State universities eliminate, reorganize DEI offices to meet Regents directives

Iowa State University President Wendy Wintersteen, University of Iowa President Barbara Wilson and University of Northern Iowa President Mark Nook. from left, speak to the Iowa Board of Regents April 25, 2024. (Photo by Brooklyn Draisey/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

AMES — Presidents of the state’s public universities told the Iowa Board of Regents Thursday they are eliminating departments and positions related to diversity, equity and inclusion and looking to support students on a more individualized basis.

Iowa State University, University of Iowa and University of Northern Iowa have been working since the fall to adopt board directives relating to diversity, equity and inclusion. That includes eliminating any “unnecessary” DEI offices and positions, ensuring all services are open to all students on campus and exploring ways to encourage diversity of thought and perspective.

The presidents of each institution gave updates to the board on their progress toward completing the directives, including future actions to ensure compliance. However, Regent David Barker pointed out that some of these changes might be moot with the signing of legislation by Gov. Kim Reynolds.

University of Iowa

UI President Barbara Wilson told the board the university must foster a sense of belonging and provide a free environment for people to speak their minds. While this may seem difficult to pull off, she said, the two principles can coexist if university staff, faculty and leaders work together to not lean too hard in one direction at the expense of the other.

“I think this is an opportunity for us, as we think about what we’re supposed to be doing at a university,” Wilson said. “We are supposed to be bringing students from all backgrounds, all walks of life together and help them coexist and work together, not avoid each other, when they encounter differences.”

The UI’s 20-member task force met with several stakeholder groups on campus throughout the past four months in order to craft recommendations relating to the DEI directives, Wilson said, and conducted a survey in order to receive more feedback.

The university is almost finished reworking the university’s central DEI office, Wilson said. The office will shift to two departments under the renamed Division of Access, Opportunity and Diversity, handling accreditation requirements and compliance with state and federal laws. Five open positions will be eliminated, opening up around $360,000 in salaries and benefits to go to student success initiatives.

Most, if not all, of the 43 employees with “DEI” in their titles are necessary for accreditation or compliance, Wilson said, but the UI is working to review each one. Review of the college’s general education courses is also nearly complete, and the “Diversity and Inclusion” general education requirement will be renamed to “Understanding Cultural Perspectives.”

The UI has completed board directives to prohibit the requirement for anyone on campus to share their pronouns, with the university adding a statement to that effect to all syllabi. A performance evaluation metric for employee evaluations was also changed from asking someone about their engagement relating to diversity, equity and inclusion to their participation in activities that “foster a welcoming and respectful environment.”

The taskforce also reviewed recruiting practices for faculty and staff and updated resources and advertising areas in order to try and reach a more intellectually diverse hiring pool.

In order to ensure that everyone knows that all events are open to all, which Wilson said the UI was already doing, a policy has been added to the university’s code that states all student groups and other university organizations must include a statement that whatever event they are holding is open to everyone.

After the board of regents directed the universities to explore options for expanding education and research into civic education and free speech, Wilson said staff at the UI developed a pilot project that will be introduced to residence halls to teach students skills in communication and working with people who differ from them.

Led by resident assistants who will receive training from the university, the project will begin the upcoming fall semester with some residence hall floors receiving the education and others not in order to measure outcomes, Wilson said. A first-year seminar will also be available for new students.

Wilson said there were a few things she and others at the UI have learned throughout this process, including the necessity of gathering metrics on programs to measure their success and just how important it is that the college and others like it “foster cultural and global competency.” The university needs to teach students every day about how to work with each other, even if they have differences, and to instill in them the will to stick around when things get tough.

Diversity also goes far beyond what can be gleaned in a glance, Wilson said, and in order to best serve its community, the UI needs to expand its programs to reach those in need beyond what is currently offered.

The university president gave the example of her own two daughters, who were adopted from China. While people would be able to easily see that they are Chinese, they wouldn’t know at a look that one of them has a learning disability, or that they come from a biracial family and do not know their birth parents.

“I want our universities to support what they do, and to make them feel welcome, and to ensure that their visible and invisible aspects of diversity are cherished, and brought to the center of all of what we do,” Wilson said.

