Outrage Over Diversity Plan

May 31, 2005

A committee at the University of Oregon unveiled the first draft of a diversity plan, to the dismay of many faculty members who object to its approach and the surprise of some members of the committee that prepared it.

The 22-page draft, posted on the university’s Web site this month, bears the names of 79 faculty members, staff and students who formed a “diversity working group” and “diversity advisory council” to discuss ways to bolster diversity and cross-cultural cooperation.

The plan proposes incorporating “cultural competency” into funding, hiring and tenure considerations, as well as “cluster hirings” of several professors each year to teach courses on topics of race, gender and sexuality. "Cultural competency” is not defined explicitly, but is understood to mean working with members of different ethnic and racial groups. The plan also suggests using hundreds of new scholarships to eventually double the number of students from “underrepresented” groups. The university now has 2,706 “non-white” students, 13.3 percent of its total of 20,339 students. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 24 percent of the nearly 3.5 million people in the state of Oregon are non-white, although that figure includes people of mixed race and ethnicity.

Gregory Vincent, vice provost for institutional equity and diversity, chaired the committee, and said getting the draft out before the end of the academic year was a top priority. “We knew it was a provocative plan,” Vincent said. "We wanted to put it out there so people could react and give feedback.” He added that he had been soliciting input as early as the fall, so there is little excuse for those who say they did not have a chance to react. “We had open discussions before the draft, and we have had open discussions after the draft. There was plenty of time for input, and there still is time. Some people ignore the fact that it is a ‘draft.' "

Many faculty members, however, including some on the committee charged with preparing the draft, were blindsided by the appearance of the draft, and upset that their names were included. Huaxin Lin, a mathematics professor, was shocked to see his name on the first page of a draft he did not know was coming out so soon. “This document was printed out without the proper approval of the council,” he said. “The people in the council knew a draft was being worked on, but not everybody saw it in written form.”

Faculty members said that many of their colleagues were upset by the draft. Twenty-four professors signed a letter expressing their concerns about the draft. Of highest concern to many faculty members was the draft’s “Orwellian insertion of the undefined political notion ‘cultural competency’ into every aspect of administration, teaching and performance evaluation,” according to the letter.

"'Cultural competence’ is a vague term. Nobody knows what it means. To me, it’s devoid of content,” said Michael Kellman, a chemistry professor. “Making it the focus of promotion and salary decisions would be a huge distraction from the university’s job of teaching and scholarship. It would be horribly damaging if this plan was actually implemented.”

“I knew that there were some things in the plan that would be controversial,” Vincent said.  “I think it’s like any document that wants to make people think and grapple with tough issues. This is just a recommendation for a commitment to diversity. It is not unilateral action, and it will be evaluated by the Faculty Senate. We want feedback.”

And feedback they got. Faculty members responded forcefully to the draft’s notion that a group be formed to evaluate “cultural competence” with regard to new hires and research funding. “Who do you think you are?” Boris Botvinnik, a math professor, asked. “You would like to tell us what to do in terms of research in mathematics? We’d like to have a nice atmosphere of diversity on campus. We hire the best people available, and this is the only way to keep the level of the department high.”

Many faculty members who support the development of a diversity plan still said they were troubled by the draft. “The plan gave the impression that cultural competence was going to be the chief criterion for salary increases, and I don’t think that was the intention,” said Matthew Dennis, a professor of history. He acknowledged that there were open discussions of the plan, but said that they were not set up in a convenient way for faculty members to attend. Dennis hopes to see future discussions of the draft take place within departments. “I think a lot of people who would normally be supportive weren’t happy because they felt they weren’t included.”

With faculty members at Oregon already making less than professors at peer institutions, some people wonder where funds would come from for sweeping new initiatives. Vincent said he considered that, but did not want to let it stall the draft. “We didn’t want to take ideas off the table because of money,” he said. “This is a draft, at some point in the future it will have to be more realistic.”

Vincent is leaving for the University of Texas at Austin in June, so he will not be around to see the second draft of the plan. But, if Vincent’s goal was to promote discussion of a diversity plan, faculty members agree that he succeeded. “It has been a tumultuous couple weeks,” said Dennis. “I think in many ways, what I see is it being a real kind of wake-up call across campus, that this is something people have to invest in personally. I really think in the long run this is going to be a healthy thing, although in the short term it has been very disruptive.”

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