Despite recent improvements, certain challenges remain in the effort to fulfill the agreements negotiated after Ford Hall 2015, Chief Diversity Officer Mark Brimhall-Vargas explained in an interview with the Justice. 

The interview followed a Feb. 12 presentation by Brimhall-Vargas and Student Union Diversity and Inclusion Officer Amber Abernathy ’18 that discussed the University’s efforts to improve student, faculty and staff diversity and ensure equitable club funding.

Abernathy described her work assessing whether clubs centered around minoritized racial and ethnic groups received equitable treatment in the club allocation process. She explained her preference for the term “minoritized” over “minority,” saying that the latter has been “placed upon individuals through an oppressive power structure.”

Displaying graphs of student demographics and funding requests, Abernathy noted that although Hispanic/Latinx, Black and Asian students together comprise around 50 percent of the student body, the percentage of money requested by clubs that serve these minoritized groups is smaller. As a result, Abernathy said, these clubs might not be receiving equitable resources, despite having funding requests approved at roughly equal rates with other clubs. 

To help these groups secure equitable funding, Abernathy urged the Student Union to ask, “How can we, as a Union, be a little bit more accessible to … students that identify as minoritized groups?” She emphasized that improving accessibility would require examining the “historical aspects of [minoritized students] asking for money to higher power structures” as well the possible role of bias in the allocation board’s funding process. Abernathy plans to speak with minoritized student groups to understand how the Union can better represent them and provide “the safe space where they can ask for more money.”

Following Abernathy’s presentation, Brimhall-Vargas discussed the University’s progress toward enacting the policies agreed upon following the Ford Hall 2015 student protest, as well as some of the challenges that have arisen in attempting to do so. He mentioned notable accomplishments, such as addressing the needs of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and temporary protected status students, as well as the creation of a diverse ombuds office and the hiring of Maria Madison as associate dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for the Heller School for Social Policy and Management.

However, Brimhall-Vargas admitted, other goals were not “practical, feasible [or] legal.” In an interview with the Justice, Brimhall-Vargas explained that he chose not to mandate diversity trainings, saying, “If you force someone into a diversity training, they usually don’t approach it with an open mind. … If you help [faculty] think about how to construct a syllabus that is inclusive, that’s far more effective.”

Brimhall-Vargas’s talk and presentation also focused on the University’s push to increase the number students, faculty and staff from under-represented minority groups — a category that includes individuals who are Black, Hispanic or of two or more races, per the 2015 agreement. From 2015 to 2017, the percentage of URM undergraduate students increased to 15.8 percent (rising from 541 to 574), while the number of URM graduate students increased to 10 percent (rising from 192 to 209). During that time, URM full-time equivalent faculty also increased from 25 to 32 (with four of those hirings in Arts and Sciences) and now comprise 5.6 percent of the total FTE faculty, while URM staff increased from 124 to 156 to make up 10.8 percent of total staff. 

While commending these improvements, Brimhall-Vargas noted that for the University to fulfill its promise to double the number of URM faculty by 2021 it would have to hire four to five more faculty per year, a challenge he called “ambitious” but not “impossible.” He also pointed out that the number of Asian faculty had decreased from 37 to 34 and stated his desire to reverse this decline. 

Brimhall-Vargas also expressed concern about the increased amount of faculty refusing to specify their race, even as students and staff increasingly chose to do so. He plans to speak to the Office of Planning and Institutional Research about “the need to provide the University a better sense of why we want people to go in and identify various categories like race. … There’s a natural suspicion around that, but we need to improve the data we have so we’re measuring effectively.” 

Brimhall-Vargas told the Justice that although he saw only aggregate and not individual data for this study, past experience with other surveys has led him to believe that individuals who choose not to specify a race — instead frequently writing in “human” or “American” — are usually white. 

Hypothesizing as to why large numbers of faculty would choose not to identify their race, he suggested that faculty might “bristle” at the federal racial categories — which place individuals from Middle Eastern and North African descent in the “white” category, among other flaws. 

With regards to the potential dilemmas faced by other groups — such as Jews — that may not identify with any of the federal racial categories, Brimhall-Vargas said, “If you’re an Ethiopian Jew, or an Ashkenazi Jew, you have a racial identity,  I would suspect, in addition to a religious identity.” In a follow-up email, Brimhall-Vargas added that “racial categories are currently determined by the federal government. To include ‘Jewish’ as a race would require that these changes be made there.”

Finally, Brimhall-Vargas told the Justice that he hopes to address concerns about the degree to which students of different backgrounds feel comfortable interacting with one another. 

“As a community becomes more diverse, certainly in terms of race, conflict emerges. … That’s an inevitable part of what it means to become a diverse community, and not everyone has a childhood upbringing that prepares them or gives them skills in that," he said.

Working in conjunction with Dr. Allyson Livingstone, director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Education, Training, and Development, Brimhall-Vargas hopes to collaborate with the organizers of the workplace identity panel series #TheDialogues, as well as individuals involved with the ’DEIS Impact social justice festival, to think about “building that skill set through existing structures and programs and people.”