Reflections on Our DEI Work

Dear Western Community,
 

Recently, we have been in several conversations within our university community and beyond on the priorities for higher education as we emerge from the health pandemic.  Western is not unique in being under pressure from pandemic-related enrollment declines, loss of critical auxiliary revenue, reduction in state funding, and threats to equitable access and outcomes for all students.  National data from the current downturn—as with previous recessions—spotlight that communities of color and those with a high school diploma or less are bearing the brunt of this COVID-induced economic crisis. 

As we continue to focus on recovery plans, we’d like to provide you with an update on our diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work, as well as a reminder about how this work fits into the broader priorities for the university.

Our 2018 – 2025 strategic plan recognizes that our single most important challenge is to eliminate opportunity gaps for students from diverse and under-represented socio-economic backgrounds and to ensure that we increase retention and persistence rates and the number of such graduates.  The strategic plan clearly defines our accountability measures—metrics associated with retention and graduation rates, closing opportunity gaps, degrees, student and employment demographics, and campus climate.

Our approach to DEI work has been based on a recognition of work in three essential areas: resources and support, systems and structures, and learning and traditions.  Along with accountability measures, these three elements comprise the framework for our efforts.

Each year we have identified specific activities and initiatives to advance work in these three areas, work that is continuously informed and shaped by feedback from the campus community, particularly our students.  For example, the Native American Student Union “letter of urgent needs” in 2016 shaped our work specifically focused on Indigenous students, and the work over the past 12 months has been driven largely by needs described by WWU’s Black Student Organizations.  At the same time, we continue to work on initiatives that are tied to multiple groups, including our undocumented students, LGBTQ+ students, disabled and chronically ill students, and other marginalized and historically underrepresented people across the institution. 

Our institutional focus on social justice, with specific attention to issues and challenges facing Black, Indigenous and other people of color in our community and in society at large, is motivated by structural inequality that has been allowed to continue unremedied for generations.  It is also motivated by the belief that improving conditions for the most marginalized people at Western will undoubtedly improve the experience of the entire Western community.

The purpose of this message is not to reproduce the entire set of initiatives we have undertaken over the past 2-3 years; those are detailed on our DEI TimelineRather, our intent is to provide some reminders of the work we have recently undertaken in order to encourage more thinking and innovation as we accelerate this work across our campuses. 

We believe that leadership and accountability for diversity, equity and inclusion work must reside at the highest level—in the President’s portfolio.  At the same time, we also believe that advancing DEI work is everyone’s responsibility at Western.  While there is a richness and innovation that comes with a diversity of approaches and expertise, we understand that as our work expands there is an increasing need to more effectively coordinate our DEI initiatives and to ensure that they are aligned with, and advance, our strategic plan. 

There are many different approaches to creating and supporting DEI coordination at a university and to create a central position, like a Chief Diversity Officer, is certainly one of them.  At the same time, it is important to incrementally build infrastructure and capacity across the institution to ensure the long-term stability and success of our DEI work.  Our approach to institutionalizing DEI work will continue to change and evolve, and we will continue to consult with the university community on how best to enhance our organizational capacity and infrastructure for this work.

As we continue those discussions on next steps in our journey, we greatly appreciate the progress in the last few years, progress that has been greater than at any other time in the history of WWU.

In the realm of resources and support, our work has included hiring a LGBTQ+ Director and a Tribal Liaison, and we are in the process of hiring the Executive Director of the Office of Civil Rights and Title IX Compliance, the Director of Multicultural Student Services and a Retention Counselor for African American and Black Students, the latter being part of a network of positions being created to support our diverse student body.  The University has opened a new Multicultural Center and renovated space in Wilson Library for the Disability Access Center and Veterans Services.  As part of the new residence hall project, considerable work has gone into making the entire Ridge complex more accessible to people with disabilities, and we continue to expand gender neutral bathrooms across campus.  On a hopeful note, our request for the construction of a new Coast Salish Longhouse is included in the Governor’s proposed capital budget for the 2021-23 biennium.

The most enduring investment an educational institution can make to reshape its culture is in its faculty.  The Provost’s Diversity and Inclusion Hiring Initiative is one of the more important initiatives we have undertaken in the Systems and Structures area, and the results from the first two years of piloting the initiative are quite encouraging in increasing the diversity of new faculty.  Last year, 41% of those new faculty members identified as belonging to a racial or ethnic minority group.  Overall, of all current tenure-track faculty, 26.1% identify as belonging to a racial or ethnic minority group, compared to 18.8% in 2016.  Similarly, our enrollment management efforts over the past few years have focused on increasing the diversity of our student body with the result that students of color now constitute 28.3% of the student body compared to 24.9% in 2016.

This year we created the Structural Equity and Bias Response teams, focused on more effectively addressing immediate bias incidents and proactively examining policy and structural constructs through an equity lens.  Several policies have been introduced or revised, including discrimination complaint procedures, gender-inclusive housing policies, religious accommodation, and threat and safety communication protocol.  We have instituted regular, periodic climate surveys, with another scheduled for later this academic year.

With regard to learning and traditions, we have expanded the Viking Launch program for first generation and Pell Grant-eligible students.  Funding for an Ethnic Studies program is central to our request for the 2021-23 legislative session and the Faculty Senate has undertaken the task of reviewing recommendations from the Committee on Undergraduate Education on reframing and updating General University Requirements to include a set of courses that will help students confront and grapple with issues of power, equity and justice in the U.S. and in the broader world. 

We have started or expanded several annual events, including MLK Day, Black History Month, the Native American Student Union Pow Wow, Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and World Kindness Day.  We have instituted mandatory sexual violence prevention and response training for students and will be starting a similar educational process for DEI training.  University leadership has engaged in several educational activities to increase its awareness and capacity, including government-to-government tribal sovereignty training and diversity and cultural change education.  

The Board of Trustees approved in December the naming of the new residence hall Alma Clark Glass Hall, after one of Western’s first and most notable Black students, and we have instituted a Legacy Review Task Force to review the history and significance of building and college names on Western’s main campus.

The work outlined above does not include several efforts that have been initiated over the past few years in divisions and academic colleges, nor does it include several initiatives through the work of groups like the Social Justice and Equity Committee; Council on Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice; and the Commission on Gender Equity.  The work at the unit level is equally important if we are to infuse diversity, equity and inclusion in university culture and practices.  We recognize that we need a mixture of approaches, so that each department, college or division can focus on those approaches that are best aligned with their priorities.

This summary also does not include the work undertaken by the Associated Students and other student groups to both inform the institutional agenda and introduce changes that promote social justice and DEI practices into student-led structures. 

It has taken considerable effort on the part of many to bring us to this point, as we have contended simultaneously with the substantial burden of the COVID-19 pandemic.  We could not be more grateful to so many of you for the extra time and commitment devoted to our diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.  We have substantial work ahead of us to meet our aspirational targets for inclusive student success, including work specifically identified under the DEI umbrella. 

We are committed to advancing this work, and to learning, expanding and adapting through the process.  We all share the profound responsibility for creating true equity of access to positive and life-changing experiences at Western, and for the powerful sense of belonging and success that we desire for everyone in our community. 

Thank you for your shared commitment and work to make Western Washington University a place where all community members feel truly safe, supported and included.

 

Sabah Randhawa                                             Brent Carbajal

President                                                           Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs