Diversity Champion: Dr. Lee June

February 12, 2024 - Emily Jodway

Lee June looks directly at the camera. There is a graphic of a trophy taped to the photo in the cornerLee June’s impact at Michigan State and for the College of Social Science has spanned over 50 years, through roles held in the counseling center, academic student services, student affairs, and in the provost’s office as a senior advisor for racial, ethnic and cultural issues. His wealth of knowledge and experience continues to enlighten students across campus through his classes in the psychology department, African American Studies Program and Honors College. His dedicated work has been recognized through several awards, including the Michigan State University Distinguished Black Alumni Award and the Michigan State University All Diversity Lifetime Achievement Award. His upbringing and experiences have directly influenced his actions and teaching style to this day. He is the perfect example of a Diversity Champion. 

Born in South Carolina, before Brown v. Board of Education and the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, June’s options for higher education were limited as a Black man, and he chose to pursue a degree at the historically black Tuskegee University in Alabama. This decision was the first of many that led him toward the path he is on to this day. He explained that during this historic time of racial strife, in which policies and attitudes were slowly changing, historically black schools were preparing Black individuals to pursue opportunities as they opened up to all races. There were demonstrations and marches with hundreds of people coming together to advocate for equality, and June had the opportunity to participate in several of these, including the Selma to Montgomery march and hearing several speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other justice seekers. 

“Joining the march, hearing Dr. King speak ... being involved in that kind of an atmosphere were all motivating factors for me to continue in higher education and commit myself as best as I could to social justice issues, and they served as motivators to propel me to continue to do some of the work I’ve done here at Michigan State over the last 50 years,” he said. 

After receiving his undergraduate degree, June earned masters degrees in clinical psychology and rehabilitation counseling, as well as a doctorate of philosophy in clinical psychology, all from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Carrying a particular interest in the psychology of religion, June later pursued a master's degree in theology and earned a certificate in theological studies from the Interdenominational Theological Seminary in Georgia. He continues today to teach courses on the psychology of religion and spirituality.

“Growing up in the segregated south, the church was really a safe haven for African Americans,” he explained. People met in secret, including NAACP members and justice fighters like King himself, to organize demonstrations and discuss their wishes for a brighter future. “If you look at the Black community in particular, the church and religion have been powerful forces and factors in bringing about social change in America,” June said. 

June’s decision to come to Michigan State again hinged on the idea of living and working in a place that was committed to diversity and social change. He describes his arrival on campus in the 1970s as a time of great student activism, which he eagerly became involved in. 

“I felt I needed to come to an environment where I could contribute, but at the same time, be mentored,” he said. “And I was impressed with the time Michigan State was contributing to diversity. There was just a general feeling around campus that people were trying to improve things. They were making sure there would be programs and services implemented that would serve the needs of all students.” 

June also felt particularly drawn to MSU because while it was, and is, a predominately white institution, its president, Clifton Wharton, was a Black man, and the first African-American president of a major US university. There were already other faculty members of color as well, which encouraged June. He quickly found his footing working in the counseling center, at one time serving as its director, and helping to implement several programs to advance diversity for minorities as well as disabled students. 

Back then, concepts like diversity, equity and inclusion offices didn’t exist. “We weren’t using those terms,” June explained. It’s as a result of fighting for social change and new legislation, including large groups like the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement, that these programs have emerged, and when all groups are supported, everyone reaps the rewards. “When you serve the underserved, it benefits everybody,” June added. “You improve the entire environment as a result of these movements. They’ve given people new tools for how to work with students, form programs, and make sure that service is done well.”

This idea of fighting for change has carried over to June’s teaching philosophy. He always encourages his students to strive for success academically while also being active in their community and becoming changemakers. He considers education not only an opportunity to help students learn and understand the discipline, but also to show them early on in life how they can become agents of change and commit themselves to the greater good. 

“As I review history, it’s been young people who have been some of the major change agents, and if you look at the lives of major leaders, most of them got their start at a very young age,” June explained. I try to get students early in their career to think about being what I call ‘justice fighters.’ In other words, using their academic credentials and going out into the world to see what ways you can bring about change.”

June describes Black History Month as an opportunity for reflection, renewal and recommitment. He emphasizes the importance of recognizing the decades of historic struggles endured and the shoulders on which we stand today. Black History Month must be recognized from all angles: where we were, where we are now, how we got here as well as what comes next.

“It’s a chance to reflect while also making another commitment in terms of what we need to do to move forward,” June said. “Black History Month and other recognitions have led to pushing institutions like Michigan State and others to have things like an African American Studies Program, so that there’s a chance to do things all throughout the year, not just in February.”

This recommitment element showcases the idea that our work toward equality is never truly done. Programs can still find ways to improve their practices and become even more inclusive, and it’s the responsibility of everyone working together to make this happen. 

“I often tell students, every generation has a set of issues,” he added. “I challenge students today to ask the question, what are the major challenges in 2024? Then hopefully, you can identify and develop strategies just like we did back then and try to implement them to bring about further change."