Diversity, Equity and Indifference?: Staff vacancies, funding hamper DEI efforts

CM Life cartoon | Andrew Boots
Editor's note: Central Michigan Life is a department within the Division of Student Affairs. This did not affect the research, reporting or writing of this story in any way. 

“What does it mean to be a student affairs professional, when people are quitting left and right?” Shawna Patterson-Stephens, the vice president for Inclusive Excellence and Belonging, asked. “But then you have people that are really passionate about the work. … What does it mean to be a person that survives?

“That is a national conversation that’s being had,” Patterson-Stephens continued. “And when you take Central Michigan into account being a rural place, the impact that then has (is) we are hyper-dependent upon the student services we provide, because we’re not in a city.”

Over the course of six months, the Central Michigan University chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, Central Michigan Life and a journalism capstone class have taken a deep dive into diversity, equity and inclusion efforts on campus. From funding to impact, the investigation has involved hundreds of hours of research and interviews, multiple requests under the auspices of the Freedom of Information Act and reams of documentation. 

The findings? CMU is not alone, but a microchosm of a national challenge facing higher educaiton. 

The Division of Student Affairs at CMU has had over 10 staff members leave in the last year, including its vice president and at least one director on leave for the remainder of the spring semester. 

Among those that have left, some positions have been vacant for much of the academic year, including the Director of LGBTQ Services, Director of Indigenous Affairs (currently has interim director) and the Director of the Sexual Aggression Services (currently has interim director). 

Patterson-Stephen said she has noticed a lot of burnout among staff, as well as in higher education as a system. 

“It’s a current point of conversation that is being had at the national level in thinking about how we are supporting the needs of Student Affairs staff post-COVID … They (Student Affairs) were worked in ways that really stretched people, stretched our understanding of what it means to provide holistic support when everyone is in crisis at the same time.” 

She said there are residual effects from COVID-19 related to staff and faculty burnout; however, these “emergent issues” have been here all along. 

Aside from being understaffed, Student Affairs has also been assigned to lead 42% of the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Justice and Belonging strategic plan tasks, and 77% of the goals in total. 

Matt Johnson is a higher education professor and program director for the master’s in higher education and administration program. He is married to Erica Johnson, the interim assistant vice president of Student Affairs. This did not impact Central Michigan Life’s reporting in any way. 

Johnson said each of the staff members at Student Affairs has done way more than could be reasonably expected. 

“They continue to turn out … events for cultural months and celebrations, every year, no matter the budget cuts, no matter the enrollment; we have robust, diverse, consistent programming for these cultural affirmation celebrations, and they continue to do it with less and less money and fewer and fewer staff,” Johnson said. 

“And that’s only a part of what they do is programming,” he continued. 

HIs department went from 17 faculty members eight years ago to seven just recently. 

“That’s the case all over the place,” he said. “And the DEI offices and those student-facing offices around DEI-related things are not immune to that. Whether they’ve had a disproportionate impact, I don’t know. But they (DEI-related offices) in my estimation have always been underfunded.”

When asked if she ever got the impression that any of the staff who left Student Affairs within the last two years were planning on doing so, Patterson-Stephens said no. 

“But, I mean, prior to two years ago, I was new,” she said. “And I don’t think anybody would have shared that information with me.” 

Kasey Perez, the interim director of Indigenous Affairs, and Amy Folan, the associate vice president and director of Athletics, both said they did not get the impression Colleen Green, the previous director of Indigenous Affairs, was planning on leaving the university.

Perez said she viewed Green as a mentor, and added that sometimes people just find better opportunities and have to take them.

Folan said she and Green had grown close with the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe’s and Office of Indigenous Affairs partnership with Athletics. Although she was sad and surprised to hear of Green’s departure, she said that is just life, people get new opportunities. Both Perez and Folan were happy for Green.

Patterson-Stephens said the university has a lot of “soul searching” to do for people at CMU that focus on co-curriculars for students. 

