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Achieving More: A Diverse, Equitable, and Inclusive KU

Neeli Bendapudi, Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor
Monday, September 12, 2016
KU Lawrence and Edwards Staff, Faculty and Affiliates
KU Lawrence and Edwards Students
*linked from 9-12 Strong Ties message


            Some of you may have heard me talk about the Crimson and Blue ties that bind generations of Jayhawks, weaving a rich tapestry across time and space.   Today, I ask you to think back to the ‘Jayhawkers,’ ardent abolitionists from the late 19th century, whose legacy is memorialized in our mascot, and whose ideals of freedom, equality, opportunity, and justice must animate our current discourse.    

            These ideals vis-à-vis the realities that confront our many Jayhawk communities were the subject of much open conversation and thoughtful consideration by the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Advisory Group, co-chaired by Drs. Clarence Lang and Sheahon Zenger, and reflected in the DEI report submitted to the Chancellor and the Provost.  Because I was a member of that committee, I asked Interim Vice Provost Stuart Day, and a distinguished group of colleagues to review the DEI report, identify progress we have made as an institution, and more importantly, identify gaps and additional recommendations for my office to consider.  Their analysis served as the foundation of my response.  I am thankful to them and to the members of the DEI committee for graciously taking on this important responsibility. 

            I want us to approach diversity work and diversity leadership on this campus by asking ourselves two questions.  First, what would we need to do to make our unit, area, program a national leader?  You cannot think in this way without proactively addressing issues of diversity and equity.  Second, what can we do to make an impact with what we have?  We are in tight budget times, but that is not an excuse for inaction.  We must find ways to improve our climate and make our campus more inclusive with existing resources. All of your ideas in answer to these questions are truly welcome.  It will take our entire community’s efforts to see real change happen.  So what do we know about how we are doing?  The short answer: we have made significant strides but we are still not doing as well as we could or should be.  The long-term solution? We must work together intentionally, intensely, and tenaciously.

            “Hail to thee, our Alma Mater…”  It is a good bet that every student on our campus sings these words, but it is also a good bet that not every one of them experiences KU as the Alma Mater (translated from Latin as Nurturing Mother).  If one student experiences systemic oppression or feels unwelcome or not included, that is one too many.  Whether you agree or disagree with their tactics, it is in large part due to the activism of our students and Rock Chalk Invisible Hawk that this conversation has taken such prominence on our campus.

            As a public institution, we must be responsive to and reflective of the full breadth of our society.  This requires us to build and sustain strong student pipelines into KU from minority-serving institutions (MSIs), particularly those in our immediate community and region.  In the coming year, we will be working with MSIs beyond our region to explore the possibility of partnership.  Multiple offices are working hard to ensure diverse students come to and excel at KU.  The Office of Academic Affairs is reviewing our memorandum of agreement with Haskell Indian Nations University to build stronger linkages and build or strengthen connections with KCK public schools and community colleges.  The Office of Admissions is assessing how we recruit high-achieving diverse students.

            We know that finding funding for college continues to be an area of great confusion and hardship.  The Offices of Enrollment Management and Financial Aid and Scholarships, with support from our donors through KU Endowment, is setting up a new Student Experience Management System to streamline scholarship processes and enhance user experience.  Additionally, for two years now, new first-year students have received a personalized overview of all aspects of aid including their estimated cost based on their aid package.  I have asked the Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships to work with academic units to simplify and clarify the aid notification packages for all students.  

            No matter how strong our aid package, students often face unexpected financial pressures.  To help students stay at KU instead of dropping out due to financial emergencies, the chancellor is working with KU Endowment to develop hardship funds for low socioeconomic status students.  The Office of Graduate Studies started to prioritize diversity in graduate student fellowships in 2015.  Currently, 50% of all University Graduate Fellowships go to diverse candidates.  At the undergraduate level, the chancellor and I, in partnership with the deans, are working to increase scholarship and fellowship funds for underrepresented students. 

