November 6, 2014

Diversity initiative begins to take shape

Campus conversations have led to an in-depth review of how UNL will handle future diversity issues.

The initiative, announced by Chancellor Harvey Perlman during his Oct. 2 State of the University Address, charges the offices of the Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs to create a strategic plan to advance diversity campus-wide. Project oversight has been given to Lance Pérez, associate vice chancellor for Academic Affairs, and André Fortune, assistant to the vice chancellor for Student Affairs.

The work of Pérez and Fortune will be evaluated and guided by a Diversity Administrative Council, which will include membership from across UNL.

“It’s not the intent of campus administration that Lance and I are to be the saviors of campus diversity,” Fortune said. “We are tasked with leading efforts to shape strategies that will make campus more diverse. For that to be successful, we need buy in from students, faculty and staff.

“Every individual on campus owns a piece of this initiative.”

Joy Castro, professor of English and ethnic studies, has been selected by Academic Affairs to serve as an Academic Leadership Fellow on the project. Castro will craft a report on effective university practices and organizational structures that further diversity. Pérez said the report will help shape how Academic Affairs proceeds with future diversity decisions, including the possible hiring of a chief diversity officer.

Between 2009 and 2013, more than 30 higher education institutions created administrative positions focused on diversity and inclusiveness, according to the 2013 Diversity Officer Survey conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan and University of Connecticut.

“What we don’t want to do is rush out and be just another university that hires a chief diversity officer,” Pérez said. “We want to take time to study best practices, then incorporate them so they best support diversity on this campus. As we move forward, we want this initiative to have a true purpose and make a positive long term impact.”

Along with localized campus considerations, Castro’s study will take a broad look at diversity and how it connects to other issues in higher education.

“In truth, diversity is a complex issue with no simple solutions,” Pérez said. “Joy’s report will help put us on a course to integrate diversity across all aspects of the academic enterprise and the faculty, staff and student experience”

Fortune said the initiative must “thread two needles,” expanding diversity education to include traditionally underrepresented groups while also assuring that majority students be involved in related programming.

“To truly be inclusive, you must try to learn about, appreciate and respect people different than yourself,” Fortune said. “What this initiative allows us to do is stand up and define exactly whom we want to be in terms of diversity. Through this process, we will identify areas where we are doing well and areas for improvement.”

Fortune said Student Affairs plans to increase diversity programming, offering both public opportunities for campus to come together and group-specific sessions to allow for deeper discussion. He also said a review is planned to assure that Student Affairs procedures are inclusive.

“It’s also a great opportunity to think about how we can create a team of facilitators that can go to different groups and spaces on campus — into the residence halls, Greek houses, Recognized Student Organization meetings, classrooms and offices — to talk about how to make UNL more inclusive,” Fortune said. “There’s no magic way to make this campus more inclusive. But by generating dialogue and working together, we can make advances to assure that will make UNL a welcoming environment for all students.”

Other parts of the diversity initiative include:

• The Office of Equity, Access and Diversity is being restructured to handle matters related to compliance and investigation. The office previously led proactive campus activities related to diversity — tasks which have now shifted to student and academic affairs offices.

• Human Resources has taken over employment related diversity efforts previously handled by the Office of Equity, Access and Diversity. Along with that change, Chancellor Perlman charged Human Resources and all other campus units to be accountable for improving diversity among university staff.

• UNL launched “Tips Prevent,” a web-based system that allows individuals to report incidents and concerns related to discrimination, sexual harassment and other inappropriate conduct. The reports are automatically directed to appropriate campus teams for investigation and follow-up.

“These steps will not suddenly immunize this campus from the tensions that are inherent in the general society,” Perlman said. “This will require the hard work of all of us. We recognize the true measure of our success should not be statistics or administrative processes, but how freely persons of diverse backgrounds can both be embraced by the larger community and at the same time freely express, with pride, their personal identities.”