UA Fayetteville’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Division personnel to be spread among other offices, departments

Fayetteville campus shifting its diversity, equity efforts

Old Main on the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville campus is shown in this file photo. (NWA Democrat-Gazette file photo)

The personnel and resources of the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville campus's Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion will shift into other departments and offices in the fall, Chancellor Charles F. Robinson said in a letter on Tuesday.

The realignment, which Robinson described as the first under the university's broader "150 Forward" strategic plan, comes as educational institutions in Arkansas and other parts of the country face increasing scrutiny over matters involving race, gender and sexuality.

The restructuring will take effect Aug. 1, UA-Fayetteville spokesman John F. Thomas said in an email on Wednesday. All of the division's employees will be given the opportunity to be reassigned.

Those personnel and resources will be incorporated into Student Success; Student Affairs; Human Resources; the Office of Equal Opportunity and Compliance; and University Advancement, according to the letter. The Office of Equal Opportunity and Compliance will also be "formally aligned" with Human Resources, though the office will continue to report directly to the chancellor.

In his letter, addressed to "Campus Community and Friends," Robinson said the planning process "has affirmed that equal opportunity, access and belonging are critical to our land-grant mission and university values."

Thomas said that, as a state institution, the university is "respectful" of laws, regulations and various viewpoints. However, he added, "from an educational standpoint and as an employer, we believe that this is the best way to fulfill our land-grant mission of access and opportunity for all."

Faculty Senate Chair Stephen Caldwell affirmed in an interview on Wednesday that "nobody is losing their job, nobody is getting fired."

"The work that that office did is going to continue in many different forms moving forward," he said.

The efforts traditionally made by the division will have a further reach and greater effect under the restructuring, said Caldwell, who described the campus as being "almost in a post-DEI environment" in which the work isn't performed by a single office.

"That type of work should be reflected in all of our daily activities at the departmental level, at the college level, by the faculty, by the students, by the staff, by the administration, all the way across the board," Caldwell said.

Attention to diversity is critical to student success on a campus like Fayetteville's, where students come "from all over the world," he said. What one student might need to graduate from their program may be different from the needs of another.

Further, those differences often aren't limited to race, gender or sexual orientation. Two students who might fit into one demographic may be different in that one grew up poor in the Delta, while another may have grown up with a relatively wealthy family in Bentonville, Caldwell explained.

"We want the diversity of the student body, regardless of how they are diverse from each other, to all achieve the same level of success," he said. "We want them to get to graduation."

According to Caldwell, the faculty leadership, chancellor and provost had informally discussed the future of DEI in higher education during monthly meetings about campus issues before the realignment announcement was made.

During those conversations, especially during Arkansas legislative sessions, the group has discussed how bills coming out of the Legislature might affect the university, especially with regard to teaching, he said. Caldwell pointed to "some pretty specific language" in the LEARNS Act referring to critical race theory and other issues related to diversity.

In January, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued an executive order that "prohibits indoctrination and critical race theory in schools." A bill to end affirmative action, sponsored by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, died before it could become law.

During their conversations, the faculty leaders, chancellor and provost also discussed what bills might come during future sessions. Caldwell pointed to Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis in May signed into law a bill that prevents public colleges from using state or federal funds on diversity programs.

"What would happen if a Florida-like bill was instituted here in Arkansas?" Caldwell asked.

The Faculty Senate chair said that he suspects Arkansans will likely see similar rules being enacted here, whether through an emergency legislative session or during a regular session.

"But why wait?" he said. "If you can preemptively do something that's better for the campus, anyway, then it behooves you to do that now."

The realignment announced in Robinson's letter is part of the 150 Forward strategic planning process and is intended to support two of its three pillars: student success and employer of choice, according to the letter. The third pillar is research excellence.

The university describes the process as a "campus-wide, collaborative effort to map out where we are as a land-grant institution, and how to tease out more and better outcomes in achieving the university's mission." Though 150 Forward began before Robinson became chancellor in November of last year, events around the effort began in February, starting with three town halls, according to UA's website.

The planning process is currently in its second phase, during which the "campus community sets goals and quantifiable objectives," the website states.

"When we return to campus in the fall our colleges, schools and units will be able to develop strategies and tactics that align with the University's goals while reflecting each unit's unique strengths and opportunities," Robinson said in his letter.

Caldwell said on Wednesday that, given the university's strategic planning and concerns over how future legislation might affect diversity programs, it was "no surprise" that Robinson chose this time to announce the moving of the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion's resources and employees into other parts of the campus "in an effort to increase student success all across the board."

"If I were chancellor I would probably do the same thing," he said.