            Once a student comes to KU, it is in the best interest of all parties to help them graduate on-time.  We know that both the in-classroom and out-of-classroom experience matter in retention.  With additional funding, new leadership, and expanded collaboration with faculty, the Office of Undergraduate Studies is poised to positively impact our student retention numbers.  They are working on a number of targeted interventions that, over time, will impact retention.  This fall, for the first time ever, free tutoring will be provided to all incoming Pell-eligible students to provide extra support for their success.  We will be increasing success coaching, following models most common in university athletics, to ensure that students that need a little extra support get that to help them towards attaining their degree.  We will increase undergraduate research through the Emerging Scholars Program that will both pay work-study students to engage in research and pair these students with our university’s finest researchers.  We know from the impact of programs at our peer institutions that early engagement in research can yield marked positive gains in retention.

            The classroom experience must also represent a diverse range of students and their experiences.  To do this, the Office of Academic Affairs is convening a small workgroup to find ways of incorporating social justice, inclusion, and equity throughout the KU Core curriculum.  Additionally, the University Honors Program has been auditing itself and soliciting the input of external voices to inform their equity and inclusion initiatives as they work to ensure they have a diverse population recruited to and represented in the program.  In addition to driving change centrally, it is vital that leadership actively supports the initiatives from individual units.  Whether the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ Diversity Plan or the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication’s Diversity Plan, there is palpable energy around making our university a truly inclusive and welcoming space.  I am particularly gratified to see the attention and focus on integrating our international students more fully into the Jayhawk experience.  Some significant efforts in this regard include our decision to appoint an international student to the Tuition Advisory Committee, and the charge I have given the Office of First Year Experience and the Office of International Programs to collaborate on making sure domestic and international students have more intentionally planned opportunities for community building and shared learning during orientation and Hawk Week.  I have also charged the Office of International Programs to build on creative efforts such as the Global Partners Program which ensure our domestic students get the full benefit of the rich learning experiences associated with being a part of a truly global community.  When you come to KU, the world comes to you.

            For generations, one of the most significant assets of our university has been the commitment we make to our people and, in return, the commitment we make to the institution.  KU is special, but we cannot and must not rest on our laurels.  Every great institution needs constant care and vigilance to remain so.  Higher education institutions have a particular responsibility to foster debate and discussion by incorporating a plurality of perspectives and life experiences.

            With this in mind, we have to be particularly cognizant of our hiring practices and how they impact the creation of a more diverse academic community.  For the first time this year, we allocated $25,000 within Human Resources to increase our pools of diverse candidates by targeting higher impact recruiting lists and subscription sites.  I’ve asked Human Resources to convene a group of internal and external thought leaders to discuss best practices in recruiting, retaining, and developing a diverse workforce.  For our faculty, the Office of Faculty Development offered the Recruiting Strategies that Promote Faculty Diversity workshop in March 2016 for chairs, associate deans, and deans and secured membership in The Registry, a national database of diverse faculty candidates and positions open at major universities.  In the coming academic year, this office will lead a collaborative effort with deans, associate deans, department chairs, and faculty members to develop and adopt unit-specific, proactive recruitment plans designed to enhance the pipeline for future faculty searches.

            I have already begun and will continue to engage each dean and vice provost in our one-on-one meetings about diversity hiring and retention goals in their respective units.  Further, I have asked the Office of Institutional Research and Planning to prepare a new report to disaggregate our faculty diversity numbers to more fully reflect the current state and inform where we can grow.  This information will be available to all members of the KU community through the Visual Analytics platform.  The Office of Faculty Development has partnered with two talented faculty fellows to offer a robust mentoring program that will be rolled out and assessed over the coming year.  Beyond this mentoring programming, the university has entered into an agreement with the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity (NCFDD), a program that provides faculty, post-doctoral researchers, and graduate students with helpful development resources. 

