The Leads: Advancing DEI Efforts Across U-M

May 2, 2022

With the launch of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategic plan in 2016, the University of Michigan sought to establish overarching strategies and guidelines that would better embed this work across the University. 

While striving to build a more welcoming and inclusive environment, University leadership recognized that in order for the strategic plan to be successful, it could not be prescriptive, with all faculty, staff and students tasked with the same work. The University acknowledged that each school, college and unit were at various points in their DEI efforts, and trying to use a “one size fits all” approach would not be an effective tactic. 

Instead, the strategic plan aimed to provide a framework, while the tactical implementation of these efforts needed to be uniquely tailored to every unit at U-M. In creating individualized strategic plans, every school, college and unit was given a certain level of autonomy in developing their programs, staffing and executive leadership, all with the goal of imbuing DEI across the University. 

A critical component to this approach was the development of the DEI Implementation Leads Group, better known as “DEI Leads.” These individuals are charged with ensuring that the 50 school, college and unit plans are executed within their respective areas. With at least one designated faculty or staff member for each of the 50 plans, they are responsible for augmenting and tracking the DEI work occurring within their unit. The leads shepherd the work forward, track its efficacy, and work closely with one another. Currently, the DEI Leads are stewarding the work of the DEI 1.0 Evaluation efforts all across campus.

These individuals must follow a general framework, addressing three main themes: 

  1. create an inclusive and equitable campus climate
  2. recruit, retain and develop a diverse community
  3. support innovative and inclusive scholarship and teaching

What that means to each specific unit may vary. 

According to Tyne Lucas, Senior Program Manager with the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, this “allows [leads] to be very specific with their community and make sure that they’re addressing the needs of their community.” 

Units may be seeking to diversify their student body, faculty and staff, create new curricula, or develop new research opportunities. Tailoring the work to each individual unit allowed for different metrics of success over the plan’s first five years, and will further enhance the work that happens during this transition period from the first strategic plan (DEI 1.0) to its next iteration (DEI 2.0), which is scheduled to launch in fall 2023. 

The leads’ role is critical—they often function as stewards of DEI practices, working with others in their units to carry out the work. Joana Dos Santos, the Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, came to U-M from work in community organizing. As the director of community-based organizations, Dos Santos took the same strategy when it came to advancing DEI work at Taubman. “I am the holder of the strategy and the change work, but I am not the only one who does the work—it is our collective work.”

“I am the holder of the strategy and the change work, but I am not the only one who does the work—it is our collective work.” —Joana Dos Santos, Taubman

By approaching the work from the community perspective, Dos Santos believes it “should be community designed, community co-created. If the community doesn’t feel invested from the design process, then they’re really not going to be invested in the long-term sustainability of it.” 

Anna Sampson, Senior Associate Director of Development, Foundation & Government Relations at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA), says similarly, “the leads are not the decision makers. What I see my role as is keeping the train on the track and keeping it moving.” 

Over the past two years, keeping things on track became especially challenging with the COVID-19 pandemic. Like most activities at the University, almost every aspect of DEI work was conducted virtually. “What we’ve seen during this time is [that] people don’t necessarily feel they have the same outlets to express themselves. It’s harder to do virtually. As we work towards 2.0, we want to hear the experiences of our students, as well as our faculty and staff. There are a lot of silos that happened in this hybrid environment, so we’re trying to hear different perspectives and voices and bring the groups together,” says Lauren Davis, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Community at the School of Environment and Sustainability (SEAS). Ensuring that students, faculty, and staff know who their DEI lead is, and knowing that there are regular opportunities to get involved, will be imperative as this work continues throughout the transition to DEI 2.0.

Advancing Priorities

Lauren Davis, who formerly served as the diversity lead at the School of Social Work before joining SEAS in September 2021, has the unique perspective of serving as a lead for two schools, each of which had very different approaches to DEI efforts prior to the implementation of the DEI strategic plan. Many in the social work field were more attuned to the language and community work inherent in advancing DEI simply by the nature of the people they work with.

“The environmental sciences as a whole tends to be very white. So we’re trying to shift the perspectives that we’re bringing to the work and the curriculum, and how we’re supporting the students and what that means in their careers,” says Davis. She highlights the Decolonizing SEAS Initiative, which brought together faculty and students to review class syllabi, providing compensation to students as they worked to make sure that equitable voices and perspectives are being taught. 

This epitomizes a core theme that takes place across units, which is integrating DEI work into the actual curriculum being taught to students. The topics that are taught, how they’re taught, and the overarching content for many schools can be seen as somewhat immutable, with a core foundation taught to generations. Yet much progress has been made across units these past several years. 

By inviting students into the curricular discussions, as they have done at SEAS, or by creating programs like the Equity in Architectural Education program at Taubman, both faculty and students learn from one another while ensuring that a variety of voices are heard. 

