Paolo Bicchieri & Ethan Tan
Mary Wardell-Ghirarduzzi is one of those people at USF who everyone knows. Her 13 years at the Hilltop — 10 of which she served as vice provost and chief diversity officer — have been full of policy and programs that have made a significant impact.
If it was up to Wardell-Ghirarduzzi, she would simply smile and be modest about her time at the University, but Derick Brown, senior director of the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and Common Good, said she deserves some praise.
“Mary has truly been a beacon of light and a source of inspiration here at USF. She’s also been a great partner and longtime champion of the Leo T. McCarthy Center. She will be sorely missed,” Brown said.
Wardell-Ghirarduzzi joined the University of San Francisco in 2008 as associate vice president and dean of students, a role she held for three-and-a-half years. She next became the inaugural Vice Provost & Chief Diversity Officer of USF, her current role. Throughout her tenure, she has also worked as an adjunct professor in organizational behavior and leadership studies.
Now she is embarking on a new journey — she will be working at the University of the Pacific as their inaugural vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). This is a full-circle moment for Wardell-Ghirarduzzi, who received her undergraduate degree in communication from Pacific in 1989.
Dean of Students Shannon Gary, who Wardell-Ghirarduzzi described as one of her strongest allies, said, “She has been an integral part of my experience [at USF]. She has been a thought partner, an action partner, and a friend. The amount of commitment she has to this university and it’s students will be very hard to duplicate … The work that she does in diversity, equity, and inclusion comes from a deep passion for justice and humanity.”
Central to Wardell-Ghirarduzzi’s DEI work has been holding the University accountable to the Jesuit values it espouses.
“If you live the Jesuit mission today, you’re going to be doing the work of equity,” Wardell-Ghirarduzzi said. “I don’t think people talked about that when I started the work in 2011.”
In fact, the first dialogue series she hosted at the University was on the topic of what the Jesuit tradition said about equity. Her work for many years consisted of reminding faculty that, yes, supporting marginalized students was the Catholic thing to do.
Wardell-Ghirarduzzi led many efforts to bridge the gap between the discrepancies in student wellness and university procedure at USF also. One such initiative was hiring more people of color at Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), an office she oversaw, so students of color could feel a sense of solidarity with clinicians.
In 2009, she founded the Gender and Sexuality Center on the University Center 4th floor after recognizing that there was not a designated space for gender non-conforming students. “Gender non-conforming students came to me and said, ‘This is not right,’” Wardell-Ghirarduzzi said. “All great change comes from the students. That’s something I’m quite proud of to have been a part of at USF.”
Advocating for students is not always a straightforward path, however. In her position, Wardell-Ghirarduzzi has had to balance her obligations to students with her obligations to the school. Most recently, she responded to the event where a noose was discovered hanging on campus. After the noose was found, many students — most prominently, the Black Student Union — advocated for the release of the involved student’s name, which the University did not do because it would have violated federal privacy laws.
“We don’t live in an either/or world,” Wardell-Ghirarduzzi said. “Our students’ frustrations are warranted. Their suspicion of institutions are warranted. But you have to really make sure the due process is on point. Everyone is watching.”
The work she has done on an institutional level is especially meaningful to Wardell-Ghirarduzzi because it has the potential for long-term change. As a Black woman in higher education, she has witnessed and experienced the ways in which an institution can perpetuate harm and exclusion while simultaneously attempting to undo those very same things. While she said she never felt her integrity was compromised at USF, Wardell-Ghirarduzzi said she did, at times, feel that her CV and accomplishments were not regarded as highly as some of her colleagues.
“I had to learn those things really well so I could take it and hold it up as a mirror to the institution,” Wardell-Ghirarduzzi said. “That’s really what DEI work is. It’s reconciliation work that creates a sense of atonement.”
“The struggle for my own liberation as a Black woman in higher education, even at USF, was tied into the actual work I was doing on behalf of the institution. This work of equity and inclusion is really about freedom and liberation,” she said.
Wardell-Ghirarduzzi’s DEI journey began in Stockton, California, where she grew up. As a kid, she read Ebony and Jet Magazine, publications that focused on the lives of Black Americans. After her older sisters had read the magazines, she got to leaf through the glossy pages showcasing people who looked like her and her family.
“I looked up to an array of Black people who were in entertainment, sports, politics,” Wardell-Ghirarduzzi said. “I was enamored with Black excellence.”
Wardell-Ghirarduzzi was also the first member of her family born after 1965 when the landmark Civil Rights Act was passed.
“I’m the first generation of my family to be able to enjoy civil rights,” she said. “It’s incredible just to think about that.”
Now, in 2021, Wardell-Ghirarduzzi said she hopes to have contributed to a “critical mass” of students who will continue to push for recognition and representation at USF. She noted how, despite there still being a long way to go at the University, there has been an “increase in students of color across all racial and ethnicized constructs.”
“You can’t ignore the people of color anymore,” she said. “If my contribution has been to build the campus’ capacities to have more of those voices, and those folks are making more demands, then I feel I was a part of the movement for liberation.”
If there was anything she would have liked to do better, though, it would have been focusing more on Native American students.
“I don’t think we’ve seen that shift at all,” Wardell-Ghirarduzzi sighed. “It hasn’t [shifted] because we haven’t hired any indigenous Native American faculty. That’s an area for significant growth.”
Wardell-Ghirarduzzi also noted how the president’s cabinet did not look diverse until 2020. “It took a long time to get to that place,” she said. “Why did it take so long? That’s a question USF should ponder upon.”
Wardell-Ghirarduzzi’s role models inspire her to ask these kinds of questions. She said she looks up to Johnetta Cole of Spelman College, the author Beverly Tatum who wrote “Why Are the Black Kids Sitting in the Cafeteria?,” as well as Prairie View A&M president Ruth Simmons and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta. She is also constantly inspired by the young people around her.
“I find a lot of inspiration in the 20-something and 30-something group. They are more assertive and more direct in a different kind of way,” she said.
As Wardell-Ghirarduzzi moves on to a new campus full of young people to work with and for, USF will feel her loss. Double don student Kelly Crutchett, who graduated with a bachelor’s in international studies and is now pursuing her master’s in the same department, said in a message that Wardell-Ghirarduzzi has done a lot to strengthen the University’s community engagement.
“She’s put USF’s Jesuit values into action,” Crutchett said. “And will be greatly missed.”
Camille Angel, USF’s sitting rabbi, said Wardell-Ghirarduzzi’s departure will leave “quite a void.”
“Articulating her ambitious vision for a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive campus, she has contributed her whole self to this project and we are the better for her efforts,” Angel added.
Angel described an event where Wardell-Ghirarduzzi took the mic and said to new students, “We have been waiting for you and we are so glad you are here now. You’re exactly who we were hoping for. You are loved here.”
“I recall exhaling and relaxing my shoulders, softening my brow, and easing into a sense of comfort,” Angel said. “Thank you Mary, for being you.”
Wardell-Ghirarduzzi’s final day at USF will be June 25.
Paolo Bicchieri is a graduate International Studies student. He is a staff writer at the Foghorn. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @paoloshmaolo.
Ethan Tan is a junior politics major and the Foghorn’s News Editor. He covers the University’s administration and campus labor unions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @tanethans.