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A University Rethinks DEI Work

Plans to restructure the Office of Equity and Inclusion created confusion at Point Park University. Rather than close the office, officials say they plan to reshape it to better meet student needs.

April 22, 2022
 
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When news that Point Park University was shutting down its Office of Equity and Inclusion trickled out, reactions were mixed. Students were critical and worried that vital services might vanish. Meanwhile, conservative news websites and right-wing media figures celebrated.

“Pennsylvania University SHUTS DOWN Woke Office of ‘Equity and Inclusion,’” read a headline that Charlie Kirk, founder of the conservative student organization Turning Point USA, posted on his website. Other conservative sites followed suit, declaring the office closure a culture war victory.

Despite such reactions, the reality is more technical and boring. While the Office of Equity and Inclusion as it currently exists is going away, the work it does will carry on, according to university officials. In fact, they say the plan is to pump more resources into a restructured office.

Reshaping Equity and Inclusion at Point Park

The Office of Equity and Inclusion, like President Don Green, is fairly new to Point Park. The office was established in 2020; Green joined the private Pittsburgh university in the spring of 2021. Early in his tenure, Green proposed rethinking the Office of Equity and Inclusion, and he started engaging staff in conversations about the restructuring about six months ago.

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The issue, Green said, is that the OEI is overburdened, responsible for accommodations for students with disabilities and Title IX compliance as well as all other issues of equity and inclusion. As student accommodation requests have soared—Green said the college usually handles 150 a year but has seen more than 430 this year—the office has struggled to keep up with the workload.

“I asked questions like, ‘Is [Title IX] compliance typically found in an Office of Equity and Inclusion?’ And the answer I was told was, ‘No, not typically, you don’t see that.’ And I said, ‘Is accommodation typically considered part of an Office of Equity and Inclusion?’ Well, no. Typically, it’s about student success and student academic performance, though there are a variety of different accommodations that are necessary these days to help students to be successful,” he said.

At that point, Green said, it no longer made sense to house all those services in one office. “It was very difficult to meet all the needs for accommodation,” Green said. “I’m having these conversations with all of the staff and seeing that the expectations are very high and the resources were not necessarily there.”

Ultimately, that led to the decision to disperse the services housed in the OEI. Green said more staff will be brought on to fulfill the work being done in diversity, equity and inclusion; student accommodations; and legal compliance. Point Park plans to shift the part of the Office of Equity and Inclusion that does its namesake work to the current Center for Inclusive Excellence, which may be renamed to reflect the DEI mandate.

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“We would really like to get these things accomplished by the end of summer,” Green said. “So that with faculty and staff and students returning, we can better communicate to people what it is we intend to do within the office or where those various services are available.”

Student Pushback

Word of the proposed closure or restructuring of the office first broke in Point Park’s student newspaper, which initially reported that OEI staff had requested the change. The university later backtracked, crediting Green with the idea.

“We were really just analyzing how to best organize the office,” Green said. “Then somehow, the rumor went out that the Office of Equity and Inclusion was going away. And that wasn’t the case. At that point, we followed up and ultimately did have a conversation with student government.”

But student government leaders suggest they were left in the dark, noting that communication on the restructuring has been limited, confusing and lacking input from the students themselves.

Dennis McDermott, the outgoing president of Point Park’s Student Government Association, said he learned of the plan to restructure the office through a fellow SGA member who works on DEI issues. Otherwise, he believes that students “would have not been made aware until the change had already been made,” McDermott told Inside Higher Ed via direct message.

One concern for McDermott is that the office restructuring means services will shift elsewhere. Currently, students know the one place they need to go to seek accommodations, find the Title IX office and consult the DEI arm of the university, which aids with student trainings and hosts university events.

“Having all of these aspects located in the same location on the first floor of the student center further contributes to accessibility in the sense of mobility, but also in the sense that students can easily make use of all of these services without going on a scavenger hunt around the University (which also increases the usage of all of the services therein),” McDermott said.

Green said as the plan progresses, the university will communicate with the newly elected student government president over the summer to share details and seek feedback.

Restructuring DEI Offices

Paulette Granberry Russell, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, notes that the structure of diversity, equity and inclusion offices varies by campus.

“Reorganizing an office, especially if the way in which the work evolved on that campus now suggests there may be reasons to reorganize, is not unusual,” Russell said.

What’s included under the umbrella of such offices also varies by institution, she said.

“I don’t want to say typical, but it’s not unusual to have a number of functions within a central [DEI] office,” Russell said.

While Point Park is on the smaller side, with around 3,500 students, Russell notes that DEI offices at colleges with higher enrollments typically have a wide reach across campus, intersecting at times with areas such as legal and regulatory compliance, Title IX issues, community outreach, and services that support the needs of a broad swath of underserved and underrepresented students.

Regardless of what a DEI office’s mandate includes, Russell stressed the importance of supporting its mission with appropriate resources to get the job done. If colleges expect to make progress on DEI issues, they should also be ready to make an investment, she said.

“Too often the offices themselves are not adequately resourced to provide a broad range of change that an institution wants or expects,” Russell said.

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