Despite scrutiny, DEI plan builds on existing models of peer institutions

Monday, December 12, 2016 - 9:32pm

It’s not uncommon for students at the University of Michigan to come across a number of administration-sponsored fliers, emails and posting boards in the Diag touting the University as the Leaders and Best — a trend that spiked following this October’s release of a five-year strategic plan for diversity, equity and inclusion.

University President Mark Schlissel’s DEI initiative was met with state and national media attention following its release, but many also questioned the University’s planned $85 million investment into the initiative over the next five years.

Despite national attention on the University’s diversity plans, a survey of the DEI plan alongside those of peer institutions reveals the initiative is not unlike those at similar institutions, but rather builds on existing practices with a unique decentralized planning process, coordination and new measures of accountability.

Planning for the University’s initiative began in September 2015, when 49 units across campus were charged with submitting a strategic plan for their respective areas, all of which were ultimately rolled into a campus-wide strategy this summer.

Just before the release of the plan in October 2016, fliers posted around campus demeaned the humanity of Black, Muslim and LGBTQ people, inciting protests by hundreds of students calling for an administrative response. Many students later criticized the release of the plan as a reactionary approach to calming racial tensions on campus. Students also pointed to issues with the long-term nature of the DEI, which is benchmarked to five years from now, chanting slogans like “Why wait for 2025, will I even be alive?” in demands for more immediate action from Schlissel.

At a panel on campus safety and racism sponsored by the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center Thursday, Dec. 8, LSA senior Sabrina Bilimoria, who also is an Michigan in Color editor at the Daily, criticized the DEI plan for asking for more mental and emotional labor from marginalized students.

“The DEI initiatives are bullshit,” Bilimoria said to applause from panel attendees. “... Very little is done on an institutional level. There’s such a lack of understanding from Schlissel and many, many administrators as to a common way to talk to students without tokenizing them and asking minority students to do all the work.”

In an interview, Katrina Wade-Golden, assistant vice provost and director of implementation for the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Strategic Plan, agreed campus racial tensions during the semester affected the perception of the plan’s rollout, though she noted the plan was not released in response to protests.

“We were not reacting to any particular kind of incident, and we really wanted to be proactive,” she said.

E. Royster Harper, the University’s vice president for student life, said the University administration’s commitment to improving campus diversity has existed since 1988 with the The Michigan Mandate, launched by then-University President James Duderstadt, which focused on recruitment of prospective students. The initiative largely succeeded in significantly raising underrepresented minority enrollment and faculty appointments — though a number of initiatives also aimed at creating an inclusive campus climate. Black enrollment has been decreasing substantially on the University campus. According to the University Ten Year Enrollment by Ethnicity report, in 2006, 7.2 percent of University enrollment was Black. However, over the past nine years, Black enrollment has been decreasing, as in 2015, Blacks only accounted for 4.8 percent of enrollment.

Despite the mandate, statewide attacks on affirmative action eventually culminated in 2006 with Proposition 2, a statewide ban on the consideration of race in admissions to Michigan universities the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in 2014, aligned with drops in minority enrollment. Duderstadt also criticized his successor, Lee Bollinger, for doing away with funding and resources allocated toward the mandate, which eventually faded out of existence. During her tenure as the University’s president, starting in the early 2000s, Mary Sue Coleman also launched initiatives to increase minority enrollment.

Student demands about the DEI plan tend to focus on boosting the proportion of minority students in the student body — a figure that has hovered consistently around 13 percent for the last five years.

Harper said those levels may never rise significantly without affirmative action, noting that recruitment efforts in the DEI represent something of a workaround. Programs such as Wolverine Pathways and HAIL Scholars — both outlined in the DEI plan — instead aim to funnel marginalized students toward the University with primary education pipelines and scholarships.

“Why would anyone expect the numbers to be the same without affirmative action?” Harper said. “But you start thinking about different strategies for getting that done. Students have to be willing to get in some of those elementary schools, they have to vote for education and be part of organizations giving back. There’s a notion that you can be finished with this work, and that’s just not true.”  

The University may take a step further in its approach to maintaining campus inclusion when compared to peer institutions with active diversity plans including the University of California-Berkeley, the University of Maryland and Brown University — amid these institutions, the University’s combination of multifaceted, unit-specific goals with broader, overarching goals stands out.

For instance, schools such as Duke University, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and UC-Berkeley that already promote unit-specific strategic plans lack the umbrella structure of the DEI promoted by the University’s executive leadership, but do indicate needs for it. UNC’s 2014 diversity report, for example, includes recommendations for a “coordinated institutional strategy,” while Duke calls for a “university-wide statement affirming our commitment to diversity.”

The parts of the DEI plan receiving the most publicity, however, are already in place at other institutions. From 2007 to 2012, Ohio State University successfully implemented a diversity scholars network and met goals of hiring more female and underrepresented minority faculty. A number of schools already appoint chief diversity officers, as outlined in the University’s plan as well. Brown University’s plan released this February — the model perhaps most comparable to the DEI — devotes $165 million to initiatives including a postdoctorate to faculty pipeline an improved summer bridge program and a first-generation student center, similar to pushes in the DEI plan.

Tabbye Chavous, director of the National Center on Institutional Diversity at the University, acknowledged individual elements of the DEI were not unique compared to other institutions. She pointed to a semester rife with racial tension on campus as a possible reason for the spotlight on the DEI.

“A lot of the work and efforts are not necessarily new ideas, but might be new in cooperation,” she said. “Michigan is a place where when these things happen, attention is drawn to it, because we’re a place that’s been working on diversity issues and we’ve stated our commitment to those values. This seeming contradiction does feel striking, but this DEI plan is one thing … that will position us to move on these efforts in new ways.”  

Wade-Golden also hailed efforts increasing faculty and staff diversity and emphasized the DEI surpassed the Mandate with new measures of accountability and focus on equity and inclusion. In particular, she noted that contributions to DEI-specific goals will be taken into account in faculty performance reviews and recommendations for tenure, and deans must submit annual reports on college-specific DEI initiatives.

“The mandate was groundbreaking,” she said. “Now, we definitely have top administrative support in terms of the president and the provost. I’m sure you’ve seen the commitment allocated in $85 million, and our robust accountability structure really sets us apart from anything happening nationally.”

A campus climate survey to be distributed next semester will establish baseline metrics to assess the DEI’s success, and Chavous said the plan’s efficacy will ultimately hinge on the University’s ability to balance short-term needs of students and long-term institutional goals.

“The experiences of students are unique relative to faculty and staff in that you’re here for a much shorter time,” she said. “It really is a more immediate issue for students than faculty and administrators who are used to the long haul. If we can balance that, if Michigan can be a model of a positive way to work effectively on these issues, I think we can affect the broader society.”