Slouching Toward Equity

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By Maximillian Alvarez

We will remember this summer.

To remember it will hurt, because what we have gone through, what we are still going through, involves a lot of pain. It is that very pain that has pushed the summer of 2020 deep into the soft tissue of our collective memory, that has made it stick to the walls of unforgetting. As with any moment of great and terrible political possibility, though, how we will remember all this — as a turning point, good or bad, or as a squashed carcass on the highway of historical sameness — is up to us, all of us, and what we do now. And, if nothing else, the mass protests for racial justice have been a painfully clear message that something needs to be done.

It is impossible, of course, to confine to the realm of higher education a discussion about what that something must be. Because what we are discussing cuts to the very core of who we are as a society and what world we deserve to live in. Nevertheless, as institutions that historically reflect, articulate, and advance societal values, and as institutions that employ or enroll a significant swath of the population, colleges are a critical organ in the body politic — and how they respond to social upheaval bears directly on its short- and long-term health.

Within colleges themselves, much of the responsibility for informing such institutional responses falls, directly or indirectly, on the chief diversity officer, or CDO. However, as Robert M. Sellers, vice provost for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, wrote in The Chronicle Review in June, doing this work can be professionally and psychologically exhausting, especially for CDOs who are themselves navigating the very discriminatory and unjust social tensions they are charged with addressing. Thus, while protesters and police officers took to the streets around the country, Sellers’s essay provided a necessary opportunity for CDOs to speak frankly about the roles they play, and the struggles they face, in higher education.

I spoke recently with Sellers and Robin Means Coleman, vice president and associate provost for diversity at Texas A&M University at College Station, about the task of the CDO today.

Robert M. Sellers: I wrote “How Long Must We Wait?” for two reasons. First, I was trying to capture what I was actually experiencing in the moment. This was maybe a couple of days after the murder of George Floyd, and it was in the context of Covid. I was just trying to come to grips with a whole bunch of feelings and trying to answer the question: Why? Why continue to do the work that I’m doing? Why not just say, “To hell with it”? What are we even working for? And that “Why?” comes from a number of different places.

It’s not that George Floyd’s murder was shocking — and I hate to say that. There was no surprise. And besides the murder, you also had at the time, with Covid, about 25,000 Black folks who had died — and who wouldn’t have died if they were white (if you look at racial disparities, risk factors, etc.). All of those things were sort of swirling, and writing that piece was a way for me to try to capture that, to describe that feeling, and, if nothing else, if there was somebody else out there having that same set of feelings, to let them know they weren’t alone. It was also important for me to try to share that with my team, to try to answer the question of why we are doing what we’re doing.

Writing the piece gave me an opportunity to get some clarity — and to think about my parents. Because, for me, my parents always helped me understand my purpose. And that’s something I really needed in that moment. Without that sense of purpose … this work is just too goddamn hard.

Maximillian Alvarez: And that came through in the piece you wrote. You expressed this profound exhaustion.

Sellers: Well, I don’t want to make it sound like I’m a writer or anything, but I think, to me, it’s also the story of what it means to be Black in America. Throughout our history, it’s been a long road, and there are times when we make some progress, but we never get where we actually need to be, where we should be, where we deserve to be. And every time something like this kicks off, the fear hits you like, “OK, here we go again … Will this make a difference? Now that people are seeing [the videos of police brutality], will anything change?” Because every time this happens, your immediate worry is that nothing will really change — but you hope to everything that it will.

Alvarez: And Robin, how have you been processing everything that’s going on? What’s happening where you are?

Robin Means Coleman: With these protests in the streets, we’re seeing the start of what I refer to as BLM 2020. And I think that’s important because we’ve done BLM ’19 and ’18 and ’17. This has been a long trajectory — from 1619 to 1819, to 2019.

In Texas, where I am, there has already been action and movement, going all the way back to the death of Sandra Bland while she was in police custody. Bland’s death was a story we knew very intimately. The officer who first pulled Sandra Bland over is a Texas A&M alum (we call them “former students” here). Bland was driving back to Prairie View A&M, which is part of our system. So, we’re just all over that story.

