We are the Multicultural Leadership Council, a coalition of graduate student leaders committed to the well-being and success of students of color at the University of Michigan. Last year, the University’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategic planning process increased campus dialogue surrounding diversity goals that our constituencies have worked toward for decades. This week, University-wide and unit-specific DEI strategic plans will be released. While some units have had high levels of community engagement, many have failed to meaningfully incorporate student feedback in the development of their strategic plans over the past year. We call on you, as members of the UM community, to evaluate your unit’s strategic plan once it is released according to these five guiding principles. After listening to the concerns raised by our constituencies across various disciplines, departments and school units, we have concluded that the following five components are vital to the integrity of any DEI plan:
1. Resources: DEI plans require both human and monetary resources. Even the most determined units cannot implement change without financial support. Schools must have budgetary line items dedicated specifically towards DEI programmatic activities and capacity-building. Campus units have been asked to take on the challenge and responsibility of doing diversity labor, but this work tends to fall disproportionately on those most affected by climate issues. Without funds to implement programs and increase the capacity to do DEI work, women and people of color will continue to bear the unequal burden of ensuring that the University of Michigan is a diverse, equitable and inclusive space for all — on top of their existing responsibilities. The solution is clear and simple. Resources must be made available to pay those who are implementing DEI plans, including students who have historically carried the burden of this work without fair compensation. Pay for DEI work shows that it is valued as a form of labor. It furthermore frees up time and energy for those who sacrifice their health and academic progress while working toward a more just university. These resources should also be used to increase staff capacity to support strategic plans. For example, units could hire permanent full-time staff with proven expertise in diversity planning and project management, or allocate percent effort toward DEI-related responsibilities within staff job descriptions.
2. Accountability: As a community, we must accept responsibility if we fail to live up to values of diversity, equity and inclusion. Leaders and administrators in particular must take responsibility when their actions, or inactions, allow structural and interpersonal discrimination to occur under their watch. To hold ourselves and our leadership accountable, quantitative and qualitative metrics for DEI must be delineated in strategic plans, alongside specific benchmarks for success and their corresponding timelines for achievement. Accountability metrics should be developed with collective input and should examine not only representational diversity, but also other aspects of climate including perceptions, behaviors and organizational practices. Adherence to these metrics should be evaluated on a regular basis through surveys and focus groups that safeguard student privacy and the right to anonymity. DEI assessments should be conducted frequently, such that each cohort of students — including those enrolled in one-to-two-year master’s degree programs — has multiple opportunities to provide feedback. A well-defined and systematic process should be used to evaluate progress, making it clear when units are succeeding or failing to reach DEI goals. Failure to meet DEI benchmarks must be met with consequences to ensure strategic plans have ‘teeth’, and such consequences should be outlined in the plans themselves.
3. Incentives: Organizational and behavioral change does not occur in a vacuum. Incentives and disincentives are the most effective ways to motivate changes at the individual and unit levels. For those engaging in DEI activities, rewards can include compensation, release from other departmental duties or greater weight on this type of service contribution when evaluated for promotion or tenure. Not all incentives must be strictly professional or monetary in nature. Positive contributors can be rewarded with special recognition from leadership, either as individuals or as teams, as has already been common practice across campus. However, incentive structures must go beyond the purely symbolic to actually be effective; concrete rewards must be attached to positive contributions to climate and penalties to negative contributions. Penalties should be imposed on departments when bias has occurred so that there is pressure on the entire unit to prevent bad acts from ever taking place. Strategic plans must acknowledge the serious limitations of the formal process for reporting bias; many instances of bias go unreported, and those that do represent merely the tip of the climate iceberg. The tendency to focus on specific individuals who commit “isolated” acts of discrimination fails to address the pervasive culture that enabled that behavior. Incentives at the unit or departmental level can change that.
4. Transparency: School units that are committed to DEI values must also possess a commitment to the truth. Too often on campus, flaws that reveal structural forms of bias are kept hidden by leadership to preserve the reputation of the University. When DEI concerns, issues and plans are kept strictly for internal deliberation, it sends a message to the community that UM leadership is more concerned with diversity as a public relations tool than with acknowledging the ways in which our institution reifies systems of oppression. Two years ago, the University came under federal investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights “for possible violations of (Title IX) over (its) handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints.” Efforts to conceal the truth led, and continue to lead, to deep mistrust with our communities. To rebuild trust and promote a culture of open and frank discussions about equity and inclusion, the DEI planning and implementation process must be made publicly available. Each strategic plan should outline steps to make information about DEI developments accessible online while still complying with Proposal 2. Current and prospective students, faculty and staff have a right to know about advances within their school units as well as failures to achieve desired benchmarks. Transparency is a powerful incentive for progress: knowing that a school’s reputation is on the line motivates leadership and administrators to swift action.
5. Equitable Decision-Making: For strategic plans to truly embody values of equity, DEI decision-making must treat every voice in the community as having equal value. Major policy decisions that have an impact on diversity and climate are often made at the discretion of deans, chairs and other senior faculty and administrators. This concentration of power is problematic when those most affected by these decisions are not consulted first. It is the responsibility of planning leads and administrators to proactively solicit community input, and to guarantee a process where all stakeholders, including staff and students, are given equal say in what DEI plans look like. Furthermore, plans must strive to achieve equal levels of participation from constituencies. To date, feedback mechanisms for DEI plans have demanded a great deal of personal initiative on the part of highly motivated community members. This approach of expecting investment and ingenuity from student leaders excludes many voices. Strategic planning leads should be innovative and create multiple inclusive avenues for feedback, removing barriers to participation that may turn people away. Provide incentives for engagement by rewarding those who offer extensive feedback. Make sure that feedback mechanisms are in place both online and in-person. Then be sure to directly and visibly incorporate such feedback so that community members feel their voices are actually valued. When initiatives are being proposed, host open forums for deliberation and consensus-building prior to enacting policy changes. These types of democratic decision-making procedures should be articulated explicitly in strategic plans.
Transforming the campus climate is challenging and uncomfortable work. It demands an analysis of the infrastructure for diversity within organizations, and the courage to take bold and meaningful action. We are asking you to demand more from UM leadership, and from yourself, by refusing to accept the status quo. Evaluate DEI plans with a critical lens, with particular attention to the inclusion or exclusion of these tenets. Do not assume that these strategic plans are final; they must be examined continually throughout the 2016-2021 implementation timeline. Share this article and ask your administrators hard questions about why they have chosen not to integrate these guiding principles into their plans. In the absence of (1) financial resources, (2) procedures that hold units and their leadership accountable, (3) incentives that drive behavior change and (4) transparent and (5) democratic processes, DEI strategic plans will fail to live up to their supposed values. We expect school units to develop ambitious, sustainable, structurally-sound strategic plans that are guided by equity and transparency and backed by the funds to implement them. We will not settle for anything less and we hope you will join us in doing the same.
The Multicultural Leadership Council
The Network for SPhDiversity at the School of Public Health
Students of Color of Rackham
Multi-Ethnic Information Exchange
Females Excelling More in Math, Engineering and the Sciences
Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers at UM
Society of Minority Engineers and Scientists Graduate Component
Association of Multicultural Scientists
Graduate Employees’ Organization, AFT-MI Local 3550, AFL-CIO
Students of Color in Public Policy
Integrating Diversity and Equity into the Academy
Rackham Student Government