A conversation with the University of Michigan's Chief Diversity Officer Dr. Robert Sellers

On his journey from protesting grad student to U-M's top diversity official

Photo: University of Michigan

ANN ARBOR – Last year, the University of Michigan implemented a comprehensive action plan for promoting diversity, equity and inclusion on campus.

We sat down with Dr. Robert Sellers, who is leading the charge on the ambitious project and fills the new roles of Vice Provost for Equity and Inclusion, Chief Diversity Officer and the Charles D. Moody Collegiate Professor of Psychology and Education. 

The new position seems to have been tailor-made for him.

Dr. Sellers has carried out extensive research on the role race plays in the psychological lives of African-Americans, developing with his students an empirical and conceptual model of African-American racial identity.

He shared his take on the campus climate, the Strategic Plan and his personal experience at Michigan as a graduate student.

What do you hope your background brings to this position?

"I hope my work as a psychologist gives me a perspective in terms of how different people are experiencing the world: What are their motivations; what are their fears. What are the strategies for making the kinds of change that we want to change?

"For instance, one of the things that’s been helpful, or at least has influenced my thinking and my approach, has been understanding that even though we usually think that attitude change leads to behavioral change, actually, much of the research suggests it’s the other way around; That behavioral change often leads to attitudinal change.

"So not to focus so much on attitudes in the sense that we’re preaching particular ideologies but more in terms of preaching practices that represent the value of diversity, equity and inclusion.

"Having been at the university as a graduate student and having been more involved ... It does sometimes give me a perspective of how people feel in various aspects of the university. And it also gives me perspective that -- for the 32 years that I’ve been affiliated with the university -- there have always been a number of people in a number of spaces that have worked very hard on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion all throughout this campus."

Students protest white supremacist Richard Spencer's visit on Nov. 29, 2017 (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

Taking you back to the time when you were a graduate student here -- what was different then? What was your personal experience?

"I’ve always seen Michigan as a tale of two cities. In my experience, when I came to the University of Michigan, there were many great and wonderful opportunities, and one of the things that I valued most about Michigan is it’s a place that if there are good ideas, it’s a place that allows those good ideas to flourish. It’s been very entrepreneurial in terms of ideas and perspectives. I’ve always found it to be a place like that.

"At the same time, like every place else, it’s had its challenges with issues with respect to diversity, equality and inclusion and it has always had its challenges with those issues. But I’ve always felt that this is a place that we could make significant change and have made significant change over the years.

"I often tell this story. I was here in the mid-'80s and protesting. My first experience in the administration building was spending the night after we took over the Regents meeting.

"As part of that particular protest and demonstration, one of the set of demands was the development of a position in the provost’s office for minority affairs. And that position has pretty much evolved to my position (today). So, little did I know when I was protesting then, that I was actually developing some job security down the line.

"Every day that I come in the building, that irony is not lost on me. And the fact that the university, on numerous occasions, has listened to student protests and other efforts from the faculty is on the one hand, quite admirable and part of our ability to move forward and be a leader in some ways. 

"On the other hand, it also shaped a sense that we also have had a strategy and approach in most cases that is reactive, and not proactive. So while student protests are important in generating motivation, it’s not always the best place to identify and develop a strategy for long-term change.

"If we’re ultimately going to be successful, it needs to be owned by the university and not just by students protesting. It really needs to be about institutional change."

Students protest white supremacist Richard Spencer's visit on Nov. 29, 2017 (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

So how did this 5 year Strategic Plan come to be?

"There had been a number of people over a number of years who’d been wanting a strategic plan for the university with respect to diversity. In the late '80s early '90s, there was a top-down plan that president Duderstadt had put in that was the Michigan Mandate. But that plan had gone away over the years and there was a sense that the actions that we were doing were haphazard, not particularly well-coordinated.

"A committee was formed in November 2013. The provost at the time, Martha Pollack, had pulled together a committee looking at diversity, equity and inclusion. The committee was in response to a 'Being black at University of Michigan' online movement that was going on and that committee was made up of primarily faculty, students and staff members and came up with 13 recommendations.

