On Jan. 24, the U.S. Department of Education opened an investigation into more than 50 complaints filed by Mark Perry, University of Michigan-Flint economics and finance professor, against the University for discrimination against men. This has subsequently ignited a national discourse over the effectiveness of college diversity initiatives and the University’s own Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan. His arguments that women-only spaces are discriminatory and that the DEI plan unnecessarily raises University costs are inflammatory and, more importantly, flawed. Spending on an initiative to bring about an inclusive environment cannot be dismissed as mere “administrative bloat,” as he purports it to be. These statements ignore the cultural history of gender-based discrimination and the multitude of other factors that contribute to rises in University tuition. However, the current attention on Perry brings to light the need for a closer look at the DEI initiative and if it has truly delivered on its promise of creating a more diverse and welcoming campus climate.
Three years ago, at the beginning of the fall 2016 semester, student members of Black Lives Matter and the Black Student Union protested through walkouts, Diag chalk and marches in response to racist posters found on campus. That October, the University officially launched the five-year DEI plan. Since then, the University administration says it has implemented 92 percent of the initiative’s action items. From March to May of this year, the University plans to conduct a midterm assessment of the plan’s efficacy, culminating in a report of findings that will presumably be published this May. It is a fitting time to reflect on the functionality of this initiative and its effects, or lack thereof, on increasing diversity and helping marginalized groups feel safe on campus.
As an educational institution, the University has a responsibility to uphold values of inclusion and respect. The DEI plan has attempted to achieve this by holding campus-wide climate surveys, forming task forces such as REACT, creating spaces like the Trotter Multicultural Center and connecting with networks like Diversity Scholars, to name a few. That being said, the October 2018 DEI Progress Report revealed that so far, the quantitative effects of improving student and faculty diversity have been somewhat minimal. Action items and numbers vary from school to school, and it may be too early to see long-term results, but the lack of change means the program has not yet completed its goals. Therefore, it is crucial that the University continues to work with students on improving and implementing the DEI plan. We acknowledge the work that has been done by the initiative so far and implore that it continue with full force and a consistent commitment to seeking student input.
While it is crucial that the University makes a rigorous effort to create an inclusive, diverse and equitable campus environment, this responsibility should not fall solely on the administration. The student body plays a critical role in bringing these attitudes into the U-M community. After all, the DEI itself was born in large part out of the activism of students, particularly the Black Student Union’s 2013 #BBUM campaign. It has been six years since that effort, and we cannot expect the DEI plan to be successful without our involvement in its programs.
It is essential that students give their full participation in fostering a positive discourse with their peers. It is equally necessary that students maintain a dialogue with the administration and voice their concerns about diversity, equity and inclusion on campus to ensure the impact of the DEI plan is meaningful. Much of the DEI plan’s success is dependent upon the quality of its programs and initiatives. However, without student input, the plan is destined to become a mostly top-down venture. The University has set aside a significant amount of money to make changes students have argued for, and the student body should take full advantage of this opportunity. The forthcoming three-year report presents a chance to organize and engage. Hopefully, students will react to the findings with new ideas and a reinvigorated drive to make an impact as opposed to responding with a lack of interest.
As students, we have made it clear that having a campus that fosters diversity, equity and inclusion is one of our fundamental values. Contrary to what people such as Perry might believe regarding “administrative bloat,” these initiatives perform a vital role by bettering the campus climate. The focus of our community should now be to hold administrators accountable to the promises they made in the DEI strategic plan, to elevate the concerns, ideas and demands of students and to encourage more participation amongst the student body in bringing about this positive environment. We look forward to the release of the three-year report and the renewed sense of engagement we hope it brings.