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Follow up in Higher Ed: Responses to DEI Attacks Require Deep Support

Follow up in Higher Ed: Responses to DEI Attacks Require Deep Support

Diversity, equity, inclusion, and access initiatives continue to be under attack in many states, including Illinois, TexasFloridaTennessee, as well as recently proposed bills for medical schools in the United States.

At the same time, reports of students facing bias and racism on campuses, such as at University of Illinois Chicago, and beyond, have increased. Many faculty and staff also face having to navigate climate concerns, particularly when speaking up about DEI matters.

The threat of locking down and eliminating these programs is a devastating blow to higher education and the future of education. Illinois institutions are working to address these issues through financial support of DEI initiatives and curriculum, such as Elmhurst University’s nursing program

As an Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, an educator for over 15 years, and a classical music performer, I have heard from students, faculty and staff on their frustration with being bounced around when directed to the resources after experiencing various instances of microaggressions, bias, or trolling in the classroom and beyond.

Certainly, many schools already have options for faculty and students to access on DEI issues including websites and pamphlets. Yes, resources are vital for support—particularly those that address inclusion, equity, and belonging. However, it is important for institutional systems to follow up to ensure certain protocols are effective, and that they take action to address unfairness and discrimination.

In William K. Balzer’s 2020 book, Lean Higher Education: Increasing the Value and Performance of University Processes, he writes that “an institution’s processes have an indirect but important impact on success.”  He also writes that responses to concerns usually “require an individual with authority to intervene and handle the complaint outside of the official process but who has little contact with the process.”

Canada-based corporate wellness strategist and speaker who specializes in addressing culture, nutrition, and wellness programs, Sonia Funk, stated in 2021 that, “We do not need anymore ‘systems’ or ‘programs’ for the human condition.”

Indeed, self-advocacy is important. In my experience, there is often a fear among faculty, staff, and administrators that following up for action is met with responses that are dismissive and bureaucratic.

In a 2021 Association for Computing Machinery journal article, the authors write: “Participants explained that the support they received, or lack thereof, was fundamentally blind to this tension; institutions and departments were at best ill-equipped to support faculty experiencing harassment, and often entirely dismissive of the issue, or resentful of an individual’s choice to operate in the public sphere.”

Nicole Cooke, an endowed chair and associate professor at University of South Carolina, writes that it took two weeks for tech services at her former institution for her contact information to be suppressed in the campus directory.

At a time when DEI initiatives are threatened legally, how administrators respond to incidents of bias are all serious dilemmas on campus and beyond. Someone who has experienced trauma needs not feel an obligation to weigh in on simple resources, but response teams can consider testing out the protocols to ensure that, in the case of an emergency situation, administration will take action.

In my experience, many colleagues are committed to following up. Even if they don’t have the answer, they work to make sure that the person gets pointed in the right direction. But many students, faculty, and staff report they have experienced unhelpful advice.

Acknowledgement beyond mere public statements can go far. Defensiveness when someone has already experienced an attack or harassment exacerbates the situation.

Yes, there is a greater need for resources for students. There need to be more opportunities for administrators to invite informal dialogue such as listening sessions with faculty, staff, and students.

Afterwards, it is helpful if there is follow-up beyond short-term task forces or steering committees. Though change doesn’t happen overnight, this helps with trust-building and fostering community.

Those who encounter backlash to DEI opposition in the form of bias and microaggressions, need more than a pamphlet or direction to a website. All faculty, staff, and students deserve support on campuses. There must be concrete follow-up.

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