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UC Diversity Leaders Retreat: Reaffirming Inclusion at the University of California

Douglas M. HaynesMonths before the 2016 election, representatives from across the University of California met for a university-wide Diversity Leaders Retreat in Irvine September 26–27. For our 10 campuses and university-administered federal laboratories that compete for students, faculty and staff, the opening session was an impressive sight to behold. Then, Dr. Yvette Gullatt, UC Vice Provost for Diversity and Engagement, invited participants to share, think and connect. Over the next day and a half, participants did indeed learn from each other in a compelling set of concurrent panels on the multifaceted dimensions of diversity among our students, staff and faculty. At the close of the retreat, delegations described their plans for the future and pledged to update the community about their progress in a year at the next retreat.

Although retreats are familiarly regular at the campus level, it was the first such diversity retreat for the University of California after California voters passed Proposition 209 in 1996. This change to the state constitution prohibited the use of race, gender and national origins in either admissions or employment to any of the three higher education systems. Like voters in 2016, the state’s white voters took out their anger about declining opportunities and a lower standard of living against the populations who were historically disenfranchised or otherwise experienced persistent disparities in educational opportunity and occupational mobility. In truth, voters followed the regents. In 1995, the very custodians of the university approved SP-1 and SP-2, which prohibited the use of ethnicity, national origin, race, religion and sex in admissions and employment and contracting, respectively. In carrying out their charge, a majority justified their vote as “fairness” in the name of strengthening standards at a time of rising competition for admissions and employment.

The effect of fairness led to a steep decline in the numbers and proportion of African-American, Chicano/Latino and American Indian students. Another two decades transpired before the percentage of Latinos recovered, but African Americans and American Indians have not. Always low, the diversity of the faculty and graduate population remains largely unchanged. The meaning of the 209 effect varies, of course. To communities of color, it signaled the culmination of a backlash against racial justice that commenced as soon as the Nixon administration adopted the Philadelphia Plan — the forerunner of federal affirmative action policies — in 1967. For the rapidly shrinking student population, the campus climate became cold, if not hostile, as the experience of daily micro-aggressions and micro-invalidations added up to a new normal. For opponents, the invisibility of students of color reflected an alarming institutional capitulation to forces of exclusion. If anything, the post-209 era witnessed the relentless hallowing out of dedicated faculty and staff whose labor and knowledge provided the brain trust and foot soldiers for bridging the university to underserved communities. Those who remained faced an institutional culture fearful and reluctant to challenge or transgress the real and imagined proscriptions of Proposition 209. There were no systemwide retreats.

Between 2006 and 2016, the momentum for change slowly gathered pace, spurred on by advocates of diversity and gender equity and the attention of the state legislature. A new cohort of Regents rescinded SP-1 and -2 and publicly advocated for diversity. University presidents used their authority to appoint taskforces to assess the state of diversity among faculty, students and the staff, and create mechanisms for greater accountability. Chancellors, who shared a commitment to institutional transformation, engaged and collaborated with the academic senate and established new or repurposed former offices to organize campus efforts. It is too early to tell if the sum of the parts today is greater than the whole. At least, now there is a growing community of faculty and staff, distributed across the campuses and laboratories, who are passionately committed to inclusive excellence. To the extent that we hold our campuses and the university to its public commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, I remain confident that the momentum for change will only accelerate. If we stand together, we can advance inclusive excellence regardless of the vagaries of state or national elections.

Expect Equity, Support Diversity and Practice Inclusion

Douglas M. Haynes, Ph.D.
Chair of the Council of UC Chief Diversity Officers
Vice Provost for Academic Equity, Diversity and Inclusion
Professor of History
University of California, Irvine