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In October 2016, the University of Michigan launched its five-year Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan — an extensive initiative designed to promote a more diverse and inclusive campus through increasing staff diversity, retention of underprivileged students and the assurance of equal compensation for all races, genders and identities.
The overall plan comprises 49 unit plans created by all schools, colleges and departments at the University. Two student panels, consisting of 25 undergraduate and graduate students each, convene every month to discuss new strategies and ideas with DEI leaders.
Though the plan was created to foster both long- and short-term change on campus, the first year of DEI has left many on campus eager for more immediate action. Replete with racist incidents — ranging from posters promoting white supremacy to racial slurs written on students' dorm room doors — the past year has weighed heavily upon both administrators and minority students.
Diversity Peer Educators
As part of the DEI plan, student diversity peer educators strive to create a community inclusive of all identities by hosting educational events, serving as social justice educators and advising their specific community’s multicultural council.
LSA senior Jad Elharake, a diversity peer educator for West Quad Residence Hall, has been working over the past nine months to add Middle Eastern/North African as an ethnicity option on all official University documents. In an email interview, he expressed disappointment in the University for dealing with race issues through traditional identity binaries, especially in the historical context of the Arab communities’ presence on campus.
“I know that historically when efforts (target) this same issue, our needs are not prioritized and commonly fall victim to binary views of race and identity,” he wrote. “Lack of institutional memory, documentation, and recognition regarding the past mobilization of our community and our historical presence on campus only further the severity of the issue and disempower the Arab community.”
He further emphasized the importance of the University recognizing the ME/NA community in connection with achieving the goals delineated within the DEI plan.
“For the University, the ability to ascertain who identifies with the ME/NA community is a necessary step in developing programs and interventions to address any disparities and to achieve the DEI goals,” he wrote. “Knowing that we live in a state with the largest concentration of ME/NA individuals outside of the Middle East, we have a regional responsibility to implement the ME/NA racial category to support the large population of students.”
In a September interview with the Daily, Elharake expressed optimism regarding new University Provost Martin Philbert’s hire in terms of implementing DEI initiatives across campus. He also noted Philbert had been receptive of Elharake’s ideas in precursory meetings.
“I think it’s a critical time here for Michigan, especially politically, globally and I’m just looking forward to the role that he’s going to play for students on campus,” Elharake said in September. “He’s kind of the go-to person when it comes to (this ethnicity addition) especially with figuring out the logistics of it and in reality, us educating him on the Middle Eastern/North African student population here at Michigan.”
Professor diversity training
In the wake of the dozens of recent incidents of racism on campus, one initiative within DEI now of special importance is providing faculty with training that enables them to communicate and engage with students in a way that makes the classroom environment feel safer and more inclusive for minority students.
LSA Dean Andrew Martin said it was especially important to train faculty in fields that are not inherently conducive to conversations about race or social inclusion.
"One of the things that's challenging, particularly given the pace of the events and the things that are happening, it might be a little bit easier to talk about some of these issues in a political science course or a history class or a course in American culture, but how do you talk to students about racial hatred in a physics class or a mathematics class?" Martin said.
The University already had some infrastructure at its disposal for faculty education, such as the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, but it has also created several new diversity workshops on inclusive teaching and is providing additional support specifically for faculty teaching “Race and Ethnicity” courses.
Diversity training is required for certain subsects of the faculty, such as new graduate student instructors and new tenure-track professors, as well as senior faculty who want to be on faculty hiring committees.
Fiona Lee, a professor of Psychology and LSA's first associate dean of DEI, said she had personally experienced how serious the college was about mandated diversity training. Before she became associate dean, she was part of a faculty hiring committee from which Martin had excluded one of the most senior faculty members because they hadn't attended a diversity workshop.
"I was very irritated with you, because this person's expertise is integral to this hiring initiative, and we said, 'How can we exclude this person from this committee when they are a person who really knows the most about the position?' " she said. "But Dean Martin says, 'No means no.' So there are strong expectations."
The next year, Martin said, all professors participated.
Between new faculty and faculty senior enough to be on hiring committees, however, there are many faculty not required to participate in any type of diversity workshop. Angela Dillard, LSA associate dean of undergraduate education, said that's because they would rather incentivize faculty to participate of their own accord rather than forcing them, which could generate ill will.
According to Lee, approximately 1,500 faculty members participated in at least one such workshop last year, out of about 4,000 faculty total.
The lack of faculty of color is another issue receiving particular scrutiny in the implementation of the DEI plan. From 2011 to 2016, there was no change in the percentage of tenured faculty who were underrepresented minorities.
In an interview with The Daily in February, Tabbye Chavous, director of the University's National Center for Institutional Diversity, said there would be a noticeable increase in faculty of color within the next year.
“This fall will likely have an appreciable difference on our faculty. This hiring initiative will change, within one year, the composition of the people who will be providing the educational experiences to our students," Chavous said. "That’s just one example, but it’s an example of something that is pretty short-term in terms of the outcomes of those efforts.”
As part of their Diversifying Academia program, LSA is funding several postdoctoral fellowships to attract young academics with demonstrated interest in and commitment to diversity, chief among them the LSA Collegiate Postdoctoral Fellowship Program.
