead said. “His promotion is a reflection of many years of hard work and his deep commitment to making the University of Mississippi a welcoming campus for all.”