Iowa State University

ISU President Wendy Wintersteen said that in order to comply with the directives from the board of regents, the university will close its Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Office in July. Two filled and three open positions will be eliminated with this closure, and the impacted staff have received a 90-day notice of their termination.

The office closure will leave behind $789,000 in salaries and benefits, Wintersteen said, which has been allocated to university priorities.

Like the UI, Wintersteen said ISU will place a statement on all syllabi that no one be required to disclose their pronouns, and digital and promotional materials for programs will convey that they are open to all students.

After a review of DEI positions in university departments, Wintersteen said there are a number of units within the university’s colleges and division for student affairs that are critical for accreditation and support for students and staff. The work under this directive is nearly complete, she said, with updates being made where needed. A review of the university’s diversity, equity and inclusion general education category has led to it being renamed “U.S. Cultures and Communication.”

The university has also broadened its advertising efforts for open positions in order to reach different groups. Wintersteen said advertisements for its provost position went into the Wall Street Journal and New York Times.

A working group is also developing proposals for initiatives relating to free speech and civic education in the university’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Wintersteen said.

Wintersteen said the task force conducted its work in meeting the board’s directives within the context of a quote from early ISU Board of Trustees president Benjamin Gue: “Everyone would be welcome, regardless of race, gender or socioeconomic status.”

“It was really important for us to focus on how we could maintain support for students’ educational success, and also how we can maintain a welcoming campus,” Wintersteen said.

University of Northern Iowa

UNI developed two groups to focus on the different directives — the DEI Advisory Task Force and Civic Education at UNI Task Force. President Mark Nook said the groups and the administration took these directives as a chance to “reimagine” how the university supports its students and employees, and found that in order to meet them, current structures, communication, and other parts of forming the UNI community must change.

The university will reorganize the Division of Student Life under the directives, including eliminating the Diversity, Inclusion and Social Justice Office and creating new positions to offer direct-to-student services to all UNI students, Nook said. More services will go to the Office of Student Involvement and Office of the Dean of Students to offer more supports to student organizations, programming, and individual student needs.

UNI will also eliminate the position of Chief Diversity Officer, Nook said, and create an outreach position in the university’s Center for Urban Education. Five positions in the Academic Affairs office will be realigned to offer more students access to resources for enrollment, academic needs and graduation preparedness.

The university also developed a proposal for a civics education center, which would work with primary and secondary education students “with a vision to be nationally recognized leaders in research, teaching and public outreach in free speech and civic education,” Nook said. It would encourage respectful dialogue while instilling civic education and the values of free speech and public service, among others.

“The center is built on UNI’s strong foundation as a leader in the training of teachers established strengths and civic education, rich community partnerships, a proven record of community engagement and unique research capacities in Iowa history and politics,” Nook said.

The goal of these efforts is to offer a more holistic approach to student support, Nook said, and to give students as much personalized attention as possible to ensure their success at UNI.

“We are confident that by making these structural and organizational changes, we will be able to provide personal attention and services that each UNI student needs and deserves,” Nook said. “And we will continue to create a strong sense of community built on a commitment to the success of every member of the UNI community.”

Legislation could impact DEI changes

Barker said during the meeting that since the board knew nothing of the universities’ progress in meeting the directives between November and April, no one was able to convey information to the Iowa Legislature. He believed this is why legislation restricting DEI offices and spending at the state universities was passed.

Senate File 2435 would, using what Barker called a “broader” definition of DEI, bar universities from starting, maintaining or funding DEI offices or positions unless required by law or for accreditation. The Attorney General will handle complaints filed against universities claiming violations.

This bill, if signed into law, would make many of the board of regents’ directives irrelevant, Barker said. He suggested that the board and universities work together to become compliant under the new rules.

Regent Robert Cramer said he believed what they’ve been doing under the directives is now “moot,” and expressed disappointment at the legislation being passed without lawmakers knowing what the regents know now.

Wilson said she believes much of the work currently being conducted in the universities is in the spirit of the law, and the most important thing to know is that the end goal is to support all students.

“So while I wish too that we didn’t have laws in front of us, and that the board directives would have been given more opportunity to unfold, I think we shouldn’t jump to conclude anything about whether we’re in compliance with the law,” Wilson said. “My read is different than yours on that front.”

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