Change in KU’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion prompts backlash from faculty, staff

photo by: Associated Press

A bus makes its way along Jayhawk Boulevard in front of Strong Hall on the University of Kansas campus in Lawrence, Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

A recent decision from University of Kansas leadership to reorganize the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion has prompted backlash from faculty and staff who say the changes were made without consultation from the marginalized communities who will be affected.

About 60 department chairs, numerous faculty staff councils and the graduate teaching assistants union, among other groups, signed letters to Chancellor Douglas Girod and Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer last week, asking them to reverse or reconsider the decisions.

On Dec. 15, Girod and Bichelmeyer sent an afternoon announcement to the campus community announcing leadership changes, office realignments and a “small reduction of staff” as a result of the changes within the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI).

It was only a few hours before that announcement that the DEI council that had been established to help consult on decisions such as these was informed of the choice.

“The Provost’s DEI Council was established late this summer with the express purpose of consulting on issues related to DEI on campus, formulating a strategic plan, and implementing the goals of that plan,” a letter from KU department chairs reads. “The DEI Council was not, however, consulted prior to making any of the changes outlined in Tuesday’s announcement.”

In response to a question about why the DEI council was not consulted in advance, KU spokesperson Erinn Barcomb-Peterson wrote in an email to the Journal-World that “The Chancellor and Provost have visited with DEI-related units and offices numerous times in recent months and listened to hundreds of Jayhawks to solicit input on ways to enhance the university’s DEI efforts.”

This input informed the recent changes, Barcomb-Peterson wrote.

The changes

In the update, the chancellor and provost announced that the time to enact “meaningful” change was now.

“From conversations with multiple groups and constituencies, it’s clear there is an urgency surrounding a remedy for change, yet not one group has indicated our efforts to date have worked well,” the update read.

The changes include the assignment of former Interim Vice Provost for Diversity and Equity Jennifer Ng, who is an education professor, to the position of associate vice provost for faculty development. In this role, Ng is to focus on faculty recruitment and retention as well as facilitating instructional opportunities for faculty and campus leaders in the areas of diversity and inclusion.

The DEI office has also been renamed. It’s now the Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB), and University Ombuds D.A. Graham will become interim vice provost, the announcement read.

Programs that formerly reported to the vice provost for diversity and equity have been reassigned to other units. The Office of Multicultural Affairs, Center for Sexuality and Gender Diversity and the Emily Taylor Center for Women and Gender Equity will now be under the Student Affairs umbrella. Hawk Link, the Multicultural Scholars Program and the Haskell/KU Exchange Program will move to Academic Success.

The changes also resulted in a “small reduction of staff,” the update read.

Shannon Portillo, associate dean for academic affairs at the KU Edwards Campus and author of one of the letters, said two staff members lost their jobs as a result of the changes. They are Cody Charles, a Black transgender employee who had worked at KU for 15 years and “made KU a space where Black students felt seen and heard,” and Emily Gullickson, who, with Charles, developed and led social justice training for faculty, staff and students, Portillo said.

The full announcement can be read on The Office of the Provost’s website,

Faculty, staff response

Since the changes were announced on Dec. 15, seven groups have issued statements to the chancellor and provost asking them to reverse or reconsider the decisions.

Nick Syrett, chair of the Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies department, is currently on leave on a fellowship but was on the DEI council this semester. He said the group met about four or five times but that no substantial change had occurred.

Syrett said he understood that the large council, which consisted of about 40 people, was a bit “unwieldy,” but wrote in a letter signed by about 60 faculty chairs and directors that “a smaller subgroup could have been consulted before making such wide-ranging decisions.”

In a phone call with the Journal-World, Syrett said that faculty members take issue not only with some of the changes, but also with the fact that they were made unilaterally.

“So we got stalled,” Syrett said of the council, “and then this is what happened.”

The letter Syrett authored outlines four chief concerns about the changes.

First, two “beloved” staff members were fired as two new associate vice provost positions were being created, “so the explanation for their removal does not appear to lie in cost savings,” the letter reads.

The two new positions are the associate vice provost for faculty development — “filled by Ng without a search,” Portillo said — and associate vice provost for staff development — a new position KU intends to create.

Second, people who signed the letter are upset that KU chose not to appoint a faculty member to be interim vice provost in the Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging, and instead to appoint a staff member.

“When this position is filled by a tenured faculty member, they have the security of a faculty position to return to if they are no longer in administration, meaning they can take more risks and be a voice for those who may not have the security or power to speak up,” Portillo wrote in the letter she authored. In addition to her role at KU, Portillo was recently voted onto the Douglas County Commission.

Third, the letter took issue with the reassignment of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, Center for Sexuality and Gender Diversity and the Emily Taylor Center for Women and Gender Equity to the realm of Student Affairs, writing that decision would limit the centers’ work to be only student-focused.

“The whole campus — including faculty and staff — would benefit from gender equity, for instance, not just the students at KU,” Syrett wrote in his letter.

In the Chancellor’s Weekly Video Update around the 12-minute mark, Bichelmeyer said Ng would focus on faculty programming in diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. She then mentioned KU’s plans to invest in a new associate vice provost for staff development in diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging.

Girod said he liked that there would be a focus on addressing diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging for all members of the KU community.

The fourth issue Syrett and other concerned faculty and staff have is that they said it was unclear whether or not the newly renamed Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging would have a budget.

Barcomb-Peterson wrote in an email to the Journal-World that the DEIB Office “has had a budget and will continue to have a budget equal to or greater than its past budgets.”

Girod and Bichelmeyer do not intend to reverse or reconsider the changes, Barcomb-Peterson said.


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