Welcome to Race on Campus. What happens when you learn that, despite your best efforts, your college isn’t doing enough to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion? This year, one administrator learned out of the blue that some students of color were dissatisfied. Here’s how she dealt with it.

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A Letter Calls for Tangible Changes

In 2013 students of color at the University of California at Los Angeles Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, known as UCLA SEIS, wrotea letter to the school’s leadership, reporting a “hostile racial climate” on campus. The students requested faculty meetings to discuss that problematic climate, the addition of race and ethnic studies into the curriculum, and the hiring of more faculty of color, among other things.

The letter went largely ignored and was forgotten, according to members of SEIS Black Bruins, a group of Black graduate students.

It certainly wasn’t on Cecilia Rios-Aguilar’s radar in 2018, when she became the school’s associate dean of equity, diversity, and inclusion. So when a similar letter landed in her inbox in January, it was jolting, she said.

Falling Short

Rios-Aguilar had been a faculty member at UCLA since 2015, but her role as an associate dean was new territory. From the outset, understanding the scope of the job was a challenge, she said.

DEI work can span conflict resolution to human-resources issues. It took a while for her to differentiate between what was considered a DEI issue and what was not, Rios-Aguilar said.

Taking on a DEI role is something that you can’t be truly prepared for until you’ve done it, she wrote in a blog post for the American Council on Education:

“To be completely honest, on most days, becoming associate dean feels exactly as how I felt when I became a parent for the first time: Nothing prepared me for the moment when I held my daughter, she started crying, and I didn’t know why or what to do,” she wrote.

Until this year, Rios-Aguilar thought things were going well. The school had established an office made up of graduate students, staff members, and faculty to collaborate on DEI efforts, instead of putting the work on one individual. They were making plans for data collection that would inform their efforts, and they were creating community-based initiatives.

“We thought we had some plans, and we were setting things in motion,” Rios-Aguilar said.

Then came the SEIS Black Bruins’ letter.

“While UCLA SEIS has acknowledged the plight of the Black community via public comments and solidarity statements, the department has failed to execute any tangible institutional changes to promote racial equity for Black people of the SEIS community,” the grad students and alumni wrote to school leaders.

After reading the students’ letter, Rios-Aguilar realized that the office’s DEI efforts were falling short. For one, it had not established a concrete timeline to ensure accountability, the letter pointed out.

The students had seven demands. They wanted more Black faculty members by 2023; the creation of a publicly available 10-year strategic plan to recruit, fund, and retain more Black graduate students; a $20,000 internal endowment for Black graduate students; a required “anti-blackness in education” course; an annual State of Black Affairs meeting hosted by the dean and associate dean of equity, diversity, and inclusion; and more.

A New Partnership

The equity, diversity, and inclusion office met with SEIS Black Bruins representatives to establish a partnership and formulate a plan on how to move forward. Despite the heavy subject matter, students said that the meeting wasn’t tense.

“We were never aggressive, and it was never contentious,” said Elianny Edwards, a doctoral candidate in the school of education and a Black Bruins representative."We were very intentional about being a collective, about being united, and about not positioning anyone as the ‘leader’ of anything. I think that made it so that folks had to be receptive to what we had to say.”

The school’s leaders came to the meeting open-minded and followed up with Black Bruins in a second meeting, where they outlined some proposed solutions in collaboration with the students.

“We had to make sure that we responded with humility and with a concrete proposal with timelines,” Rios-Aguilar said. She added that the new relationship gave the office another way to gather feedback on its efforts.

The office is making some strides.

Officials there have created a $20,000 scholarship from the dean’s budget to support four Black students in the department every year who are doing work focused on improving Black communities. They hired a new assistant dean who will support Black scholars and collect and analyze data on Black student outcomes. A new web page dedicated to Black life will be added to the school’s website.

Meeting with Black Bruins also inspired officials at the equity, diversity, and inclusion office to expand their reach. Over the summer they trained 11 DEI ambassadors in conflict management, resolution, and mediation. These roles are filled by students, faculty, and staff members who can be more accessible for students and faculty to confide in them.

“We’re grateful and happy to see the ball rolling,” Edwards said of the progress, “but we’re not too quick to celebrate because we know we need to see these things be able to stand the test of time.”

In the meantime, the office has laid out priorities for this academic year, including celebrating Black life and financially assisting undocumented students.

“This is ongoing work,” Rios-Aguilar said. “It’s constant progress, constant learning, constant reflection to say, ‘What else can we do better?’” —Oyin Adedoyin

Read Up

  • A report released last week found that college governing bodies remain mostly white. In 2020 nearly 80 percent of board members at private colleges were white. At public colleges, nearly 65 percent of trustees were white. (The Chronicle)
  • During his trial, Kyle Rittenhouse, who was acquitted of all charges after he fatally shot two people during Black Lives Matter protests in Wisconsin, said he was taking online classes at Arizona State University. Last week students protested, asking that he not be allowed to enroll at ASU. The university responded with a statement saying that Rittenhouse was not enrolled in any classes. (The Root)
  • From last month, Black families have largely been left behind in the homeownership boom. What will it take for them to catch up to their white peers? (The New York Times Magazine)