This is the second installment of a three-part series highlighting the racial equity commitments of three community non-profits, higher education and media organizations based in Detroit.
Universities and colleges are one of the largest mixing grounds for thousands of people from varied backgrounds to come together.
As either students, staff or faculty, the stomping ground for higher education is often a concentrated flex of multiculturalism and an opportunity for diversity, equity and inclusion discussions to take root and be put into daily practice.
The Michigan Chronicle spoke to Marquita Chamblee, Wayne State University’s (WSU) first associate provost for diversity and inclusion and a member of the president’s cabinet as the chief diversity officer.
Previously, Chamblee worked as the director of the office of diversity, inclusion and multicultural education at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and has worked to carry that experience in supporting a welcoming space in higher education.
“We certainly, like so many institutions and organizations, had a kind of resurgence of our efforts after George Floyd was murdered in 2020. But that wasn’t the genesis of the work that we began, that’s a much older history,” said Chambers.
“We’ve done a lot of DEI work more broadly and racial justice has probably been more in the central university, but the Damon Keith Center for Civil Rights has done a lot of racial equity work over the last several years as part of the university.”
Chamblee said much credit goes to WSU President Dr. M. Roy Wilson who immediately put out a statement after the murder of Floyd and the protests had erupted, in support of the systemic change and brought staff together to make tangible changes in the university.
While the Office of Multicultural Student Engagement (OMSE) at WSU focuses on promoting a safe and racially equitable campus for impacted students that have been historically underrepresented, Chamber’s office is focused on creating that culture among the staff and faculty members.
In February 2015, Chambers became the first chief diversity officer at Wayne State University. Her work involves responding to requests for training, workshops or an intervention around DEI that needs to be responded to in the department.
Chambers said many requests come internally for implicit bias trainings because the university’s different schools require it for licensed health professions to complete. This includes the college of medicine, social work and pharmacy students.
Last June, Governor Whitmer and Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) announced a new policy requirement to improve equity and address health care racial disparities across Michigan’s health care system.
For the last six months, the officer hired an intercultural training director to hone in on creating and expanding staff training and education programs. Conversations focus on identifying and implementing understandings of implicit bias, microaggressions and learning how to challenge yourself based on your identity to be more intentional about navigating other people around you.
“We, each of us, need to look at our own implicit biases and what to do about them. The workshop on this is probably the one I get the most requests for. I think it’s because microaggressions are happening and people are aware that they’re happening and, whether it’s in a given department or generally at the university, people want to bring it awareness. What is the microaggression? What does it look like and how do we interrupt it?”
In June 2020, a working group at Wayne State University came together as the Social Justice Action Committee (SJAC). The committee was tasked with first, examining internal policies, procedures and practices to identify bias on campus that may disproportionately disadvantage historically marginalized people.
Second, SJAC provided recommendations for specific actions for consideration of immediate, medium-term and long-term implementation.
The committee evaluated the university in working group split among the following criterion: hiring and retention of faculty and staff, student access and success, policing, intercultural education and training, campus climate and DEI initiatives across the university.
In a full report released in March 2021, SJAC found some common themes that emerged in the recommendations from the working groups included enhancing accountability, infrastructural changes, enhanced engagement to increase participation by underrepresented groups and collaboration with the university’s communities, objective guidelines and DEI training.
In addition, the report included recommendations meant to recognize students are more likely to succeed when the university critically examines and eradicates unnecessary barriers (e.g., overemphasis on standardized testing, unnecessarily difficult gateway courses) and provides the data, helpful information and supports and monitoring to address problems.
Other recommendations include, “some infrastructural changes included establishing a centralized DEI incident reporting office, the development of a DEI Council, additional ODI/OMSE staff and the creation of Learning and Development Communities.”
“Through institutional support, we’re going to diversify our faculty pretty significantly,”
said Chamblee. “It’s going to be big because we have a fairly significant African American student population and students of color and we want to make sure that as best we can we have some faculty that reflect our student body.”
Chamblee said hiring more diverse staff and faculty is one of her priorities to ensure those working at the university reflect the diverse demographics of students. The university was awarded a $6 million grant from the Mellon Foundation to support the equitable hiring and the construction of a Center for Black Studies on campus. The infrastructure is still a work in progress and will likely materialize over the next couple of years.
“The diversity, equity and inclusion of our campus community is beneficial to everyone,” said Chamblee. “That is what we continue to support, people’s process to buy-in [to] the conversations we are having…the procedures and practices we have, we need to institutionalize them so we don’t need to keep reinventing the wheel.”
Looking ahead, Chamblee said the DEI work is meant to be sustainable and she hopes to see it continue to be embedded into the university’s vision into the future.
“There is a lot that’s happening and I’m optimistic about the future. As we are in the process right now of searching for a new president, and it’s a bit unnerving to try to replace President Wilson because he was such a strong advocate for DEI in the time he’s been here. It’ll be important as we transition to a new leader that the person we select continues to build on the momentum that President Wilson laid out for us.”