INTERVIEW: Getting to Know Tabbye Chavous

Tabbye chavous sitting in chair

Dr. Tabbye Chavous began her tenure as the University of Michigan’s Vice Provost for Equity & Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer in August 2022. A member of the University of Michigan for 24 years, Tabbye is a professor of education and professor of psychology. She most recently served as the Director of the National Center for Institutional Diversity and associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

Get to know Tabbye as she shares her own experiences as a college student, her reflections on DEI at U-M, and what she enjoys in her personal time.

This interview has been adapted for print from her recent video interview

Tell us a little about yourself. Where did you grow up and go to school?

I was born and raised in South Carolina until I went to college. I went to the University of Virginia approximately seven hours from home because I wanted to be close to family, but not so close that they could pop in all the time. I was able to major in interdisciplinary studies, which was a special program that allowed me to take courses across the sciences, the arts, the humanities, and the social sciences.

I continued in graduate school in community psychology, where my focus was on understanding the experiences of black youth and their experiences in educational systems, and how those experiences shaped their identities for the good and the bad. In particular, how educational settings shape students’ sense of belonging, and also shape who they think they are and who they can be as they pursue their academics and professional [paths].

Were you always interested in issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion?

My experiences as a student before college led to my interest in DEI work. I noticed that in my own high school, for instance, certain students got messages that the expectations about where they would go [to college] were not as high as the expectations for other students. I noticed that those messages were both direct and indirect. Some of those messages came through where students were placed. They were in lower tracks, they weren’t in advanced courses. They weren’t mentored or encouraged to pursue those areas. And in other cases, the messages were social, the kinds of expectations, or even for me as a high achieving student, expressions of surprise when I would perform well or would do well in my academics.

That really led me to a way of thinking about the ways that structures and systems and environments impact students and shape their understandings of who they are and, more importantly, who they can be in ways that also relate to students’ motivation.

What brought you to the University of Michigan?

Not the weather! I visited Michigan for the first time in 1997, and it was in January, and it was cold. I expected it to be cold, but it was really cold. And I then visited again in March of the next year and it was in the 70s. And I was like, ‘this is not so bad at all.’ Of course, I later discovered that that would never happen again. I was fooled into coming here!

But I’ve been here for almost 24 years, and the reason why is because of what is here. And that is the most intellectually and culturally vibrant experience that I’ve ever had as a scholar, as a professional, and as a teacher. Michigan was already interdisciplinary in ways that other institutions were not. My interests crosscut psychology, sociology and education, and we had programs here that allowed faculty and students to collaborate and work together and teach across those spaces. To me, that was so exciting. Michigan’s commitment to diversity was a part of that, coupled with the connection of diversity to academic excellence.

[Michigan is] the most intellectually and culturally vibrant experience that I’ve ever had as a scholar, as a professional, as a teacher.

What do you think or hope is different for students in 2022 in regards to issues surrounding DEI compared to your own college experiences?

Some of the things that I hope are different now in 2022 than when I was an undergraduate student are the support for students navigating big complex college environments. Particularly students who are from first-generation backgrounds and backgrounds where they haven’t had experiences in higher education.

In my own experience, I tell people that I had a very rich undergraduate experience, but I stumbled upon mentoring. I think the things that we’re doing now to recognize that we have an obligation to support students in navigating really complicated spaces and not assuming that students who haven’t had a multi-generational experience in college would understand certain things that many take for granted about how to navigate a college campus, how to connect with faculty, how to find information about co-curricular opportunities, how to use office hours, things that we really, really take for granted for students who’ve had more extensive family experiences in higher education.

I hope that it becomes the norm for there to be an inclusive approach to student transition where there is built-in support for students who are first-generation. Some of the things that I experienced [in college] being a member of an underrepresented group—questions about my belonging on campus and being one of very few in my academic courses—we’re making strides in those areas, but we also have important and continued work to do in those areas, too.

We still have work to do in achieving abundant representation of the different groups that make up our country and world on our campus. My hope is that in 2022, we have tangible indicators that we’ve made progress and that there’s just as much of a commitment to continuing to make progress.

What are some of your top priorities as you begin your tenure as Vice Provost and Chief Diversity Officer? What are some of your long-term goals?

One of my priority action items is to really engage with our community. Even though I’ve been here a long time as a faculty member and as an administrator, I also know that in this new role, it will be important for me to hear voices from our community, from different spaces on campus, from different constituencies, from our students, our staff, our faculty, alums, community partners.

So one of my priorities is to use this initial period to create structured and systematic opportunities to talk with student groups, to talk with faculty and staff groups, to create opportunities to connect with some of our community partners, to hear as we’re going into this next phase of our DEI work on our campus, what is their priority? What are the things that they care about? What things are they proud of and that we must continue? And what things are they concerned about that we must do differently or improve upon? This relationship-building is a key priority and objective for me in this first year.

We cannot be an excellent environment, and we cannot do diversity in terms of inclusion and equity, if we don’t make sure that we have representation and their perspectives and their lenses and their life experiences on our campus.

What are some of your long-term goals?

We have to continue the work that many people are doing on the ground, across our campus units to achieve abundant representation of different groups on our campus, particularly those that have been historically underrepresented and underserved. That means redoubling and intensifying our efforts to engage in community outreach, supporting pipeline and pathway programs to higher education, such as the work of Wolverine Pathways and the work of our Center for Educational Outreach, and providing options, opportunities and access to be at the University of Michigan—connecting specifically with communities that have not historically been served well.

