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Turner infuses power of hope into work in diversity and inclusion

William Turner is working to find avenues for Lipscomb to better serve the institution’s increasingly diverse student body as a member of the university's senior leadership team.

Kim Chaudoin  | 

William Turner standing along rail in the Ezell Center

William Turner, special counsel to the president for diversity and inclusion

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories about those leading the way in growing and serving the diversity of the Lipscomb community. 

William Turner believes strongly in the power of hope and hopefulness. 

When hope and the ability to aspire to something intersect it can be powerful. It is a phenomenon to which Turner has devoted countless hours as he seeks to understand how to promote and advance a sense of hopefulness in people’s lives and provide opportunities that encourage a realistic hope that life can be better. 

It is a philosophy that he infuses in his work as special counsel to the president for diversity and inclusion as a member of Lipscomb University’s senior leadership team. 

Turner, who is also a distinguished professor of leadership and public policy in the College of Leadership & Public Service, is working to find avenues for Lipscomb to better serve the institution’s increasingly diverse student body while working to grow diversity in other aspects of the institution.

“My role is to ascertain overall cultural awareness on campus and how the university community as a whole is doing as a place that is welcoming and engaging of the rich diversity that comprises our student body and promote strategies for doing that better,” says Turner. “Among my major responsibilities is to advise the president, senior leadership and the board on ways the institution can have a greater impact in not only at Lipscomb but also the Nashville community and the academy nationally.”

Turner also advises the administration on strategies for increasing and promoting the number of faculty of color coming to the university and to think about ways the community can become more intentionally responsive to the increasing number of diverse faculty, staff and students. He is also co-chair and architect of the university’s Respect Leads initiative to nurture the on-campus culture of respect, leading everyone to continued unity even in times of conflict through thought-provoking on-campus events, incorporating activities designed to build empathy into curriculum and extra-curricular programming; spurring conversations on campus and practicing dealing with difficult moments in a respectful and forgiving manner.

“I love the idea of respect being the descriptor of what we are really trying to do at Lipscomb,” he admits. “I think all of the work that we really are trying to do in diversity and inclusion centers around this idea of respect. People want to feel like they belong. They want to feel like they’re included. They want to feel like they are a respected part of the institution. This is one of the initiatives that I hope to advance further in the near future.”

Getting a measure of the campus climate is another project Turner will be working on this fall for university leadership. As part of a campus climate audit, Turner and a team of researchers will have conversations with faculty, staff and students about their views of the university through a variety of perspectives including diversity and inclusion. 

I love the idea of respect being the descriptor of what we are really trying to do at Lipscomb,” he admits. “I think all of the work that we really are trying to do in diversity and inclusion centers around this idea of respect. — William Turner, special counsel to the president for diversity and inclusion

Preparing students to be global citizens

In addition to impacting cultural awareness on campus, Turner also wants to make sure students are prepared by the time they graduate to be good citizens in the global world around them. 

“All of our students need to have a cultural awareness as well as a knowledge and experience that is diverse and inclusive,” says Turner. “One of the things I’m excited about in terms of the university moving forward is that Lipscomb is in a great location, not only geographically but also spiritually if you will. We are a Christian university in the Bible belt in a city that is diverse, and we have the ability to model to other Christian universities as well as to other colleges and universities not only how to get along but to do so with a kind of intentionality and authenticity because of that spiritual component being there.”

For such a time as this

Turner has been very intentional about following a pathway that has led him to Lipscomb for such a time as this. He began his educational journey with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but a conversation with a leader at the Brooks Avenue Church of Christ in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he attended, influenced his life plans and sent him to Abilene Christian University for his Master in Marriage and Family Therapy degree.

He began his career as a clinical therapist, but quickly his interest in the science behind the clinical techniques he used led him to pursue research, a decision that changed the trajectory of his career. After graduating from ACU, he enrolled at Virginia Tech University and earned his Ph.D. in human development with an emphasis in marital and family therapy. He joined the faculty as an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky and was successful in obtaining grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. He was quickly promoted to full professor with tenure at UK. That led to a tenured full professorship at the University of Minnesota, one of the top family therapy programs in the nation.

At Minnesota, Turner became involved in collaborative efforts with the university’s public policy center, the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and that involvement resulted in a personal revelation about his research. Acting on his desire to directly impact vulnerable families, Turner applied for a Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Fellowship, a highly prestigious fellowship in health care, usually reserved for physicians, Turner says.

Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy fellows receive six months of training on health care policy at a national level at The National Academy of Medicine, a division of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Washington, D.C. After six months, fellows are then placed to work in a U.S. senatorial or congressional office involved in health care policy for at least a year.
 

William Turner sitting at table talking.

William Turner focuses his research on the power of hope.

He applied to five congressional offices and chose then-Senator Obama, who in 2007 was just starting his presidential campaign. Turner resonated strongly with Senator Obama’s scientific, evidence-based approach to crafting his legislation, he said.

“I really wanted to find a way to translate the work that I do into meaningful policies that can have a much broader effect on real-world communities and organizations,” he said. “I think legislation and policy need to be based on good science…not merely on polls.”

Turner worked side-by-side with Obama’s chief legislative advisor, Dr. Dora Hughes, for a year-and-a-half to craft bills regarding Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, food safety and autism treatment, as well as several key re-authorization bills. He also helped coordinate the initial Senate hearings that contributed to the development of the bill that eventually became the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

“That legislation started with a white paper by Obama’s chief health advisor at the time. Based on this white paper, we started holding hearings in the Senate, and I was there to help organize, arrange and brief those who attended those hearings,” Turner recalls. “Major entities engaged in the nation’s health care participated in these hearings, from physicians to insurance industry officials.

“We took all the information we gleaned from those meetings and distilled it down to compromises and language that we could use in the bill. We had to decide what parts had insurmountable opposition… It was like trying to move mountains at times!”

Working in Senator Obama’s office during his presidential campaign “gave me access to things that no other fellow ever had,” Turner says. “I am still the only Robert Wood Johnson Fellow in its more than 40-year history to work for someone who eventually became President.”
 

I get really excited about this because I think of this as being really meaningful research. It has the potential of helping people where they live. I think this research will shed some real light on and, I hope, provide some hope to people in ways that really makes an impact.
— William Turner, special counsel to the president for diversity and inclusion

When Obama was elected, rather than working for the presidential administration, Turner’s heart called him back to academia. He returned to the University of Minnesota and in 2009 moved to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, as a professor and endowed chair, where he taught health policy classes and developed a research program called the HOPE Center, a working group he calls a “translational research center” that does research on hopefulness in low-income and minority communities and determines the best ways to programmatically enhance hopefulness in similar communities.

In Nashville, his involvement as an elder at Schrader Lane Church of Christ and his wife Rietta’s (Ed.D. ’14) enrollment in Lipscomb’s education doctorate program, introduced him to Lipscomb and its spiritually integrative educational focus, an approach he found appealing.

“Spirituality is an important part of who I am and what I do… I found myself at a point in my life and career where I wanted to more overtly express and integrate spirituality in my work and more overtly assert values and themes that reflect spiritual concepts,” he reflects. “I believe that Lipscomb provides an environment where I can more fully realize this goal.”

The impact of hope

While much of Turner’s time is devoted to his work with diversity and inclusion, his research on hope and hopefulness is never far from his heart. 

“I am very interested in how hope, hopefulness and hopelessness impacts the lives of families,” he says. “I was particularly drawn to this research because much of the existing research looked at middle and upper class people and how it impacted them. But it’s a different situation for those who don’t have the economic, social and psychological resources that the middle and upper classes have. So I have been particularly interested in how people who are in more desperate circumstances experience this idea of hope and hopefulness … And some of the most hopeful people we know, people who have gone on to be very successful, come from those environments. So what is it that makes that happen?”

Turner has also developed an interested in ACEs — Adverse Childhood Experiences, a focus in Tennessee to bring academics into looking at these issues. He has examined the intersection of hope and adverse childhood experiences as part of his research in this area. 

“I’ve looked at people who experienced terrible adversities in their childhood — different traumas whether it was from adverse poverty, abuse of some sort, neglect of some sort or whether it was living in a community that felt unsafe or whatever it may have been — but then were able to move away from that and move into a situation of hope,” explains Turner. “That’s where my research is at the moment.”

Currently, Turner says he is working on securing grants to fund various aspects of this research project. He also is in the midst of a book project on his findings that is scheduled to be released later this year. This fall, Turner will share his findings as part of a freshman experience class at Lipscomb that he will be teaching. 

“I get really excited about this because I think of this as being really meaningful research,” he admits. “It has the potential of helping people where they live. I think this research will shed some real light on and I hope provide some hope to people in ways that really make an impact.” 

Want to know more? Contact Turner at william.turner@lipscomb.edu

— Photos by Kristi Jones