Op-Ed: A clearer strategy for diversity

Tuesday, January 19, 2016 - 11:03pm

Robert M. Sellers is the University’s vice provost for equity, inclusion and academic affairs. He is also the Charles D. Moody Collegiate Professor of Psychology
 and Education and an alumnus of the University.

During the past week, I have had the pleasure to attend the town hall meetings designed to gather student input on the University’s diversity strategic planning process. It’s clear to me, after hearing directly from students and reading a thoughtful and compelling Jan. 11 Michigan Daily essay written by Michigan in Color contributors Jamie Tam and Velma Lopez, that we have not done an adequate job explaining some aspects of the planning process.  

While a great deal of important information about the nuts and bolts of the planning process is posted on the diversity.umich.edu website, we have been less clear regarding our rationale for conducting the planning process in the manner that we have. This lack of clarity has given rise to some concerns regarding the process itself.

One concern voiced is that the University cannot be serious about diversity because we have not announced a specific funding amount dedicated to tackling this issue. Last fall, Yale University announced a five-year, $50 million initiative to increase faculty diversity. At about the same time, Brown University announced a $100 million commitment to a wide range of initiatives regarding diversity, equity and inclusion.

While this approach may make sense for Yale and Brown, I do not believe it is an approach that is right for Michigan. First, I believe that our planning should drive our funding as opposed to our budget driving our planning. I am confident the ongoing strategic planning process will produce innovative, thoughtful and well-considered ideas and initiatives that will be targeted at specific measurable objectives.  

While announcing a particular dollar amount at the beginning of the process may make a strong statement, my concern is that it prematurely places a limit on what we are willing to spend on diversity, equity and inclusion. We want and need to be free to go wherever our ideas take us.

Second, I believe the best funding approach is not to have a separate diversity funding structure but instead to institutionalize diversity, equity and inclusion into every aspect of the University. This approach ensures that the funding endures beyond the present climate of activism.

Diversity, equity and inclusion are core part of our mission. As such, it must be part of the everyday business of the University. The best way to do that is to make sure the goals and initiatives adopted from the planning process are integrated into the regular budgeting process. This way, diversity, equity and inclusion efforts are not segregated into their own token pot, but instead are central to every unit’s budget and thus their mission.

Still skeptical? As a psychologist, I know that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Within the past year, the University has made major funding commitments to significant diversity efforts.

Just last month, the University's Board of Regents approved construction of a new multicultural center in the heart of campus. Next month, a supplemental educational program called Wolverine Pathways will launch for students living in the Ypsilanti and Southfield school districts. Students who complete the program and are admitted to the University are provided a four-year tuition scholarship. Last fall, we also launched the HAIL scholarship program to identify high-achieving, low-income students from all over the state and offer four-year, full-tuition scholarships for those who apply for admission and are accepted.

As significant as these three initiatives are, they are by no means the only financial commitments we are prepared to make. The administration is committed to finding the resources necessary to support our strategic plan – and the initiatives generated by that planning.

It also is clear from the student town hall meetings and from my many other encounters across campus that some people are struggling to understand this unorthodox, bottom-up approach to strategic planning. This approach is unlike any other planning process undertaken here. And I’m proud of that.

Our approach is intentionally bottom-up. Our goal is to provide everyone in the university community an opportunity to put forth ideas about what our objectives should be and how we should go about achieving them. I believe such an approach will not only generate the best ideas, but also provide students, faculty and staff greater ownership of the plans and help empower us all to create the change we all want to see in this university.  

Make no mistake, the plans we develop will not be the administration’s plans, nor will they be President Mark Schlissel’s plans. The plans will belong to all of us. We all have a role to play in the development of the strategic plan, and are all accountable for its implementation and success.

To date, we have received hundreds of comments and ideas from members of our community through our various community engagement activities and the Be Heard social media platform. These comments and ideas are being forwarded to the appropriate planning leads to be evaluated for integration into unit and area plans.

Yet, we are not satisfied with the level of engagement on this critical topic. I urge you to look for announcements of more campus-level and unit-level town hall meetings and other activities in the coming weeks.

The key to making this all work is the nearly 100 individuals who are serving as the diversity leads for their respective school, college or unit. The diversity leads have the critical task of synthesizing a great deal of information into a specific plan for their units. These are individuals who were hand picked by their unit leaders to do this important work.  

Most of the diversity leads have a history of promoting diversity, equity and inclusion in their units. A few are relatively new to this area. I can attest that these leaders are committed to improving their units. I also can assure you that they have the knowledge and skills necessary to lead their units in the planning process.  

I have spent 25 years in various capacities working to make the University a more diverse, equitable and inclusive place. I understand that we have a very long way to go before we live up to our considerable potential. I, too, feel the frustration many of us feel that we are not further along. I also am under no illusion that the strategic planning process will be a panacea that will fix everything.  

I am very optimistic and excited about what this strategic planning process can do. We have an opportunity to infuse a plan for achieving a more diverse community into the core mission and operation of this university. The planning process can be a powerful example of how including individuals from diverse perspectives and experiences can lead to more creative, innovative and effective ideas — the perfect embodiment of why a diverse, equitable and inclusive community is fundamental to academic excellence.