"I was asked to chair that committee and one of those recommendations was a University of Michigan strategic plan for diversity. Those recommendations came in around June of 2014. President Schlissel came in July 2014 and to his tremendous credit, he almost immediately adopted the recommendation for the DEI strategic plan."

You’ve had your first year. Have you seen any changes, have you hit your goals?

"Our plan was much more complicated (compared to other universities) and really embodies our goals and values with respect to diversity, equity and inclusion. So, instead of a single plan, we initially had 49 plans. Every major administrative unit, every school and college would have its own plans. And then there would be a larger university plan in support of those 49 plans. It recognized the fact that the experience on campus looks very different for a student in nursing, for instance, versus a student in engineering. In both spaces, gender is a very salient issue and there are gender imbalances.

"We wanted to recognize the variation in the experiences you have depending on where you are on campus. We also wanted to have as inclusive a process as possible in the planning process. So we had every unit, in the creation of their plans, instead of having the best thoughts from the committee or the dean, we had them hold town hall meetings, focus groups.

"We also created a social media platform for anyone at the university to provide input and ideas for the plans. We wanted this to be an inclusive a process as we could possibly make it. We wanted it to be everybody’s plan and in doing so, hopefully, empower everyone to not only come up with and think about best strategies to improve our climate but also have a sense that diversity, equity and inclusion is a key part of our DNA. We wanted to have as diverse a population of folks as we could have in our recruitment, retention and development practices.

(Credit: University of Michigan News) 

"In terms of the first year, we had over 1,800 different action items across the units and more than 80 percent of them were either started or completed within that first year. At the College of Literature, Sciences and Art, one of their major initiatives is recruiting faculty. Over the next five years, they will hire 50 new faculty who have a demonstrated commitment to diversity and these positions will be post-doc to faculty position and it’s across the entire college, so every department will have opportunities to bring in applications and to nominate those applicants for positions.

"In terms of staff, we’ve created a set of training opportunities for staff and faculty on campus that focus on things like unconscious bias, bystander interventions as well as other programs.

"The health system has created a new search toolkit to diversify their search process for hiring new physicians, where in the past it was just, 'Who do you know?' And the systems were closed."

When you say action item, what does that mean on the ground?

"The action items could be as big as the LSA recruitment effort, or in a smaller unit it may be the creation of a DEI committee or a monthly informal meeting that gives the opportunity to discuss where we are at in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion.

"Student life, for example, is developing a training program on intercultural development and developing skills to help students interact more effectively across difference."

How do you change people’s perspectives?

"That’s going back to changing people’s perceptions and attitudes. In certain instances, I would love everybody to have a natural embrace for diversity, equity and inclusion but I’m not that naïve. But there’s literally nothing, with the possible exception of hating Ohio State, that there is consensus here on the university campus. 

"It’s important to focus on our standard operating procedures and worry less about attitudes -- attitudes will follow. Being an institution of higher education, we should be able to defend what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. And my argument for why diversity, equity and inclusion really needs to be a core part of who we are is that it is a core part of our admission to the university.

"If our mission is to be excellent, we know that if we are going to be successful, we need as many different minds, ideas and perspectives as possible. If you think about the sciences, the professions, etc., it ultimately comes down to problem-solving.

"We know best problem-solving strategies are when you have as many diverse perspectives going at that problem as possible, so it gives you more creative solutions and in the end, ultimately gives you more effective solutions.

"But you can’t just have diversity, because having those different experiences but certain individuals feeling like they’re allowed to speak and others aren’t or feeling like they can’t speak because they’re dealing with experiences of discrimination, etc., then we don’t get the benefits of diversity. So diversity, equity and inclusion have to go hand-in-hand if we’re going to benefit.

"I think what we’re undertaking is at a larger scale (compared to) most institutions. One of the things that makes me so excited about the prospect of what we’re doing is that because we’re Michigan, when we are successful, other people will follow."

Read more about Dr. Sellers here.

See the full progress report of the first year of the Strategic Plan.

Read more about U-M's 5-year Strategic Plan here.