Recent incidents expose gaps in DEI plan

Sunday, February 12, 2017 - 8:35pm

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Carly Berger

 

In response to recent hate acts and a changing political climate, students are questioning the nature and progress of the University of Michigan’s five-year plan for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Program leaders are replying by emphasizing long-term goals and voicing optimism for short-term strategies.  

Announced in February 2015, the DEI plan officially launched in October 2016 as a program aimed at fostering an inclusive and equitable campus climate. The five-year operation will cost $85 million, in addition to its annual investment of $40 million. The University-wide plan consists of 49 sub-plans, each organized by a University unit of administration, academics or athletics.

Among the plan’s various initiatives are Wolverine Pathways and the HAIL Program, which aim to increase minority student enrollment and socioeconomic diversity, as well as a diversity-related training program for faculty and staff. It also includes a strategy to offer financial support to departments that conduct diversity-related research. Construction of the new Trotter Multicultural Center closer to central campus is another aspect of the program.  

“The campus-wide plan is a set of actions for today,” said University President Mark Schlissel when the plan launched in October. “We cannot live up to our full potential as a University unless everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute and to benefit.”

Now, several months into the program, students are criticizing the DEI plan for failing to create a safe environment given recent events.

Tuesday evening, hours after racist and anti-Semitic emails threatening Black and Jewish students were sent to University computer science and engineering undergraduate students, several students gathered for a midnight protest in front of the president’s house. Schlissel came outside to meet the crowd.

Citing incidents of racist flyering, protesters chanted “action, not emails,” referencing the University’s digital statement in response to the attacks, as opposed to “action” on the ground.  

Students protesters throughout the year have been critical of DEI initiatives, particularly of the 49 individual plans. Outside Schlissel’s home, LSA junior Jenise Williams emphasized the need for collective action from the University.  

“We want actual action,” Williams said. “My parents were here 30 years ago fighting for the same things … and (now) I didn’t want my sister to come here because of the shit I deal with here.” 

Chief Diversity Officer Rob Sellers, vice provost for equity and inclusion, oversees the execution of the DEI plan. He said he lamented, however, that the plan cannot prevent individual racist attacks.  

“If DEI is held up to keeping any individual or groups of individuals from acting in these particular ways, and (for) that matter, if that’s the same expectation for President Schlissel, then it’s natural for people to feel like nothing is happening,” he said. “But I think it’s quite frankly not reasonable to have that expectation.”

Sellers added in a time when so many are concerned about the University in relation to a tense national political climate, he doesn’t want people to blame DEI for specific events, such as the emails.

“We have a whole lot of incidents that are sparks, and these sparks are being thrown on a floor that is full of gasoline and so these fires are raging,” he said. “(We) cannot prevent the sparks. What the DEI is trying to do is create an environment where those sparks do not lead to explosions and fires. The fact of the matter is it’s going to take a while before we see all of the changes.”

In the days following the emails last week, campus community members expressed further concern about the gap between the University’s response to inflammatory attacks and student needs.

Postdoctoral fellow Austin McCoy, who studies racial justice, is a graduate student instructor. He spent his class on Wednesday discussing the emails and cited the DEI efforts to diversify campus, in addition to increased student activism, as reasons for these racially-charged attacks.

In response to a statement from the University’s Office of Public Affairs and Internal Communications announcing a joint investigation into the emails between the Division of Public Safety and Security and the FBI, McCoy suggested the University often handles such incidents with a predictable routine.  

“From the administration, I anticipate them sending out probably an email and saying that they condemn the acts and then that they’re investigating, but other than that, I don’t know what else the administration plans to do,” he said.

Though neither Schlissel nor Sellers released a statement directly in response to the racist emails, LSA seniors David Schafer and Micah Griggs, the president and vice president of Central Student Government, respectively, sent a campus-wide email Thursday condemning the acts. Next steps to be taken, according to the email message, include tweeting out new developments from DPSS and the Office of Public Affairs, continuing to update media outlets and returning calls from parents.

In tweets to Schlissel, McCoy offered suggestions from his students. He said students only ever see what he described as reactionary DEI, emails and diversity statements — and it seems to them that someone will need to get hurt before Schlissel takes action.

Engineering senior Greg McMurtry, president of the University’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, said administrators need to follow up with students who have voiced concerns to tell them what actions have been taken and ask if they are working.

Sellers, however, pointed to positive changes through DEI that students may not be aware of.

According to Sellers, DEI has allowed for the consolidation of the Division of Student Life’s Bias Response Team. In the past, faculty, staff and students had to look to different resources to receive support following a bias incident, but the BRT now employs a group of professional staff who respond to all targeted community members. In addition to helping victims navigate the appropriate long-term responses, the team aims to provide emotional and mental support.

“We’ve coordinated those efforts so everything comes into a central repository,” Sellers said. “The Bias Response Team is going to respond regardless, because it has members of each of those groups that are working together.” 