"This is one of the things that's really core to Fiona's portfolio," Martin said. "The LSA Collegiate Postdoctoral Fellowship Program is a program designed to help increase the diversity of our faculty. This is a program that will bring in 10 new faculty to our campus every year, so hopefully 50 over the next five, and I have every expectation to believe that it will continue after that."
In its first year, Lee said, the program received 762 applicants, hiring seven new faculty members out of that pool –– all of whom are underrepresented minorities. This year, they received 936 applications, from which they will make up to 13 new hires.
While the fellowship does not put its fellows on a tenure track, the idea is that many of them eventually will get there, Martin said.
Lee and Martin also said they are giving special attention to the Distinguished Diversity & Social Transformation Professorship –– a similar program, but for faculty members whom are further along in their careers.
"It's a campus-wide program that seeks senior scholars in any discipline that also has demonstrated a sustained commitment to diversity," Lee said. "So there are these sort of programs to reach out to and recruit faculty that would fill that need at all levels."
The University’s new Go Blue Guarantee program — announced in June —functions as the administration’s commitment to free tuition for in-state students who come from families with incomes less than $65,000. The program will take effect beginning January 2018.
In an earlier statement, University President Mark Schlissel affirmed his commitment to creating University access for all students, regardless of socioeconomic background.
“I think about the seventh grader in Ypsilanti or Detroit or Grand Rapids whose mom or dad can say to them, ‘Work hard. Do well in school. You can go to the University of Michigan,’ " he said. “There are a lot of folks now that can't really say that because they don't know if they can afford it.”
The implementation of this new program comes after a report by the Equality of Opportunity Project, which ranked the University last in the category of social mobility behind other prestigious public colleges. In fact, one in 10 students at the University are from the top 1 percent of income distribution.
Kedra Ishop, vice provost for enrollment management, pointed to HAIL Scholars as the catalyst behind the announcement — 262 students arrived on campus in fall 2015 after being targeted by the program. Schlissel sent out handwritten letters, application waivers and packages to school advisors to recruit these students from certain low-income target areas.
In a prior interview with The Daily, Ishop said analyses of the program showed applications from target schools increasing substantially — some rates rising by more than 40 percent. This data, she explained, showed the administration a program like Go Blue Guarantee could be successful.
“That was almost a two-and-a-half-fold increase,” she said. “We’re taking what HAIL taught us, and going public with a version of that specific commitment.”
Yet, Ishop noted, the program is not perfect — HAIL scholars often feel disconnected from those who come from higher socioeconomic strata. Ishop said the University is continually working to make students feel welcome, regardless of background and ensuring they feel a part of the campus community.
“We all have a responsibility to make sure that we help our students become part of the U-M experience,” she said. “It’s a challenging endeavor for us and we don’t always get it right the first time but I think we’ve put a great deal of effort … into identifying students, identifying their needs, to make sure they’re supported by the University.”
DEI Graduate Student Staff Assistants
Last April, over 250 Graduate Employees’ Organization members and their allies staged a sit-in to protest their unpaid work in promoting diversity initiatives — this September, six Rackham-funded DEI GSSA positions, as well as two in the School of Nursing, were created to reward student labor with full tuition waivers, living stipends and health insurance benefits.
This change is the first time any university has provided pay and benefits to students doing diversity work.
In an earlier interview with the Daily, Vidhya Aravind, GEO DEI committee member and organizer of the sit-in, described the immense amount of work the GSSAs do in ensuring campus remains an inclusive place for all students.
“It can include teach-ins, it can include organizing curricula or reviewing curricula, it can include looking at climate and ways to improve climate in a specific unit,” she said. “With the amount of work there is, what the qualification and expertise that marginalized grad students have in making campus better for marginalized students, it’s super important that they get involved in all the work that they can possibly be doing and there’s kind of a lot of it.”
In a press release, Public Health student Jamie Tam, who chaired GEO’s DEI committee, explained the reasoning behind the decision to create paid DEI GSSA positions.
“Students from marginalized communities often do diversity work with little or no pay,” she said. “When we expect free or cheap labor from vulnerable groups, it actually exacerbates social disparities. That’s unacceptable.”
In an earlier statement published in the Daily, the GEO DEI committee wrote DEI GSSAs could reach communities inaccessible to faculty and staff due to their unique knowledge base, and thus should be rewarded for their work.
“Students have unique and valuable expertise that is distinct from what faculty and staff can offer. Graduate student leaders have a long track record of organizing around DEI issues, power dynamics and structures that perpetuate oppression in academic settings. Their added value is clear based on the variety of student-driven diversity initiatives throughout the University’s history,” they said. “This knowledge base is exactly the reason why so many students are called upon by faculty and staff administrators to weigh in as “experts” on DEI activities.”
In the months to come, the GEO DEI committee has expressed interest in pushing each individual school unit, from LSA to the College of Engineering, to fund its own paid DEI GSSAs.
LSA SG president Nicholas Fadanelli, an LSA senior, introduced a resolution to LSA SG Wednesday, in which he called for an increase in the number of GSAA positions allocated to the implementation of the LSA DEI plan.
Fadanelli, in conjunction with the GEO DEI committee, emphasized the importance of creating 10 LSA-specific GSSA positions within the college. However, he also noted there are significant doubts about funding which have stalled the initiative.
Correction: Previous version of this article attributed the student government resolution to Central Student Government. It was presented to LSA Student Government.