June 14, 2021
Lawrence, US 68 F

Shannon Portillo: Colleges should not cut DEI staff if they want to retain faculty of color (Column)

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This piece was written in December 2020 and was first published at Inside Higher Ed on April 29, 2021.

I can name every tenured Latina professor on my campus. Working at a large, flagship research university in the Midwest, it would be impossible for me to know or even to have met every white faculty member on campus. But in the past five years, my university has seen a decline in the number of faculty of color in our tenured ranks, and it’s easy to identify who remains.

Nationwide, Latina faculty make up roughly 3% of all faculty, leading us to stick out on campuses populated overwhelming by white male professors. Recently, my university has also seen the departure of a number of high-profile faculty of color.

Our campus isn’t unusual; we know there is a retention challenge for faculty of color regardless of rank at research universities. What is unusual is our response to this decline.

I was raised 30 minutes away from the university where I now work. I came here as an undergrad because it was close to home and offered in-state tuition. I was pre-law. My family told me I had choices: I could be pre-law or pre-med. For many high-achieving students of color, that was not an unusual choice.

It wasn’t until I encountered staff working as part of TRIO programs and in our university’s diversity, equity and inclusion programs that I even thought about the possibility of a Ph.D. A Latino grad student working as a program coordinator coached me on how to approach the few Latinx faculty on campus who might serve as mentors. I had powerful mentors of color, both faculty and staff members, who helped me navigate the process of applying for graduate school, surviving and thriving while there, and landing a tenure-track job. After spending five years in a tenure-track position at a higher education institution on the East Coast, I had the opportunity to return home.

Coming home and working at the university where I received my education and learned what it meant to be an academic was a dream come true. In reality, it still is. I have my dream job. I get to share my story with students who are just like me, and I work every day to be the mentor that students need to thrive in academia.

That is why it is particularly disappointing to see my university’s response to this cultural moment. This past summer, my university, like so many across the nation, held a vigil after the murder of George Floyd. We issued statements about the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Yet this past fall, the university reorganized and downsized our diversity and equity unit. Structurally this unit is weaker, no longer led by a tenured faculty member who can speak truth to power. Fewer staff members are employed directly to do the work of diversity, equity and inclusion across campus. Most internal units are reassigned to the student affairs department, implying that our students need support and development but our faculty and staff members do not. Beloved staff members who led social justice trainings for faculty and staff and mentored students — coaching students to approach me as a mentor, just as their predecessors had done for me — lost their jobs right before the December holidays in the midst of a global pandemic. We have fewer Black professionals in the Diversity and Equity unit on our campus now than we did when George Floyd was alive.

As a tenured faculty member of color, I benefited from the mentorship of staff members who worked in diversity, equity and inclusion areas as a student, but more important, DEI staff continue to shape my work and educate me to this day. When such staff members are a part of institutionwide units, they can connect students seeking out faculty mentors. They can ensure that we’re all continuing to learn about our own privileges and how we can create better organizations and communities. It may sound small, but we all use the same language and call on the same resources when our DEI units are campuswide and not exclusive to student affairs.

Staff members dedicated to diversity, equity and inclusion play a central role in helping to retain current faculty of color and ensure we have a pipeline of future faculty of color. In tough budget times, we should not make cuts that sacrifice our most marginalized or shrink the mission of vital offices. This type of short-term thinking only reinforces the structural inequalities we in higher education all spoke about dismantling just this past summer.

I love my university and am so incredibly thankful for every opportunity it has prepared me for. I’m honored to be a part of the faculty here, and I spend my days helping students, administrators and colleagues to thrive in academia. Yet I also entered 2021 heartbroken that our institution’s actions around diversity, equity and inclusion continue to fall so short of our rhetoric.

My New Year’s promise to myself, my colleagues and my students was that I will not stay silent as numbers of tenured faculty continue to decrease and diversity, equity and inclusion staff get pushed to the margins. We deserve actions that live up to every statement we’ve read over the past months.

— Shannon Portillo is an associate professor in the school of public affairs and administration at the University of Kansas. She also serves as associate dean of academic affairs for the School of Professional Studies and the University of Kansas at Edwards campus, and she is a Douglas County commissioner. Follow her on Twitter: @Prof_SP

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