SELLERS: Thank You for the Privilege to be Part of this Team

July 27, 2022

To the University Community,

As I began to write this letter, my last as Vice Provost for Equity and Inclusion & Chief Diversity Officer, I found myself overtaken by an array of emotions – nostalgia, pride, optimism, immense gratitude, and even a little sadness.

I am extremely proud of the progress that we have made as a university community to become more diverse, equitable and inclusive. Thousands of individuals across our campus have worked to ensure that the University of Michigan is a place where everyone has an equitable opportunity to succeed and contribute to the University’s mission, and our greater society, through excellence in our teaching, learning, scholarly inquiry and service missions.

The highlight of my time in the role has been the opportunity to work with so many outstanding individuals. I am thankful for the opportunity to work with the great team in the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ODEI), who have been beyond amazing in their efforts to make this University a better place. They have been great friends and colleagues. I am also very grateful for the opportunity to work with many individuals and groups dedicated to the principles of justice, diversity, equity and inclusion, including our DEI leads, my advisory boards, organizations, University officials, and so many different members of the University of Michigan community. This position has provided me with an opportunity to meet so many committed staff, faculty and students all across our campus.

I am both thankful and humbled by the progress we have all made in the University’s DEI journey. We, as a University, have accomplished a great number of things. Perhaps most audacious has been our first five-year DEI strategic plan (DEI 1.0). In the fall of 2016, we launched the plan as a bold, University-wide commitment to sustained institutional and cultural change. The plan involved every corner of the University enterprise and provided every member of the campus community an opportunity for input into the plan. The structure and process of DEI 1.0 was revolutionary and has now become a model throughout higher education.

The fact that we have committed to another five-year DEI strategic plan (DEI 2.0) is evidence that the University recognizes DEI is imperative to the service of our mission. The commitment to DEI 2.0 also demonstrates our growing understanding that institutional inequity and injustice demands a sustained commitment to combat, and ultimately dismantle, it. These are insights that I believe our University as a whole was incapable of at the start of DEI 1.0.

Our DEI strategic planning processes helped to stimulate hundreds of successful programs, projects and initiatives across our campus that have had an important impact on who we are and how we work together. During this time, we’ve developed and implemented inclusive teaching programs, established the Go Blue Guarantee, worked closely with the student community on the development of the new Trotter Multicultural Center, established gender-based and sexual misconduct prevention training, collaborated with the Student IDEA board to develop more inclusive and accessible facilities, created an Ombudsperson position focused specifically on staff needs and many more accomplishments throughout our initial diversity, equity and inclusion strategic plan process.

I am especially proud of the founding of the Wolverine Pathways program, which has provided supplemental educational opportunities to the University of Michigan for students in Ypsilanti, Southfield and Detroit. These examples are a small, yet impactful sample of the more than 2,700 actions that were achieved throughout DEI 1.0 to make the University more diverse, equitable and inclusive.

While we have made tremendous progress over the past few years, there is still a lot more to be done—this is to be expected. Real sustainable, institutional change is never easy, simple nor quick. Even with all of our accomplishments to date, we have not progressed at the same rate across our entire institution. While I have seen remarkable, transformative progress in some areas of the University, there are still other areas where the progress has not been what we wanted. Also, progress never happens in a linear manner. History has taught us that sometimes we must take two steps back after taking three steps forward.

The last eight years have been very tumultuous in many ways relevant to issues of diversity, equity, inclusion and justice for both the University and our society. Many members of our community have felt they have been unjustly under attack because of one or more of their identities. These feelings of injustice and distrust have resulted in both unprecedented activism, as well as a general sense of anomie and malaise across our community that has too often drained our capacity to extend grace to one another. Although I cannot recall ever seeing our campus or our larger society in such a state of mistrust, I remain optimistic about our future.

First, I believe that we, as individuals, have the ability to address the problem of a lack of grace. This is not an institutional or structural challenge. It is instead an individual challenge that each and every one of us has the capacity to resolve. We simply must be willing to give other people the same grace that we would expect others to provide us. This is especially true for those with whom we vehemently disagree. We must remember that DEI does not mean harmony or consensus. By definition, diversity requires divergent perspectives, positions and beliefs. Equity and inclusion are all about ensuring that the heterogeneity of the human spirit can happen in a manner free of bias and exclusion.

Second, given the significant progress the University has made under these most difficult times, I cannot wait to see the progress that will be made under a different zeitgeist. I see DEI 2.0 as having an exponentially greater impact than DEI 1.0. We now benefit from so much more experience, knowledge and infrastructure than we had at the beginning of our journey. DEI 1.0 was innovative, and we were building the plane as we were flying. When we started this process, we had a vision of what we wanted to achieve. We now have a vision of what we want to do and a road map to do it.

Finally, my optimism regarding the future is based on perhaps the greatest achievement of DEI 1.0. We have institutionalized the goal of becoming a more diverse, equitable and inclusive university committed to DEI 2.0. In doing so, we recognize and embrace that to be a better institution, we must become more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. We also recognize that historic structural barriers exist in our practices, procedures and policies, which have not afforded everyone equitable access to the University, success at the University, nor the opportunity to contribute to the University. DEI 2.0 represents the University’s acknowledgment that in order to make a long-term, self-reinforcing systemic change, we must constantly work to be better. DEI is not an initiative tied to a single chief diversity officer, provost, or president. It is now part of the culture of the University of Michigan.

As I have stated often, our efforts are neither a sprint nor a marathon. They are a relay. It has been my great privilege to have had the opportunity to carry the baton for these past eight years. Now I happily pass the baton to my outstanding successor—Tabbye Chavous—who I know will lead us much further into the future.

Again, thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for allowing me the privilege to be part of this team.

Sincerely,

Robert M. Sellers
Vice Provost for Equity and Inclusion
Chief Diversity Officer