The morning that we received an email from Academe Today featuring the article “Where DEI Efforts Are Ambitious, Well Funded, and Taking Fire From All Sides” (June 21, 2023), I immediately began to receive dozens of sympathetic messages from colleagues, both at my institution and across the country. The article’s subtitle spoke to the discontent of Black students at our university and they knew that I (along with other university leaders) have been working diligently with the Black Student Union to strategize on ways to increase Black student enrollment and improve the experiences of Black students. In fact, I regularly meet the two students featured in the cover photo.
As I read, I found it to be a rather comprehensive and well-balanced article that spoke to the nuanced challenges we are facing at the university. Your reporter came to our campus and experienced several of our spaces, including the administration building and our Trotter Multicultural Center, where many Black students convene. She met with a variety of our stakeholders, including administrators, students, and faculty with multiple priorities and opposing viewpoints. And though the article highlights areas where we have fallen short; it also speaks to Michigan’s long-standing, demonstrated commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and excellence, even in a moment where there is an all out attack on DEI efforts in higher education and increased anxiety over the SCOTUS decision banning race-conscious admissions.
Reading the article surfaced several tensions that I face consistently as an administrator doing this work with students. I realize that I must both:
Partner with students, elevating their voices and giving them a seat at the table and not disproportionately place the burden on students to solve problems.
Listen attentively to the students as they report where more needs to be done and consistently share the efforts and advances that we have made without sounding (or being) defensive. Often times they are unaware.
At the same time we must encourage students to both:
Openly speak their truths and share negative experiences (without being hushed or silenced) and share positive experiences and outcomes as well.
Continue to push administration to realize the values we proclaim and understand that we are working within an institution that has constraints (and it’s best to work together to push the limits of those constraints).
After completing the article and grappling with those tensions, I resumed my sense of peace and purpose and began to respond to my esteemed colleagues, encouraging them not to feel sorry for me. Yes, we have some work to do to ensure that all in our community, including our Black students, feel the effects of our DEI efforts at U-M. Yet, I am honored to be among the team of administrators leading those efforts, in true partnership with our students, to help us realize this vision. I’m proud of our students and as a former U-M student myself, I can understand their perspectives. I’m not sorry; I’m “unapologetically ambitious” and motivated more now than ever to collaboratively develop innovative solutions.
Deborah S. Willis
This article originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education on July 6, 2023. U-M community members can create an account with the Chronicle of Higher Education using their umich email address.