Other accomplishments of DEI, according to Sellers, are new courses for faculty to learn how to appropriately address campus climate issues in the classroom. These courses, created in tandem with University Human Resources, cover topics ranging from intercultural awareness to basic skills for fostering diversity, equity and inclusion.

Sellers said students have expressed concerns about faculty not addressing issues in their classes, but faculty have struggled with not knowing how to start the discussions.

“Where the DEI can be helpful is to provide more of that professional development so that we as a community are more resilient to these attacks,” he said.

According to Sellers, the goal of DEI is to minimize the impact, and not necessarily the occurrence, of attacks so as to enhance the security and educational experience of vulnerable students.  

“I think it is reasonable for us to have the expectation that we do everything that we can to minimize the impact and not allow it to deter us from a much larger goal of institutional change, opening up greater opportunities for more folks who have historically not had those opportunities,” he said.

Though students often object to the lack of community voices sought in the planning process, Sellers said one strength of DEI is that it was designed to be flexible and open to suggestions and in order to better serve the community.

In October, following a round of racist flyering, Schlissel announced two DEI Student Advisory Boards, consisting of 25 students each. One board consists of undergraduates and the other of graduate and professional students; all schools and colleges are represented on each board. The groups meet each month to discuss student interests and propose new plans, and subsequently convene with DEI leaders to explain their ideas.

“What the (Student Advisory Boards) have allowed us to do is have more input and more sense of conversation between administrators and students with regard to what's happening on campus and how we can best utilize students and students can best utilize us to get a better understanding,” Sellers said.

Students4Justice leader Vikrant Garg, a Public Health student, said he was disillusioned by the administrators’ means of seeking student voices. In an October interview, Garg said the DEI planning town hall he went to still overlooked student input.

“I had gone to the ones earlier, last year before coming back to campus, and I was not pleased with one, the way that they were run, and two, with the way that the plan was filled out,” Garg said. “It wasn’t really listening to student voices, even though it was a town hall for students.”

Sellers emphasized, however, the University is on board, and though changes have been made, success will not be immediate.

“Times have changed a bit in the sense that the administration isn’t the problem, where perhaps … 30 years ago, you could make the case that the University hadn’t made such a commitment, and that the University hadn’t necessarily seen this as part of their responsibility,” he said. “I can tell you right now, the students have a willing partner in this, and if there are ways that we can utilize that energy, that determination, that expertise and work together to make a difference, I think we have a shot at really making this place a very different place.”

Between Thursday night and early Friday morning last week, more than 150 students participated in a sit-in organized by Students4Justice at the Michigan Union in response to the racist emails as well as the defilement of a prayer rug in the Shapiro Undergraduate Library.

Prior to the protest, LSA junior Victoria Johnson, a leader of Students4Justice, echoed criticisms of the University’s response as inadequate.

“We feel like the administration hasn’t done enough,” she said. “It has been silent. They’re not showing up and giving the support that is needed to the students that have been attacked. We’re going to sit in the Union until they meet our demands.”

Education Prof. Tabbye Chavous, director of the National Center for Institutional Diversity, agreed that DEI’s implementation may be suffering from institutional missteps.

The first problem, she said, is with communication. Each branch of the DEI plan is supposed to address relevant issues, but Chavous said the University’s size makes it hard to spread the word on events and initiatives.

“There’s not one mechanism for information dissemination,” she said. “It could be that students are not aware of … new resources that are happening through Student Life, initiatives related to faculty hiring for more diverse faculty, initiatives that are happening to increase the numbers of students of color and those from first-gen and other underrepresented backgrounds on campus.”

In regard to the balance between short- and long-term change, Chavous noted plans for DEI were written and released less than a year ago.

In addition to DEI, Chavous leads the Diversifying Academia Program and the Diversity Scholars Network.

Diversifying Academia Program seeks to hire faculty from diverse backgrounds, as well as faculty who are committed to engaging in teaching and mentoring minority students. The program was created in response to concerns raised by students about faculty diversity.

Chavous expects to see a big change next semester.

“This fall will likely have an appreciable difference on our faculty,” she said. “This hiring initiative will change, within one year, the composition of the people who will be providing the educational experiences to our students. That’s just one example, but it’s an example of something that is pretty short-term in terms of the outcomes of those efforts.”

The Diversity Scholars Network promotes scholars working on and disseminating research about issues of diversity to improve educational practices. Chavous said this initiative will also enrich issues related to diversity in the learning environment, and will affect students, who have shorter careers at the University, soon. She noted both of these initiatives have short-term impacts overall, though they may not be that well-known.

“These activities will promote the capacity for that to happen in a very short time — again short, meaning within the current and next year, but that’s a very long time in the life of a student,” she said. “I want to acknowledge that for students, a whole academic year going by feels very long, but there are lots of things that are happening that the outcomes of which you will likely begin to see this year, this summer, this fall and beyond.”