Michigan in Color: Diversity initiatives will fail without dedicated budget

Diversity Talk - Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Diversity Talk - Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
Illustration by Gaby Vasquez


Wednesday, January 6, 2016 - 8:23pm

While University President Mark Schlissel’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion strategic planning initiative is admirable, its prospects for success are questionable. The President’s charge calls on each campus unit to develop a five-year strategic plan to promote diversity, equity and inclusion. We are excited to see this new momentum in the wake of the #BBUM campaign, and to see this effort come from top University leadership. The current dialogue is absolutely necessary for us to continue to foster awareness of historical and ongoing institutional biases at the University, and to move beyond a purely academic understanding of structural racism. Unfortunately, the initiative falls short in a profoundly important way.

To date, there has been no explicit allocation of resources to make diversity happen at the University. Other educational institutions have recently funded large-scale diversity programs: Brown University announced plans to spend $100 million to promote diversity on its campus, and Yale University launched a $50 million initiative to increase faculty diversity. These financial pledges are a testament to their commitment to social equity. We are waiting to see whether efforts at the University will be supported by funds commensurate with their degree of importance.

Funding for the President’s charge remains ambiguous, even as two mechanisms for diversity funding opportunities have been described in disseminated documents. First, departments are encouraged to submit “requests for funding for innovative initiatives … through the annual budget process,” according to a frequently asked questions document distributed to campus groups in November. However, there is little transparency surrounding how much will be made available within the annual budget, or how competitive it will be to secure these funds. Secondly, the campus-wide initiative is being overseen by an executive leadership team that “will allocate resources throughout the planning process and ensure that the effort is appropriately supported and staffed.” Again, the level of support and direct provision of tangible funds remains vague. In order to address climate and bias issues effectively, allocated budgetary line items are needed to develop, implement and sustain strategic plans.

Without dedicated funding, there are three major vulnerabilities in the President’s Strategic Planning Initiative that put diversity, equity,and inclusion efforts at risk for failure:

1)     The task of “doing” diversity has been assigned to individuals with limited or no expertise on the topic, and who may not share our sense of urgency. In theory, there are 92 individuals serving as “Strategic Planning Leads” across campus, but in practice department chairs, deans and other administrators have been granted a great deal of discretion over what types of diversity activities will take place, and the amount of resources dedicated towards them. The initiative expects school units to “allocate funds within their (own) budgets for plan-related activities” according to the FAQ; however, this approach assumes that chairs and leaders of those units are willing to commit sufficient funds to support this work, and sacrifice precious resources (including staff time) that would otherwise go towards existing programming.  Furthermore, the initiative depends heavily on administrators’ perceptions of what can and should be done. These assumptions are cause for concern.

To put things plainly, many of the individuals being called upon to develop and implement strategic plans have directly benefited from systems of oppression within academic spaces. These individuals were never critically evaluated on their understanding of race and inequality before assuming their roles, let alone their ability to address climate issues in their respective units. Considering that we have dealt with years of delays, inaction and at best superficial engagement with initiatives to address race and climate at the University, why should we believe that administrators are both knowledgeable about and committed to social equity? The Michigan Mandate of the early 1990s, a University initiative to recruit and retain faculty of color, failed to do so. Like the current initiative, the mandate was largely unfunded and used a decentralized approach that gave high-ranking administrators within each department much discretionary power. History must not repeat itself. A dedicated funding pipeline for the President’s Initiative would equip administrators with support and much needed expertise from trained professionals.

2)     The development of strategic plans requires a high level of engagement from campus units that may lack the capacity to implement them. Time is just as important a resource as money, and anyone at the University can speak to its scarcity. No new staff are being hired to support diversity initiatives within school units. Instead, the day-to-day tasks required for planning and implementing diversity initiatives are being added to the duties of existing faculty and staff. Changing the climate at the University is a shared responsibility and all members of the community should indeed contribute. But the reality is that when diversity responsibilities are tacked on to existing job descriptions, they are not given the time and attention they deserve. So long as faculty and staff are burdened with new job responsibilities but no additional resources to meet their requirements, diversity and inclusion plans are bound to fall short of expectations. Departments need resources to increase their faculty and staff capacity to take on diversity initiatives and engage with them meaningfully.

There are many centers at the University that could partner with departments to further the goals of the President’s initiative. Centers such as the Office for Institutional Equity and Services for Students with Disabilities, among others, are equipped with trained staff who are knowledgeable about equity issues. Nevertheless, these centers cannot be expected to adequately support school units with strategic planning on such a large scale. Allocated resources for diversity and inclusion could increase the capacity of existing centers on campus to connect with school units and provide them with expertise and practical guidance.

3)     Strategic planning activities are devoid of incentives and continue to rely on the uncompensated labor of minority faculty, students and staff. When responsibility for diversity efforts is spread across the entire community, it becomes very easy for those with the least to gain from them to remain complacent, and allow others to carry the burden. Rhetoric surrounding the initiative emphasizes shared responsibility, but does not acknowledge the reality that behavior change rarely occurs in the absence of concrete incentives. As long as engagement with strategic planning activities continues to be volunteer-based, the volunteers themselves will suffer for it. University leaders must recognize that those who generously provide their expertise and unpaid labor to leaders and administrators pay a price for it, both professionally and psychologically. Faculty, staff and students of color are routinely called upon to educate and train their respective units on topics of equity and power at their own expense, while their more privileged counterparts are able to invest their energies into activities that reward them professionally. In this way, counter to its intentions, the Strategic Planning Initiative’s over-reliance on the voluntary contributions of faculty, students and staff of color actually exacerbates disparities at the University.

Contributors to diversity efforts must be compensated and rewarded with opportunities for professional advancement. Staff and students who do this work should be paid to do it. Service contributions that address issues of equity and climate should be weighted accordingly when faculty are being evaluated for tenure.

Equally as important, there must be strong disincentives to discourage complacency and penalties imposed upon negative contributors to climate. If diversity is indeed a shared responsibility, then entire departments should face ramifications when discrimination occurs on their watch. As long as the current charge remains volunteer driven, and no consequences are imposed on poor performers, the initiative will be ineffective. Simply asking the community to care about diversity, without providing them with incentives to do so, will fail to transform the campus climate.

The President’s initiative has succeeded in increasing dialogue related to diversity and equity at the University. However, these campus discussions have been ongoing for decades; our communities are fatigued by “diversity talk” and have little hope for change at the University. We question how the contemporary rhetoric differs from that of the past, particularly when the current initiative is unfunded. Without an infusion of resources to 1) build expertise, 2) increase capacity and 3) compensate and incentivize engagement, diversity efforts will continue to fall to the bottom of departments’ lists of competing priorities. Funding is far more critical than dialogue, and its presence or absence will dictate whether we succeed or fail as a community. We want to see University leadership rise to the occasion and earn the trust of minority students, faculty and staff by giving diversity its own budget.