We cannot be an excellent environment, and we cannot do diversity in terms of inclusion and equity, if we don’t make sure that we have representation and their perspectives and their lenses and their life experiences on our campus—that’s a priority.

You’ve been part of the University for 24 years. From your perspective, how have you seen DEI on campus change, especially since 2016 when DEI 1.0 launched?

As someone who has been at Michigan for a long time, I’ve held Michigan’s work with a great deal of pride. [With] that said, within the last five to six years of our DEI planning period, there is a difference. One area is just in the way that DEI has become a part of the lexicon, the language, the fabric of who we are and how people describe the work that they do. Five or six years ago, preceding the DEI 1.0 plan, it wasn’t unusual for certain units to say, ‘we don’t understand what this DEI thing is,’ or more benignly, ‘DEI is important, but in our unit, it really doesn’t apply to us.’

Fast forward, the work of this plan has become a part of the fabric. Every single unit may have different views of what diversity, equity, and inclusion means and what it should mean, and how do we achieve it, but there’s not a unit that can say—and not be called on—if they tried to say that DEI doesn’t apply. Now that doesn’t mean we are at utopia. We haven’t perfected how to integrate DEI effectively into our standard practices and operations, so it is secondhand. That’s where we’re trying to go.

But I’ve seen a difference in terms of people’s awareness and understanding.

There’s more accountability around DEI too. We’ve created a standard where when we bring new leaders into our environment, we are expecting that they have an awareness and that they have demonstrated that these are part of their values and their efforts in their prior roles.

The work of this plan [DEI 1.0] has become a part of the fabric.

We absolutely cannot achieve what we say our core mission is—academic excellence—without diversity.

Why is DEI important in higher education?

We absolutely cannot achieve what we say our core mission is—academic excellence—without diversity. The argument is often the moral or socially just one, that addressing diversity and including diversity is the right thing to do. But when you only put that in the moral or the ideological kind of space, then it becomes optional. That it would be great to do that because it’s the right thing to do, but not because it’s essential for us to be excellent for us to reach our core mission. And that is why it’s so important.

Without having community members here at the student, faculty, and staff levels that bring different perspectives, that bring different lenses, that bring different ways of understanding a problem and developing a solution, then we are going be left behind. We are not going to be the most innovative. We’re not going to be the most excellent. We’re not going to be the most advanced. So regardless of how individuals might feel ideologically about the idea of diversity, it gives us an advantage in excellence. Without it, we will be intellectually bankrupt, not only culturally bankrupt, and we will not be able to uphold the standards of academic excellence that we say defines Michigan.

How do you hope to engage with the student community?

I am dipping and tiptoeing to increase my literacy in our social media space. I have great respect for it, but I recognize it as a set of skills and proficiencies that I have a lot to learn about. This is an area that I’m eager to learn more about and to use to connect with students.

I’m also creating more opportunities for the personal touch. We are coming back together after a period of being mostly remote due to the pandemic. Looking forward, I want to create opportunities to connect with existing student organizations, with student government and other types of structured groups, but also create opportunities more informally for students who are not necessarily involved with a formal organization but want to provide input or connect to the work of DEI and the DEI community.

Tabbye Chavous in conversation

Who has influenced your DEI work?

I would start with my parents who modeled it through explicit discussion and socialization. My father was both a farmer and a school social worker, jobs that don’t seem to connect. My mother was a school teacher and a volleyball and basketball coach. They were very busy, and worked long hours, but they were engaged community members, so it was normal for me to think that I should be an active participant in my community.

I had the pleasure and the privilege of also having some terrific mentors as an undergraduate student. It took me several years traversing my undergraduate experience to actually meet a black faculty member. It’s not that all faculty should not have positive connections and be able to support and mentor students, but to me, it made a critical difference to see someone from my community represented in the faculty role. And to have support and affirmation around the fact that I had good ideas to share, someone who says that out loud to you—you have something to contribute and something to give in a space where you might be feeling doubt. Those mentors that I happened to stumble upon out of the luck of the draw were so critical to me. As a result, that’s part of the work that I do here in my efforts to diversify the faculty and to diversify our staff, which is to provide more opportunities for students to see examples of people from their own communities in these roles.

To me, it made a critical difference to see someone from my community represented in the faculty role. … As a result, that’s part of the work that I do here. … To provide more opportunities for students to see examples of people from their own communities in these roles.

When you’re not working, what are you up to?

The object of the game is to work hard in ways that have meaning, purpose and make positive impact, but also be a whole person, a whole family member, a whole individual. I’m a big football fan, so Michigan Stadium with the Big House is one of my favorite places during the fall. Some of my favorite restaurants in the area include Pacific Rim and a cool place in Saline called Mac’s.

I fancy myself as a novice cyclist. I claim no skill, just enjoyment. Our Metro Parks and green spaces around Ann Arbor are really fun for me.

I also like discovering new coffee shops, and that is really a great hobby to have in Ann Arbor.

What would you like to share with the U-M community?

One thing that I would like the community to know about me is that I’m a lifelong learner. Although I’ve been here for quite a while, every year I continue to learn something new about our University, about the people, and about the work. That openness, along with the experiences that I’ve had in different roles in my department, at the college, in central administration, I hope will allow me to really engage and learn from our community in ways that help me be effective in my work and roles. I am really excited to connect with our community and learn from our community in new ways. I feel proud and honored to be representing and helping to lead and collaborate with our campus community at this really critical time in our society.

Every year, I continue to learn something new about our University, about the people, about the work. “

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