UI chancellor seeks review of diversity programs

UI chancellor seeks review of diversity programs

URBANA — The University of Illinois spends millions each year on scholarships, recruitment efforts and other programs to diversify its faculty and student body and foster a welcoming climate for people of all backgrounds.

But is it money well spent? That's what Chancellor Robert Jones wants to know.

Jones, who took office in late September, has ordered a "self-study" of the UI's diversity efforts — how they're structured, how they connect to similar programs across campus and what benchmarks they use to effectively target the money they receive.

The study will begin within the next few weeks, led by Associate Chancellor for Diversity Assata Zerai in partnership with interim Provost Edward Feser. After that, the campus will bring in outside reviewers to provide recommendations for any changes.

The chancellor, a crop scientist by training who has talked extensively about his own youth as a sharecropper's son, said the issue of diversity and equity is "core" for him and for the university.

He has been impressed with the resources the UI devotes to diversity and equity, more than "any other place I know." Feser estimates it at $55 million to $60 million annually, though he said at least three-quarters of that goes toward student scholarships.

"But at this juncture, I don't see a structure that allows us to get the return on those investments at the level that I would like to see," Jones said at this week's annual faculty meeting. "We have to make sure we're getting it right."

Like many campus operations, the efforts are "very decentralized," Jones said, with programs at the campus level and also within individual colleges or other units. Some people have raised concerns about whether that's the best structure, said Jones, who has been involved in higher education diversity efforts for 30 years at the University of Minnesota and later at the University at Albany.

"I want to be clear: I'm not saying it's wrong," he said. But a successful effort requires both "on-the-ground individualized ownership" and central accountability, he said.

"It's been my experience if you try to do everything centrally, you're not going to get anywhere," he said. But if "there's no accountability up to institutional goals and objectives, you may not get the synergy that you want."

'Where are the gaps?'

Feser said Tuesday that he and former interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson shared similar views and had planned a "top-to-bottom look at how we're organized to support diversity."

"We have a lot of great stuff going on, but sometimes it's hard to wrap your arms around it," Feser said.

He said Jones accelerated the timetable and decided to ask an external review team for help.

They won't be consultants as much as academic reviewers, like those frequently asked to review academic units on university campuses, Feser said. They'll be paid for their expenses and likely given a small honorarium, perhaps $1,500, he said.

The hope is to complete the self-study during this academic year and invite the reviewers in shortly afterward, Feser said.

Jones said he is still trying to assemble the review team, which will include people who work in affirmative action, equal opportunity and diversity at other universities and can "tell us what could we do better. Where are the gaps? Are we getting the maximum return on investments that we've made?"

"I'm not one to double something unless I know exactly what return I'm getting on investments already. There may be an opportunity to align resources more effectively," he said. "I'd like to approach this in a methodical, analytical way."

Targeting minority faculty

Feser said the $55 million to $60 million a year goes both toward diversity programs — to increase the number of underrepresented groups among faculty, staff and students — and inclusion programs to make the campus more welcoming.

Jones said he would like to get a better handle on those figures. He did a similar analysis at Albany and said it was "very, very clear that we were spending more than people realized."

The UI's efforts include programs in student affairs (scholarships, recruitment/admissions, student support); the provost's office (faculty hiring); the chancellor's office (equal opportunity issues); and the colleges. They're coordinated by Zerai, who was hired in July to succeed former Associate Chancellor Menah Pratt-Clarke after she took a job at Virginia Tech.

The UI has invested heavily in scholarship programs such as the Presidential Award Program and Illinois Promise, which have had the biggest impact on diversifying the student body, Feser said.

The campus also spends $2 million to $3 million a year on the Target of Opportunity program, which provides money for units to hire faculty members from underrepresented groups. They can use it to recruit talented minority faculty or women in STEM fields, or fund an extra position if a search turns up two top candidates and the second choice is an underrepresented minority (and the hire fits with the unit's academic goals), Feser said.

The College of Engineering, in particular, has used that approach to hire two professors at once, which is more efficient and helps diversify its faculty, he said.

The campus has also helped fund positions for minority postdoctoral scholars, particularly in STEM fields, he said.

Taken in total, Feser said, the UI's efforts "vastly exceed" those by other universities.

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