On top of that, there was a lot going on here, including heated debates about Confederate statues, particularly a statue of a former A&M president, Lawrence Sullivan Ross, which sits in the middle of our campus. Ross was a Confederate general who, in some historical retellings presented by scholars, led a massacre of Native Americans. There is some debate about whether Ross was actually a card-carrying member of the Klan or, you know, just sort of Klan-adjacent (as if this is the main thing that needs to be debated …). Defenders of Ross argue that he was integral to the founding of Prairie View A&M, which is a historically Black college, but others respond by pointing out that that was because he didn’t let Black folks into Texas A&M.

So it’s a very frantic, urgent moment as people are trying to figure out how to make meaning of what’s happening. And it was hard for me to realize that some still needed to figure out how to make meaning of it. I watched a murder video. I watched video of George Floyd being murdered by the police. What’s to figure out?

It’s clear to me what happened and what this means for the family of George Floyd — who is also, by the way, part of the Texas A&M system. He was a student at Texas A&M at Kingsville. His son lives minutes away from where I’m sitting right now. All of this is very local and intimate, and we’re involved.

We’ve watched so many of these videos. What part of this still needs to be discussed? Personally and professionally, these things all collided for me in a way that was quite difficult to bear.

Alvarez: Robin, you contextualized everything that’s going on within the institutional history of Texas A&M. And Rob, you’re at Michigan, and these issues are also deeply embedded in the political culture in Ann Arbor: There was the Being Black at UM movement a couple of years back, the protests against the Ann Arbor Police Department and the killing of Aura Rosser — these events prompted demands to reform the university’s relationship with the police department. Given all that context swirling around, I wanted to ask: How have your institutions, both historically and in the present moment, played a role in racial injustice?

Sellers: Do you got a week?

Our education system grew out of a country that was founded on chattel slavery, the genocide of Indigenous people for their land (because God told them to), the exploitation of labor — and all of that was based on this central notion that one race was superior to all others. To think the institutions of higher education that emerged from that history could somehow not be connected to institutionalized racism … it doesn’t make sense. Just about every institution in this system is implicated in some way, shape, or form. If you can find me one that isn’t, I would be happily surprised.

Does higher education contribute to racial injustice? Yes. K-12 education contributes. Preschool contributes. You name it, it contributes to a system of racism. And here’s the thing: It doesn’t all come down to the people there. One of the struggles that we have — and that I face in my role as chief diversity officer — is that a great deal of focus is put on the concept of “implicit bias.” We spend a lot of time doing implicit-bias training, which is important and has its place. But the insidious nature of racism is that, when racism is institutionalized, it doesn’t matter who’s conducting those institutions. What’s hard, then, is trying to change a system that perpetuates itself and finding a place to intervene and disrupt the system to the best of your ability.

So, for me, my goal is not necessarily to destroy the University of Michigan from the inside, because I don’t have the ability to do that — and, quite frankly, if I did, I don’t think that I would. My goal is to try to make the University of Michigan a place that provides opportunities for folks who otherwise wouldn’t have them but should have them, and deserve to have them.
There are days when I wonder if I’m perpetuating racial injustice by filling this role within this institution. But I made the decision a long time ago that I was going to work within the system. I respect those who choose to work outside the system to try to make change. I don’t expect that they will accomplish what I’m attempting to accomplish, and I won’t be able to accomplish what they’re attempting to accomplish.

Coleman: I think Rob sets up really nicely three key questions: What does a CDO do? Why do we do this work? And how do we help our institutions effect change?

