Op-Ed: DEI work is critical at the University

Sunday, April 9, 2017 - 12:31pm

The work required to make the University of Michigan campus a more diverse, more equitable and more inclusive community of scholars requires a long-term commitment. That’s why, when we developed and launched our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategic plan last fall, it was a five-year plan.

And, like with any plan of this magnitude and significance, there were immediate calls for us to do more and do it quicker. That’s a natural reaction.

But today I want to make sure that our community knows just how important this work is for all of us. It is so important that there is a team of more than 200 UM employees on the Ann Arbor campus who are devoting all or a portion of their professional lives to this work.

Additionally, there are countless numbers of faculty, staff and students across our campus who are assisting by sharing their experiences, offering their advice and volunteering their services in many different ways.

Student involvement in the DEI planning and implementation processes is critical. Many units across campus have involved undergraduate and graduate students in their work. My office has a student advisory board. The Division of Student Life has established two DEI Student Advisory Committees made up of 25 undergraduate and 25 graduate student volunteers. I recognize and value the historic and contemporary contributions made by students to the University’s progress with respect to both the DEI planning process and more broadly diversity, equity and inclusion over many years at the University. 

A fundamental motivation for creating a strategic plan was to make the unpaid DEI work of countless members of our community (including graduate students) the responsibility of the University.

That means the bulk of the day-to-day work of implementing the DEI plans across campus must fall to the faculty and staff who have been given the responsibility of DEI plan implementation and who are paid for that work. At the same time, we also recognize the personal, professional and educational benefits that being involved with DEI work provides. I have personally benefitted from them throughout my career.

To address the issue of the appropriate role for graduate students within the DEI strategic planning process, my office is working with a task force equally comprised of graduate students and DEI strategic plan implementation professionals. The task force will have two charges.

First, the task force will go through all the unit DEI plans and identify where unpaid graduate student work may exist. The task force will then recommend appropriate ways to address this work (including providing appropriate compensation). The work needs to be tasks for which graduate students are uniquely qualified to do or it should be done by faculty or staff. The work also should have some educational benefit to graduate students since they came to the University to get the best education possible.

The second charge of the task force is to identify existing opportunities within the plans as well as recommend new mechanisms by which graduate students with interest in DEI issues can gain valuable educational and professional development experiences with appropriate compensation. Possible examples include: a new DEI innovation fund; possible new Rackham Graduate School Diversity Allies grant supplements; internship opportunities through the National Center for Institutional Diversity and the Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion; as well as potential educational opportunities in other units across the University.

I am confident that this task force provides the best process to address the shared concern that graduate students, particularly under-represented graduate students, should not be required to perform uncompensated work within the DEI plan. It is a process that will include graduate students in designing their roles in the DEI plan. We also anticipate creating additional funding for graduate students to work in concert with the DEI plan that will provide graduate students important educational benefits.

Ultimately, the University is interested in fostering a supportive relationship with graduate students that is both mindful of their time and respectful of their efforts. Through these outlined actions, we believe that together we can achieve these goals.

Robert Sellers is the University of Michigan’s chief diversity officer and vice provost for equity and inclusion. He also is the Charles D. Moody Collegiate Professor of Psychology and a professor of education.