Inside Higher Education — June 21, 2023
Dissolving a DEI Office to Save DEI
The University of Arkansas is reallocating all DEI staff and resources to other campus offices. Is it a capitulation to right-wing demands or a savvy defense tactic?
Russell Cothren for the University of Arkansas
Lawmakers in Florida, Texas and Ohio have passed bills this year requiring their public institutions of higher education to dismantle diversity, equity and inclusion offices. The University of Arkansas at Fayetteville didn’t wait on legislative mandates; last week, the university dissolved its DEI division on its own.
But the DEI office’s staff and resources will be retained and reallocated to other offices, primarily in human resources and student success. Mark Rushing, associate vice chancellor for university relations, said administrators were discussing what that relocation would look like with the affected employees, including the current vice chancellor of diversity, equity and inclusion, Angela Mosley Monts.
In a letter announcing the decision, Chancellor Charles Robinson stressed that it was made not in response to political pressures, but as the first step in a strategic plan to emphasize student success and faculty recruitment.
“Supporting equal opportunity, access and belonging are critical to our land-grant mission and university values,” wrote Robinson, Fayetteville’s first Black chancellor and former vice chancellor for diversity. “It is my belief based on my experience … that we can accomplish better outcomes by reallocating resources into these essential areas.”
The university is the first public higher ed institution in the country to dismantle its DEI offices voluntarily, and without a mandate from its Board of Trustees—the University of South Dakota replaced its DEI offices with “opportunity centers” last January, but it was following direct orders from the state’s Republican governor.
Responses to the University of Arkansas announcement were mixed and, at times, confused. Some saw it as a victory in the intensifying war against DEI in higher ed, some as a capitulation to right-wing political bluster and others still as a defensive measure or sleight of hand to dodge lawmakers’ scrutiny while continuing the work and ethos of the office under different names.
“The chancellor has been very clear about doing this for months, reframing the debate around diversity, equity and inclusion—because that’s what it has become, a debate—as one about student success,” he said. “This topic is so charged that when you say, ‘We’re dissolving DEI,’ half the people hear, ‘The University of Arkansas hates Black people’ and the other half say, ‘What are you doing? This is a travesty!’ Neither of those two sides realize what’s actually happening, which is that all of the people on our campus doing that type of work are going to stay and will continue doing that type of work, just reporting to different people.”
Rushing said the relocated employees would not have the same responsibilities they did under the DEI division, and that their new roles would “now support all students and employees.”
“In an environment that is so highly politicized right now, colleges, universities and systems are at a point where they feel the need to change,” she said. “It’s more out of political expediency than a result of anticipating that this will be the best approach for the institution.”
Legislative attacks on DEI have intensified in the past year; in red states, institutions as well as individuals committed to DEI work have been planning for the worst.
Caldwell said that while he couldn’t know for sure what motivated university leaders to restructure, political attacks on DEI were part of the conversation about this change when he discussed it with Robinson in the spring semester. Whether the threat is an outright ban on DEI, like in Florida, or attempts to defund DEI through budget cuts, a tactic currently on display in Wisconsin, Caldwell said, anticipating those attacks in Arkansas—especially in the wake of Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s recent passage of a bill targeting “critical race theory” in K-12 schools—became increasingly important.
“I’m assuming the Arkansas Legislature is going to come after higher education eventually. They just ran out of time in the spring session,” he said. “But in light of what’s going on nationally, it makes a lot of sense for us as a public university to plan for these inevitabilities … if [Robinson] had done nothing, it would have left us open to a much worse scenario where dozens of people would have to be fired or funding cut.”
Adapting to a ‘Post-DEI Environment’
Caldwell also said he supported Robinson’s thesis that decentralization would actually improve the university’s DEI outcomes.
There may be grounds for that argument. Last week a survey found that students trust their professors to respond effectively to systemic racism more than they do DEI officers. And higher ed researchers have challenged the effectiveness of a centralized approach to DEI for years.
One of those researchers is Adrianna Kezar, director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California. She said cutting back on official DEI administrative offices and positions can make DEI not only harder to target, but also more successful. One such approach calls for shared equity leadership (SEL), which Kezar said means creating fewer—if any—formal DEI-focused positions while dispensing more training and responsibilities across existing academic departments, student-facing offices and administrative roles.
But Granberry Russell said eliminating central offices and authority could make oversight and accountability more difficult. She said the proliferation of chief diversity officers and DEI divisions in higher ed over the past three years has been significant—NADOHE membership grew by nearly 200 percent from 2020 to 2023—and that she would be disappointed to see that progress evaporate.
“We developed these central offices for a particular reason: because the institutions were not having the success, nor was the work done in ways that achieved the goals that the institution had set for itself,” she said. “Are we to a point where we can anticipate that the integration of this work will be successful? I think that’s yet to be seen.”
Kezar said that while she was in favor of a more decentralized DEI method, she wasn’t sure the situation at Arkansas was an example of adopting shared equity leadership or any other earnest DEI strategy. Rather, she said it was likely an act of self-preservation, and that she was concerned about its potential impact on the university’s DEI efforts.
“I suspect that they’re just saying, ‘Hey, we’re not going to fire you; you can do some other work around the campus.’ But I think what they’re saying is it can’t be diversity, equity and inclusion work,” she said. “I guess they have less controversy if they don’t fire everyone, but it sounds like they’re letting go of the equity goals, which seems problematic to me.”
Rushing said that the relocated employees would not have their performance measured by the same DEI-related metrics as before, but they would be fully incorporated into different offices and divisions—seeming to suggest that DEI work will be, if anything, a voluntary and tangential part of their new roles.
Kezar said that wasn’t an inevitability, though, especially if enough staff and leadership were committed to continuing to strive toward DEI goals.
“The work does not have to go away just because the office does,” she said.
In an ideal world, Caldwell said, that would be the case at the university, especially as it becomes a test case for a potential strategy in the national fight over DEI. He hopes to be part of setting that example.
“Arkansas, as far as I know, is the first to do this voluntarily. But institutions are always looking at others for benchmarks, and I’m curious to see how we set the national benchmarks here, especially in the SEC and for those Southern system flagships,” he said. “I think we’re starting to approach a post-DEI environment, where now it’s all of our responsibility on campus. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”