We’re talking right now from the University of Michigan all the way to Texas A&M University. I have been in both spaces, and people will often ask me, “How did you go from a seemingly liberal institution to a stunningly conservative one? Is the work harder in one space or the other?” But those two things don’t matter as much as the core mission of the CDO. No matter what the orientation of a given campus is, the CDO’s role is to effect change — to “move the needle,” as people love to say — and that doesn’t just begin and end with improving compositional diversity. Because, no matter how liberal or conservative your institution is, for the most part, you are not going to be reflective of the state that you are sitting in. If your state is 25 percent Latinx-Hispanic, you’re not going to be hitting those numbers. If your state is 13 to 15 percent African American, you’re not hitting those numbers. It is far more likely across the nation to see 3 percent African American at the faculty, staff, and student levels. And depending on where you’re at, you’ll probably see 3 percent or less for Latinx-Hispanic. I’m in Texas! Our compositional diversity does not reflect the population of the state.

But the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion goes much farther than compositional diversity. For example, to become a Hispanic-serving institution, you have to hit 25 percent and stay there. That’s not Hispanic serving; that’s Hispanic enrolling. That’s the job of the CDO — to shift that discourse from enrolling African Americans, enrolling Latinx students, to serving them. (And the CDO’s job doesn’t just deal with racial diversity; we’re also working on issues of gender, ability, neurodiversity, and every sort of identity position.) That’s the harder job. Whether you’re at the University of Michigan or Texas A&M, it is the serving that is the work of the CDO. You can bring in diverse faculty, staff, and students, but without serving them, all you’ve done is bring them into an apartheid situation.

I will say, though, having worked at Michigan and at Texas A&M, there are some real challenges for CDO’s like Rob to do this work at an institution that already thinks it’s not racist. Because, as Ibram Kendi says, it’s not enough to just not be racist; you have to be actively antiracist. So don’t think Rob’s job is any easier just because he’s at Michigan — that’s still a heavy lift, and in a lot of ways, it’s more challenging.

As Rob said, and he’s absolutely right: There are some who do antiracist work outside of this sort of administrative system, and there are some who work within it. We need all of them; and we need to do what we can to make sure everyone doing this work feels empowered.

But here’s what you don’t want (and this speaks to the challenge of the CDO): You don’t want us to not be in the room. We hear all the time from people on the inside that we are moving too damn fast, and we hear all the time from people on the outside that we’re moving too damn slow. In the end, though, what you want is for us to be in the room, not because of the visible, moving-the-needle stuff. You want us in the room for the stuff that you don’t see. You need us in the room editing those official university statements before they go out (trust me); you want us in the room at the policy and procedure level so we can ensure that the end result doesn’t inhibit the education and life outcomes of people who look like us.

But the thing that we do best is higher education. Our superpower is research. We bring intellectual heft to discussions about diversity within our institutions and in the public sphere. We remind people every day that pedagogy — teaching, learning, research, scholarship — is activism. That is what we do; that’s how we play our part.

Sellers: One thing that I would add is that our job goes beyond serving students (although that’s really important); ultimately, it’s also about giving students a sense of ownership. When I was a graduate student at Michigan, I remember going to my first football game and being struck by an old guy wearing these ugly Michigan pants — these maize pants with blue M’s all over them. This guy — this old, white UM alum — clearly had a sense, walking around campus, that this was his campus. And quite frankly, that was the same sense I had walking around Howard’s campus as an undergrad. And the thing that struck me about many of my Black colleagues and classmates at Michigan is that they didn’t have the same sense that this was their school.

There are different ways of understanding what I mean when I say students should feel a sense of “ownership” over their school. I worry that the way we serve our students gives them the impression that they are mainly customers expecting a service they’ve paid for. But when I talk about “ownership,” I’m talking about a home. If I go home and see something on the floor, then I pick it up. I take pride in keeping my home clean, and I feel a responsibility to do so, because it’s mine. But if I go to a hotel and I see something on the floor, I want the hotel staff to clean it up, because I feel like that’s what I’ve paid for. Having and taking ownership over a campus means everyone feels that sense of pride and responsibility, and it means feeling like this campus belongs to me as much as it belongs to the president, the faculty, or the old guy in the funny pants. And that sense of ownership is precisely what so many of us have been denied for so long in this society.

Alvarez: Given everything we’ve been talking about, how do you personally navigate the tensions between who you are as a person, your politics, and the roles that you occupy within higher education?