Inclusive Conversations & Tailored Plans

As a public space, whose audience ranges from scholars to families, the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s (UMMA) diversification goals are somewhat unique. That is where the personalization from the strategic plan becomes most evident. Anna Sampson, who is a co-lead along with her colleague Alisunn Jones, said that the DEI strategic plan came at a critical juncture for the museum. Christina Olsen was appointed museum director in 2017. After conducting listening sessions, students in particular expressed that they didn’t feel that the museum was a welcoming space. 

“They didn’t see themselves there,” summarizes Sampson. “There was very little contemporary art, the largest painting in the space was of a slave owner. [Olsen] took that to heart and 90 percent of the art was reinstalled.” The museum is “now everybody’s place,” says Sampson, a point that she says is illustrated by an increase in participation in activities ranging from student engagement councils to virtual programming—if not currently in visitors—as the museum has largely been closed to the public for the past two years due to the pandemic. 

“[People] didn’t see themselves there…[now] the museum is everybody’s place.” —Anna Sampson, UMMA

The museum is excited to bring back in-person field trips in the coming school year—with a goal of serving only high-needs classrooms that would not otherwise have access to a museum outing—which are being “redesigned to be completely trauma-informed to meet the needs of our students.” 

As in the academic units where faculty and students are in dialogue with one another, DEI work at UMMA is present in nearly all department meetings, with additional input from the volunteer docents and facilities staff. In fact, it was an exhibition technician—the person responsible for hanging the artwork in the galleries—who reported that the placement of the museum’s donation boxes was a hindrance for visitors. 

“The people who were in the galleries all the time would see people entering and seeing our donation boxes and turn around and leave,” recalls Sampson. “With that information, one of our goals of inclusion is making the museum a truly welcoming place. We moved the donation boxes, and we changed the language on them. We’re getting less money for sure, but we’re creating a more inclusive space. Without those voices on the committees, we wouldn’t have known that.”

Creating Access

One of the University’s strategic plan priorities is to diversify its student, faculty and staff composition. That goal is top of mind for all of the units on campus; however, each may have different metrics as to what an increase in diversity means. 

“We’ve definitely been successful in increasing our representation of diverse students and faculty and staff by race and ethnicity,” says Dr. Rushika Patel, Chief Health and Academic Equity Officer for the School of Nursing. However, she recognizes that, while gender diversity is also happening, it’s an incremental change. “It’s not as easy, quite frankly, to convince men to be a nurse.” 

This is most pronounced at the undergraduate level, as she notes that both the PhD and graduate programs have seen a greater increase in male students than the undergraduate program. In efforts to expand the school’s reach, she described partnering with the Center for Educational Outreach and Wolverine Pathways to recruit high school students to the program, and being asked what she calls “the most basic question. ‘Do guys become nurses?’” Shifting this mindset will be most effective by demonstrating that there are men in the field, as mentorship and allyship are two of the most noted ways for people to envision themselves in a given field.  

The Ross School of Business also acknowledges that the diversification of its student body has historically been a struggle. “We’re really talking about accessibility,” says Dr. Thomas Bell, Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Ross. “We really need to examine all the access points to the school and understand what the barriers are and think about how to remove them so there is equitable access.” 

In particular, he describes that the first-year undergraduate class is an area of opportunity, as “most students that have a singular or multiple minoritized identities are transfer students,” coming both from different schools at U-M or outside the University. Bell details great investment in formalizing affinity and allyship groups at the graduate level, providing space for conversations and access to leadership. The next step, he says, which will begin in the fall, is creating that same kind of inclusive environment for undergraduates. 

Continuing the Work

While DEI leads have been an active force across the University for nearly six years, they note that due to the confluence of events over the past few years, from the COVID-19 pandemic and its disproportionate impact on communities of color, to the racial reckoning in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, their work—and their community’s involvement and responses—have strengthened since 2020.  

“In a nursing school, where people are committing their lives and careers to health—mental health, physical health, as well as social health—in so many ways there’s just a richer sense of conviction and imperative behind our equity and DEI work that I wouldn’t have seen before,” says Patel. “I feel like the level of interest and involvement and commitment to participating in this work, it’s come out of the sadness and trauma and reckoning that people have had to contend with over the past few years.” 

As they assess their progress, the leads see great areas of opportunity as they embark upon DEI 2.0. Notes Sampson of UMMA, “DEI 1.0 was so philosophical because it was the first time we’ve ever done it. 2.0 will be so operational. The philosophy is still there—we’re philosophical thinkers and we want to have big goals, but we also want to be able to measure the work we’re doing in concrete ways. We’re always listening.”

“What we did [at Ross] in the first five years allowed us to tackle the bigger issues that we can use as a stepping stone to have deeper conversations,” echoes Bell.

“To see people’s evolution over time is what I get most excited about.” —Lauren Davis, SEAS

For Davis, “to see people’s evolution over time is what I get most excited about.” 

While sharing opportunities for growth, the DEI leads collectively see themselves in a better place to ideate and progress as they look towards DEI 2.0. In part, this recognition, from its very inception, that DEI work was not one size fits all, has created a myriad of opportunities and approaches, all under the watchful eyes of the unit DEI Leads.


Featured Photo: DEI Leads gather in Fall 2021