Students, faculty discuss DEI at second town hall

Wednesday, March 27, 2019 - 10:30pm

Jad Elharake, Graduate Intern at the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, gives introductory remarks at the second DEI Town Hall in Couzens Hall Wednesday.

Jad Elharake, Graduate Intern at the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, gives introductory remarks at the second DEI Town Hall in Couzens Hall Wednesday. Buy this photo
Keemya Esmael/Daily

On Wednesday night, approximately 40 students and faculty met in Couzens Residence Hall for the University of Michigan Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Town Hall.

Jad Elharake, a program lead in the Health Equity & Inclusion and DEI offices, started the event by thanking Diversity Peer Educators for acting as hosts and explaining the goal of these events.

“We wanted to be very intentional in hearing your experiences as students,” Elharake said. “It’s an opportunity for you all to give your big ideas.”

The University is in the middle of its five-year DEI Strategic Plan, which was launched in October 2016. The plan was created in part as a response to student activism, specifically the #BBUM movement on Twitter and 2013 protests by the Black Student Union. The initiative promised $85 million over five years and included campus climate-related training, the creation of the re-located Trotter Multicultural Center and new recruitment strategies.

The DEI plan’s language made connections to historical social movements on campus, including  Black Action Movement and debates over affirmative action in the last decade. Student activists protested the plan at a DEI keynote as part of the launch because they felt the student voice was not properly accounted for.

LSA interim dean Elizabeth Cole wrote in an email  to The Daily this event, as well as the previous DEI events in the series, are opportunities for faculty to gauge student input and a chance for students to give feedback about the University and LSA-specific DEI plans.

“I encourage you to attend one of these sessions,” Cole wrote. “The university is at the midway point of the campus-wide five-year DEI Strategic Plan, and this is an opportunity to check in on progress. These Student Community Conversations are a chance for you to give feedback to the U-M administration that will help shape the future of the U-M and LSA DEI plans, and of our work together.”

Rob Sellers, chief diversity officer and vice provost for equity and inclusion, emphasized at the event the importance of student voices and explained the reasoning for the strategic plan’s creation and continuing dialogues during his speaking portion of the meeting.

Sellers said DEI plays a vital role in the success of the University, adding that it is important the University feels accessible and comfortable for all students. According to Sellers, the DEI plans are “living documents” that can change over time.

He also noted the University has 51 different plans for different administrative units, in addition to a University-wide plan.

“Instead of having a single plan, the University of Michigan has done it very differently,” Sellers said. “Those plans — and the fact that each unit has a plan — was a way for us to reinforce the idea that diversity, equity and inclusion isn’t something that simply resides in the President’s office or reside in the Chief Diversity Officer’s office, but it is a core aspect of who we are as a university.”

Sellers also tied diversity to institutional success. He said DEI helps all students feel like they can reach their potential and belong at the University.

Sellers said the University has made progress from when DEI was first created and is more proactive than it has been in the past in relation to diversity issues, but there is still work to be done.

“It took us 200-plus years as an institution to get here and it’s not going to change completely in five years,” Sellers said. “I will tell you we’ve made a great deal of progress and … we are not the same institution that we were three years ago. I will also equally state we are not where we need to be.”

A student inquired about a report from the University of Southern California released in September that gave the University an F grade on overall racial equity among public universities. The student asked if the University has acknowledged the report and if it has prompted any changes.

Specifically, the report gave the University an F in representation of Black students on campus, who make up 4.4 percent of undergraduates student population. The University received a C grade for its Black graduation rate, which is 12.1 percent lower than the overall completion rate.

Sellers pointed out the part of the report focused on the graduation rate is complicated because the University’s graduation rate is higher than the national average. He said the study was important, but found its analysis simplistic because it looked at graduation rates between populations rather than compared to national averages.

“We do have a problem of graduation rates as a function of ethnicity here at the University of Michigan and we are continuing to work to change that,” Sellers said. “If we would have had really, really poor graduation rates across the board, we would have gotten an A. It didn’t take into consideration that our graduation rates are so high across the board.”

Students shared ideas with present faculty members during different portions of the event. One included crowdsourcing ideas through icebreaker and writing activities and through small-group facilitation. The final event is on April 2 from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. in Rackham Assembly Hall.

Information senior Chalse Okorom helped facilitate student discussions as a Diversity Peer Educator. She said it is important to have the events so student voices can be heard.

“We’re the most populous people on campus,” Okorom said. “If faculty is making changes, then I think that this is the best way for them to get that input or those ideas instead of just coming up with it on their own.”

Katrina Wade-Golden, deputy chief diversity officer, said at the conclusion of the event that the feedback from students will be considered going forward as the University prepares for the fourth year of the initiative and beyond. She thanked the students in attendance for their time and input.

“Many of the items that got positioned in our original plan came through from events like this,” Wade-Golden said. “We are really happy that you shared the gift of your ideas and we will be taking those ideas under advisement as we prepare.”