            I believe that intentionally supporting and prioritizing diverse communities is a major solution to many of the problems we face.  To that end, I will match funding provided by the Office of Diversity & Equity to financially support the diverse faculty and staff councils (Asian and Asian-American Faculty Staff Council, Black Faculty and Staff Council, Latino Faculty and Staff Council, Native Faculty and Staff Council and the Sexuality and Gender Diversity Consortium).  While the amount will not be large, I hope the funds will be used by the leaders of these respective organizations to more deliberately build community and a sense of belonging for all of our incredible Jayhawks.  To show commitment to these groups, Chancellor Gray-Little and I will host an annual meeting in the spring for the combined councils.

            Our LGBTQIA+ community, particularly at its intersection with race, faces particular challenges on our campus that often go unheard.  We must do better in this regard.  There are simple things we can do that can go a long way to saying “I see you” to our LGBTQIA+ colleagues.  While the KU Design and Construction Standards have required a shared, single-person, gender-neutral restroom in all new construction since October 2015, there are numerous barriers associated with retrofitting older facilities with this inclusive option.  This is the right thing to do and we must work with expedience to see it happen.  To this end, I’ve asked the Office of Administration and Finance to develop a plan to double our gender-neutral restrooms in the next two years.  Again, these are small steps, but ones that we must take.

            While the challenges of fostering diversity may seem daunting, the truth is we have incredible expertise and dedication to diversity amongst our own ranks.  It is important that we listen to the expertise in our midst before we rush to bring in outside help.  That said, when our internal experts are bombarded with requests for help, coaching, training, etc., we must acknowledge the burdens we are placing on them.  The work these dedicated professionals do is valuable, difficult, and critical and is epitomized in the work of the talented staff of the Office of Multicultural Affairs and others across our campus.  So please express your gratitude to them.  For my part, I will work with our campus leadership to explore ways we can recognize and compensate our units and individuals that are bearing an increased load to educate our campus around issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

            There are many practical solutions and actions mentioned throughout this letter.  However, those items alone will not get us to our goal of making KU a truly inclusive academic community. We cannot rely solely on problematic deficit-based approaches that suggest that diverse students, staff, and faculty must do even more to realize equal levels of success as their majority peers.  We are all a part of the problem and have the potential to be a part of the solution.  Our campus culture must shift.  We must work to diversify our circles of influence and relationships and strive to educate ourselves about issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion.  This education can come in formal settings, through trainings and courses offered on-campus, online, and elsewhere, but it can also happen in informal ways.  I would encourage each of you to find a diverse network to dialogue with about diversity, equity, and inclusion.  I’ve found in my own growth that these conversations have been the most helpful and allow you to amplify and extend any of your formal learning experiences. 

            Regardless of what you read here, please know I do not believe this is the end of this conversation.  This is the beginning.  I have reconstituted the DEI advisory group for another year to continue to push us to be better and to do more.  I have full faith in their leadership and ability to do this.  The new membership of the DEI committee can be found here.  A special thank you to Drs. Lisa Wolf-Wendel and Shannon Portillo for agreeing to serve as this year’s co-chairs.

            My experience serving on the DEI advisory group last year was eye-opening and life-changing in my view of myself and my beloved Alma Mater, KU. Having always thought of myself as an individual and a leader committed to fostering an inclusive environment, it was at once humbling, disconcerting, and motivating to realize that I was not where I needed to be to be most effective in my leadership.  Similarly, I felt upset, defensive, and protective when I realized that my personal idyllic, storybook experience of KU was not shared by all.  There is significant self-work I must do to be more awake to the realities of all individuals on our campus.  It is all too easy to believe that our individual experience is representative of all.  It is hard, but incredibly rewarding work to break that cycle of applying one’s single narrative to our understanding of the world.  And each of us at KU must also do our parts to make sure we are living up to the high ideals of our founders.  I count on your goodwill, dedication, expertise, and hard work to ensure we all leave KU better for our being here.  We must do more, and we must be more. Let’s keep the dialogue going.


Rock Chalk!



Neeli Bendapudi
Provost & Executive Vice Chancellor
University of Kansas

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