Skepticism remains nationally over diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in higher education.
The recent report “Racial and Ethnic Equity in U.S. Higher Education” indicates that since 2020 more than 130 research institutions have publicly shared plans or aspirations to diversify their student bodies and workforces, and build equitable and inclusive communities where people of color have access to the same resources as white students and feel like they belong.
But despite these good intentions, it has been difficult to move the needle as it relates to representation, and inequalities persist for underrepresented groups.
Although DEI work is difficult and progress can feel slow, leaders across the University of Michigan say they are steadfastly committed to DEI for the long term, and they point to academic excellence as the through-line for why it is so important.
“We simply cannot fulfill the mission of the university without a commitment to DEI,” said Sheri Notaro, DEI director for the Institute for Social Research. “The promise for higher education really is access and opportunity for all.”
In her work, Notaro oversees the implementation of the ISR DEI Strategic Plan, as well as the activities of four working groups that focus on specific components of the plan.
In 2016, U-M launched its first diversity, equity and inclusion five-year strategic plan and named Robert Sellers the university’s first chief diversity officer.
The plan represented the shared and overarching themes and strategies represented in 50 individual DEI plans created by the university’s 19 schools and colleges, Student Life, Athletics, Michigan Medicine and other administrative units across campus.
Since then, U-M has seen institutional success in the areas of DEI skill building, new policies and processes, new and expanded DEI community support, accessibility and affordability.
Before blindly committing to a new plan however, Sellers — who will soon turn the CDO title over to Tabbye M. Chavous — and Katrina Wade-Golden, deputy chief diversity officer and director of implementation for the campuswide DEI Strategic Plan, have been intentional about ensuring the university’s next plan is meaningful and its outcomes can be measured.
“The past five years have yielded experience and data that allows us to sharpen our approach and act with increased precision and skill,” Wade-Golden said. “As we evaluate our initial plan, we are seeing positive results in a number of student, faculty and staff focused initiatives.”
Following a year of evaluation and another year of community engagement, the university is set to launch DEI 2.0 in October 2023. An evaluation report, highlighting DEI successes and areas of opportunity, will be shared during this year’s Annual DEI Summit in October.
This summer, the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion brought together university leadership teams — including deans, executive officers and unit directors — and DEI implementation leads representing the 50 planning units for a series of full-day retreats in which participants reflected on the outcomes of the previous plan and strategized for DEI 2.0.
The groups took inventory of existing initiatives and activities, assessed resources, identified areas for partnership and collaboration, and began to develop measurable strategic goals and priorities for the future.
The retreats also provided a space for colleagues to reconnect after nearly two years of working virtually, and to re-energize. Many of U-M’s DEI leaders are the first to respond when the campus community is grappling with societal racial tensions and the residual impacts of a global pandemic.
“I heard from others that this work can be hard and lonely,” said Tiffany Marra, the director of the Center for the Education of Women+ and who has worked at the university for 21 years. “The retreat gave us a chance to discuss some of the challenges we were facing individually, but hearing others talk about their challenges gave me reassurance that I wasn’t alone.”
CEW+ provides immediate and ongoing services and the financial support needed to ensure educational success and degree completion. Women and underserved students are CEW+’s primary constituency, but all students are welcome.
The university’s DEI journey has revealed that the pursuit of a diverse academic environment is challenging. And that within any diverse organization, there will be competing priorities and not everyone will agree.
But, while coming to a consensus about how this work should be carried might be difficult, committing to the work is without question.
“It can feel like investing time, energy and resources into diversity, equity and inclusion takes those things away from other institutional priorities,” said Jessica Garcia, DEI manager for LSA. “But (DEI) is all of our responsibilities because it helps us achieve our mission of academic excellence.
“We must demonstrate our commitment to learn, commitment to listen, commitment to resources, commitment in the face of resistance and competing priorities, and commitment to keep working at it because this work takes time. It is not a quick fix, and it’s never done.”