DEI Leads: Working with Students to Advance Priorities

September 29, 2022

At the University of Michigan, one of the most important aspects of the DEI Strategic Plan is how the work permeates every school, college and unit across the sprawling university system. Embedded within every division are DEI leads, U-M staff whose on-the-ground knowledge of the specific needs of their constituents allows them to center programs and initiatives specific to their audience.

However, with a revolving student population, recent U-M students may not be aware of these resources, or of many of the impactful programs that have come about as a result of the efforts by these leads. 

“The most important thing is that we have these individuals in each of the units across campus because we want them to be embedded in the local environment of the unit they support,” said Tyne Lucas, senior program manager in the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. “They have a really good understanding of what climate issues exist in the school, college or unit they’re in, and they can be really responsive to student needs.”

“[DEI leads] can be really responsive to student needs.” —Tyne Lucas

“For students,” Lucas emphasizes, “if they are experiencing climate issues, want to get involved in DEI, or just want to be connected in terms of events and activities, the DEI lead is going to be the person they want to know and be connected with.”

Since the launch of the first DEI Strategic Plan (1.0) back in 2016, many initiatives were launched as the result of the dialogue between leads and students to better enhance the on-campus experience. 

As the University evaluates the efficacy of DEI 1.0 and prepares to launch DEI 2.0 in fall 2023, here are just a few of the programs that got their start during this time.

LSA: Student Employee DEI Certificate Program

LSA’s Student Employee DEI Certificate program is unique in that all students who are employed within the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts are eligible to participate.

When designing this program, Kelly Maxwell, assistant dean for undergraduate education at LSA, remembers thinking, “what can we do that will be impactful over time for students?” She wanted a program that was “more sustained over time that can make a bigger impact on student’s lives.” In conversations with students, she was hearing that they “wanted transferable skills when they went out into their careers after graduation.” 

The idea of a certificate-based program, where participants learned together as part of a cohort, was strategized as the best way to accomplish this. The program, which launched during the 2021-22 school year in a hybrid version, takes place in two parts—the first includes trainings and workshops around diversity-related issues in the workplace, followed by an independent project. Students must complete both parts in order to receive the certificate, which they can put on their resume and make known to future employers. 

The first cohort of Student Employee Diversity Certificate graduates, March 2022.

The first cohort of Student Employee Diversity Certificate graduates, March 2022.

The program is a commitment, with Part I taking place over six sessions throughout the fall semester, while Part II takes place in the winter. The students receive a stipend for participating in the first part. “We’ve really tried to have interactive sessions that also offer applied learning. Students reflect on themselves, their jobs, their professional aspirations, applying what they’re learning to case studies,” said Jessica Garcia, LSA’s diversity, equity and inclusion manager. 

With the second year of the program just beginning, both Garcia and Maxwell are optimistic about the impacts it will have on both the student participants and the school at large. “We’re creating some cultural change in LSA. As student employees—whatever their role is—if they have more knowledge around other identities, their own identities, and the impact they’re having, if they understand implicit bias, or how coded language can work, then they’re going to be more inclusive employees.”

Rackham: Disability Needs Assessment

During conversations with graduate students that identified as having disabilities, as well as advocates for students with disabilities, Ethriam Brammer, assistant dean and DEI lead at Rackham Graduate School, recalls being asked “what [can] Rackham do better to accommodate the needs of grad students with disabilities?”

“What [can] Rackham do better to accommodate the needs of grad students with disabilities?” —Ethriam Brammer

It quickly became apparent that there was limited information available about the unique needs of master’s and doctoral students. “In general, when we talk about students with disabilities in the higher ed context, most is about undergrads,” notes Brammer. “One of the most common accommodations for undergrads is to give students time and a half. For many disabilities, that is a reasonable accommodation. However, time and a half to write a dissertation is not helpful. If you’re pursuing a doctorate that requires you to do field research, we have to think of accommodations outside of built infrastructure.” This is one of several ways in which the work of graduate students differs from their counterparts. 

In early 2020, Rackham embarked upon a research project “to assess and understand the experiences of graduate students with disability accommodations in graduate and professional programs.” They received survey responses from 1,070 students; 349 identified as having a disability, and an additional 147 felt that they would benefit from accommodations. They also conducted six student focus groups in winter 2020 with 20 participants each. The Graduate Student with Needs Assessment was published at the end of 2020, at a time when most U-M students were learning remotely. However, graduate students were often the first requested back to campus, particularly those who worked in labs and whose research could not be completed from afar. For students with disabilities, who may have been at an increased risk for severe complications should they contract the coronavirus, accommodations were made for them to park closer to their workplaces so as not to have to take public transportation. 

Another issue that the Needs Assessment highlighted was the struggle many encountered as both students and University employees, as the funding for many graduate students requires them to be employed as a graduate student instructor or research assistant. “Unfortunately, the ADA treats student accommodations differently from employee accommodations. There are two different offices on our campus, one that supports the needs of faculty and staff, and another that supports the needs of students. For a person with disabilities, it’s a fluid experience. Your disability profile didn’t change even though your employment classification did,” said Brammer. He also expressed that it is not uncommon for a student accommodation (which could include having special furniture or screens) to expire when the individual becomes an employee, even when working in the same office with the same needs. 

The Needs Assessment is likely the first of its kind in higher education, and Brammer says it is a critical step in an ongoing process. “We are continuing to educate campus around all these nuances—the very important differences between grad and undergrad student populations and how disability and accommodations need to be treated differently for these two populations. We are also continuing to educate our faculty and the leadership within our graduate programs.” 

Student Life: Trotter Multicultural Center

The Trotter Multicultural Center is not new. Its storied history at the University of Michigan dates back to black student activism in the late 1960s. The original Trotter House opened in 1971 at the corners of South and East University Street as a Black Student Cultural Center, becoming the Trotter Multicultural Center in 1981. Student activism, a central tenant for many generations of U-M students, continued over the decades, and in 2014, Kyra Shahid, Trotter’s director, recalls that “the #BBUM Being Black at Michigan movement—that was the movement that was truly influential and spearheaded the movement to move Trotter to central campus.”

3 Trotter Center staff in front of painting of U-M students

Trotter Center staff, including director Kyra Shahid, second from left.

Students, too, were involved in creating the new space—“everything from the furniture choices to the word bubbles that are present in our meeting rooms, to students being influential in the naming of the Sankofa lounge and the photos in that space,” said Shahid. 

Its move to central campus in 2019 recentered Trotter as a hub for student activities; however, the building has not been fully utilized due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The start of the 2022-23 academic year brings a busy slate of programming and activities, finally activating the space students have desired for so long. 

Shahid started in her role in June 2022, and she says that her “charge when I started was to take Trotter’s mission and vision and put it into better alignment with the history and heritage of the center.” That mission, of building upon its history “of strengthening relationships” and working to “disrupt patterns of inequity, restor[ing] and celebrat[ing] cultural heritages, and cultivat[ing] racial healing within student experiences,” is at the fore of Shahid’s work.

Students at a Trotter Center event, September 2022.

Students at a Trotter Center event, September 2022.

The fact that the Trotter Center’s new director is also a DEI Lead within Student Life reiterates the intention of the space and the value of having leads actively engaged in these places. “That space being available for students, and particularly having a space where marginalized students can come together and be in community with one another is an important space on campus for students. Trotter in the past was a de facto space that people gathered, and it became a multicultural center,” said Tyne Lucas. “It’s now a bit more formalized with it coming to central campus.” Its current calendar suggests that it remains an important gathering space for U-M students.