The Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion hosted a conversation with Chief Diversity Officer Robert Sellers Monday evening to discuss issues of systemic racism and increasing enrollment of underrepresented communities on the University of Michigan’s campus. Monday’s event is the first of two discussions this semester in a continuing series from Nov. 2020 titled “At a Crossroads: Conversations about DEI at U-M.”

Community engagement is one of the core principles of ODEI’s five-year strategic plan to create an inclusive and equitable campus climate. ODEI held this conversation to provide an opportunity for students to voice their concerns about issues both on campus and across the country, according to LSA sophomore Xalma Palomino, a student facilitator for ODEI.

“‘At a Crossroads’ is an event that is intentional and thoughtful about facilitating a conversation between students and University leadership,” Palomino said in an interview with The Daily. “It can be difficult to have direct and honest conversations like these, but they are important because they are the starting point to making change on our campus.”

The University’s five-year DEI strategic plan, launched in 2016, was instituted amid multiple racist incidents on campus and increasing student activism that criticized the University’s handling of DEI issues. The plan includes 49 individual unit plans for the various schools, colleges, administrative, athletic, or other departments at the University. Among other goals, the plan focused on creating an inclusive and equitable campus climate, developing a diverse community and supporting inclusive teachings, according to the website.

At the event, Sellers similarly said conversations with the student body help bridge the gap between University leadership and students. Especially as ODEI begins preparing its next strategic plan, since the original plan expires this coming fall, Sellers said conversations with students provide valuable feedback on what DEI initiatives have worked and what have not.

“There’s an opportunity to really frame what the DEI 2.0 is going to look like, and the kinds of things that I hear tonight will help inform that,” Sellers said. “Meetings like this provide me with insight and perspectives that I can utilize my voice and other spaces to amplify those perspectives, as well as share them with my staff.”

The Q&A portion of the event included previously submitted questions from anonymous students. Sellers addressed student concerns about virtual DEI training, which some have said is less effective than face-to-face interaction. Sellers said ODEI plans to revise the current Race and Ethnicity course requirement, a move spurred by criticism from students who said the current requirement does not adequately address issues of systemic racism in the United States.

“What, oftentimes, students are looking for is what I call DEI skills, the kinds of skills necessary to be able to live in a productive, respectful, diverse community that allows for greater learning,” Sellers said. “That’s one of the things that we will be working on over the next year with a goal of piloting something, hopefully by the end of next year, that will provide a baseline level of DEI skill that hopefully will improve the way in which many of us experience our campus on an interpersonal level.”

In upholding transparency, each department already must report its DEI plan of action and subsequent progress. 

“Ultimately, the greatest point of accountability and the reason that the plan is structured the way that it is is really to try to empower voices, the voices that aren’t traditionally in the room,” Sellers said.

Sellers said accountability is crucial to ODEI’s mission in combating systemic issues within the University, particularly related to racism, sexism and poverty. One direct consequence of these systemic issues, Sellers said, has been the recent drop in enrollment of students from historically underrepresented communities.

“Our African-American and Latinx communities are examples of one place where we completely and totally failed as an institution to meet up with an earlier promise,” Sellers said. “And I would say the same thing with our Native Indigenous students as well.”

Student activists and those involved in racial justice organizations on campus have long advocated for a commitment to increased enrollment of students from underrepresented backgrounds. In their demands released last month, the Students of Color Liberation Front called on the University to meet the 10% Black student enrollment benchmark originally demanded by the Black Action Movement. In January, La Casa released a statement opposing the decision to discontinue the Provost Award, which they said resulted in a decrease in Latinx student enrollment after it was replaced with the Victors Award. Last October, members of the Native American Student Association and La Casa released the United Statement, which called for increasing indigenous enrollment.

Exacerbated by the financial burdens of the pandemic, systemic issues affecting marginalized communities warrant immediate support from the University, Sellers said.

“By all of us being here, we are participating in a system that has traditionally, and in many ways, continues to oppress different types of people,” Sellers said. “The question is what do you do with that access that makes the difference.”

Sellers said ODEI has taken steps to address the root causes of systemic oppression through programs like Poverty Solutions and the Go Blue Guarantee. To confront the rise in both poverty rates and evictions in Detroit, Poverty Solutions took on nine projects in 2019 aimed at combating poverty in the city.

In an effort to alleviate the financial burdens of higher education, the Go Blue Guarantee, launched in 2018, is an advertising campaign more effectively communicating existing aid that covers full tuition for in-state University students whose annual family income is less than $65,000. Despite providing increased access to the University for low-income students, the GBG has failed to increase the enrollment of Black, Latinx and Indigenous students.

Sellers said the University must work to find solutions to increase enrollment among these underrepresented populations. 

“We have to find ways to provide more educational opportunities for African-American students and our Latinx students and definitely our Native American students and push the envelope wherever we can,” Sellers said. “But we must do so in ways that also are real and genuine that will provide the greatest educational opportunities, not look for symbolic wins that end up hurting educational opportunities for our actual students.”

According to Sellers, the reality is that an equitable educational system can only be attained once the University creates an environment that unequivocally embraces DEI work.

In an interview with The Daily before the event, LSA senior Leanne Olona, ODEI marketing and media assistant, said Monday’s discussion was an opportunity for students to voice their opinions in hopes of creating an environment where student can influence University decision-making and play a role in fighting systemic barriers to higher education.

“I know a lot of students are frustrated with administrative decisions because we talk about it to each other all the time, but we don’t get that many opportunities really to say it directly to the people who have the power to actually change plans,” Olona said. “So this is one of those opportunities where you actually can. Your voice is going to be heard, and it’s going to be listened to.”

The next DEI discussion will be held on March 26 from 10:00 to 11:30 a.m.

Daily Staff Reporter Evan Delorenzo can be reached at evandelo@umich.edu

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