College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

UM Sociologist Willa Johnson Receives IHL Excellence in Diversity Awards

Professors lauded at ceremonies in Jackson

FEBRUARY 21, 2017 BY EDWIN SMITH

Willa Johnson (center), UM associate professor of sociology, receives the IHL Excellence in Diversity Award. She is congratulated by (from left) IHL trustee Shane Hooper and Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter. Submitted photo

Willa Johnson (center), UM associate professor of sociology, receives the IHL Excellence in Diversity Award. She is congratulated by (from left) IHL trustee Shane Hooper and Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter. Submitted photo

Faculty members at the University of Mississippi and the university’s Medical Center have been honored with diversity awards by the Mississippi Board of Trustees of the State Institutions of Higher Learning.

Willa Johnson, associate professor of sociology, and Hamed Benghuzzi, professor and chair of clinical health sciences, were recognized at the IHL’s Excellence in Diversity Awards ceremony Feb. 16 in Jackson. Each was presented a plaque by Shane Hooper, IHL trustee and chair of the Diversity Committee.

“Dr. Johnson and Dr. Benghuzzi make a profound difference on the students at the University of Mississippi and the University of Mississippi Medical Center,” Hooper said. “They are committed to ensuring that all students are welcomed and provided every opportunity to succeed. Their dedication creates a better campus climate for all students, faculty and visitors.”

Both Johnson and Benghuzzi said they were humbled by their recognitions.

“I was surprised by the news,” Johnson said. “It is a wonderful honor. None of what has been done would be possible without the stalwart support of my department chair, Dr. Kirsten Dellinger, and my friends and colleagues in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, who are always willing to do whatever they can to further the work of awareness and learning about diversity and inclusion.”

“I was extremely surprised and had no idea who nominated me,” Benghuzzi said. “I am so humbled and thankful to all who nominated me and to the UMMC leadership for allowing me to be part of a team that promotes diversity and inclusion.”

Each IHL member institution, as well as UMMC and Mississippi State University Division of Agricultural, Forestry and Veterinary Medicine, submitted one nomination for consideration to the board of trustees Diversity Committee. Nominees were evaluated based on positive contributions to the campus and the state and advancing diversity among their respective institutions.

Johnson serves on the Chancellor’s Committee on the Status of Women and in other university capacities. However, she considers her diversity-related work as a natural extension of her research and teaching.

She teaches courses on Judaism, the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, disability, racism and religion, and also mentors students and faculty on the UM campus and at other universities. She utilizes every opportunity to champion equality and equal rights.

“In other words, this is not a ‘me’ award; it is a campuswide award,” Johnson said. “We live in a space that has a painful racial history, but as folks who have inherited that history we are focused on making a positive difference in the state of Mississippi.

“I simply try to cobble together different groups of campus partners and outside funders to work on issues of mutual concern.”

Benghuzzi’s achievements in diversity include serving as adviser to more than 40 Ph.D. students, a mentor to Jackson-area high school students in UMMC’s Base Pair program and a mentor for Jackson State University’s Bridges to the Baccalaureate program. He also was a mentor for a National Science Foundation-funded biomedical science program for minority high school students.

“I have always believed diversity constitutes strength in the academic setting,” Benghuzzi said. “I have received many national and state awards throughout my career, but this award is most meaningful because I was nominated by people who believe I have demonstrated that all people, regardless of their social status, gender, race or religion, should be treated equally.”

The Board of Trustees voted unanimously to name the Community Service Award in memory of trustee Karen Cummins in recognition that Cummins’ life epitomized what the award is all about: helping to improve Mississippi’s communities with a welcoming and inclusive spirit. Cummins was appointed to the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning in 2012 by Gov. Phil Bryant and served with commitment and dedication until her recent death.

Johnson was nominated by Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter and Don Cole, assistant to the chancellor for multicultural affairs and associate professor of mathematics. Benghuzzi was nominated by Ralph Didlake, UMMC associate vice chancellor for academic affairs, and LouAnn Woodward, UMMC vice chancellor for health affairs.

For more information on diversity and inclusion efforts at UM, go to http://diversity.olemiss.edu/. For more information about the IHL, contact Caron Blanton at cblanton@mississippi.edu.