Sellers: I made the choice a long time ago about what role I would play in this struggle. I have been given opportunities that other people who look like me haven’t had. And while I am very confident in my abilities, I’m also not foolish enough to believe that I’m the most qualified Black person to have those opportunities. But because of those opportunities, I get to be in spaces that other Black folks (who may be much more qualified) can’t be. My University of Michigan degree meant that I was able to get a faculty position at the University of Virginia; if I didn’t have my UM degree, I wouldn’t have even gotten an interview. All Black folks aren’t the same in terms of the privileges they’re afforded, and I recognize the privilege that my education bestowed upon me. So then the question is: How can I leverage that privilege? How can I use it to get through doors others can’t? And how can I hold that door open for folks who have a much harder time accessing these spaces because of where they’re positioned in the system?

That’s my mission; that’s the role that I can play. And that’s my answer to people who ask me if I’ve “sold out” by choosing to work within the system. This, again, is something my folks taught me by their lived example: You don’t owe the person who gave you the opportunity; you owe the person who comes after you to pay it forward. We’re all links in that long chain.

Yes, that means that, as chief diversity officer, I’m part of the system that others say needs to be torn down. And I will take critique from anybody, I can learn from anybody, and I will always respond to people who are pushing me to be better. But if you want to survive in this job, it is really important to not only know what role you can play, but to be clear about who determines your worth. There are many people whose opinions I value when it comes to my job performance, but there are very, very few people who get to determine how I feel about my worth and the value of the work I do — and the No. 1 criterion for being in that group is you have to be somebody who loves me.

I know there’s always more I can be improving on, but I always try to remember the big picture … every generation of Black folks has pushed so the next generation would be better off than they were. Seeing myself as part of that larger historical movement — that’s what gets me out of the funk. That’s what gives me the most important thing I think any person can have: purpose. And a life with purpose is unstoppable.

Coleman: I really want to focus on the word Rob mentioned: love. I know people will probably respond like “What? Love?” But that is absolutely the ultimate requirement — because to be part of an institution that loves you (and can be loved back) means to be part of an institution that respects you, respects your history and culture, your whole being, your past and present, but also your future outcomes. And showing that love means believing in you and investing in your success. That’s the work we do.

We’re also talking about the people who do this work and what attracts them to this role. There are a lot of CDOs out there. And to be honest, we’ve been fighting an uphill battle to repair public perceptions. Because, in the past, what happened was institutions in higher ed and in the corporate world were creating these positions and then running out and grabbing any Black guy or Black woman they could find to fill them. And that was sufficient. So the heavy lifting that CDOs like me and Rob are doing now involves pushing back against that and showing people that everything we do is rooted in scholarship, rooted in the literature and data, rooted in assessment and accountability. This is a discipline. We don’t just come to this work from an identity position; we come to it from a scholarly position. We’re not just Black folks who happen to be sitting in a seat. We bring our scholarly aptitude and fortitude and pedagogical skills to this job — and to the training we give others.

Alvarez: I’m very fascinated by this notion of love as an organizing concept for the university, especially as it applies to the task of CDOs.

Sellers: Well, the beautiful thing about love is that love is bidirectional. You benefit as much from loving as the person you love. And make no mistake: When we make sure that all of our students feel loved, feel like this is their institution, feel like they have something to contribute — and that their perspectives and experiences have a place in the classroom, in the scholarship — everybody benefits from that.

This is why we’ve got to make sure we don’t fall into the trap of charity. Love and charity aren’t the same thing. We’re not just helping those poor little folks out because they’re impoverished and we feel bad. If we don’t provide the opportunity for Black students — and all students — to contribute, to understand the full breadth of their human experience and bring that to bear on their subjects, their classrooms, and on the world … we are all missing out. When we cheat folks out of the education they deserve because we don’t see, accept, and love them as full human beings, then we’re also cheating ourselves, as an institution and as a society, out of all that they could and would contribute. In the end, we all pay for that.

Maximillian Alvarez is an associate editor at The Chronicle Review.

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