When people leave the university, they are often not replaced, Johnson said. He continued and said he does not feel very supported by the university, but recognized the university is not all to blame for the turnovers.  

“We’re all connected,” he said. “Eight years ago, we were an institution of 27,000 or 28,000 (students). Now, we’re 14,000. We halved this university in under a decade. 

“That is a monumental decline to lose half of your population within a decade. ... That has tremendous pain points associated with it that we’re going to be dealing with for the next two decades.” 

Filling vacancies

Lori Hella, associate vice president of Human Resources, said CMU has a lot of vacancies, but that is the nature of the employment market. 

“CMU is not unique when it comes to the number of vacant positions that we have,” Hella said. “It goes back to the labor market. The number of individuals (that) are available to fill positions with the skills that we’re looking for, and those that are willing to accept the salaries that are being offered to them.”

Hella said HR does not collect the information why an employee decides to leave CMU; however, it is something they can share with their supervisor.

Mary Hill is the vice president of finance and administrative services as well, as the chief financial officer. She currently serves on the Position Justification Committee, alongside Provost Nancy Mathews and President Bob Davies. 

Hill said the committee receives hiring justification forms from senior leadership across campus, who are responsible for their budgets and the hiring of their staff. The justification form is meant for those senior leaders to fill out when they would like to have a vacant position filled within their department, divison, college and so on. 

“So, we kind of want senior leaders across campus to take a little pause and say, ‘OK, is this the correct fit ... for the way the university is now?’” she said. “Not only for their own department, but for their division more across campus.” 

The committee meets almost every other week; there are position vacancies all the time, Hill said. 

When they meet, Hill said they go through all submissions they have received and make a decision within the session. 

When asked about how the vacant positions are prioritized to be filled, Hill said the vice president of each division is responsible for “prioritization,” not the committee.  

Hill explained that if staff within the division wanted a vacant position filled, they would have to first approach the vice president and ask to submit a justification form. The position would remain vacant or be filled depending on the administrator’s decision. 

There have been rare instances where the committee has said no to filling a position, Hill said. Instead, the committee has said to hold off, based on whether the timing is right. 

Reneè Watson, then the vice president of the Division of Student Affairs, submitted 10 justification forms the last week of February, Hill wrote in an email. 

The positions are as follows: 

Residence Hall Director Saxe Hall 

  • Director Indigenous Affairs
  • Assistant Director Residence Life
  • Residence Hall Director Sweeney Hall
  • Administrative Secretary Student Disability Services
  • Assistant Director LGBTQ Services
  • Assistant Director UREC
  • Executive Secretary/PT Leadership Institute
  • Assistant Director Leadership Institute
  • Assistant Director Mentoring

All of the listed positions, aside from the two residence hall director positions, were approved to move forward with being posted on March 6, Hill said in an email. 

“They (the residence hall director positions) didn’t even come to the committee because we’re working through the budget process for residence life,” Hill said. “And that’s kind of a separate animal than the general fund position.

“But it wasn’t to say ‘No, you can’t fill them.’ We were just saying, ‘OK let’s get this budget stuff done. And then we’ll get those through.’”

When the director of LGBTQ+ Services position was posted in March, it was changed to an assistant director role. 

“I don’t know, other than if a change like that was made,” Hill said, “that would have been the decision of the division.” 

The director of LGBTQ Services position had been vacant for five and a half months before it was posted. 

“I think a lot of people have looked at that and wondered ‘why?’” Johnson said. “It was a question in Academic Senate recently around, like, ‘Why has this been also vacant for five months but then demoted to an assistant director role?’

“I don’t know the reasons why,” Johnson continued. “I think it’s hard to see it as anything less than a deprioritization. I mean, that’s the language I continued to use. You know, I don’t think anybody over there would use the language of moving from a director to an assistant director as a de-prioritization, but I absolutely think it is.”

Watson’s departure was announced April 8 in an email from the university. In the same email, Stan Shingles, who had just retired, was announced as interim vice president. 

Shingles restored the director of LGBTQ Services position shortly after his return. He said the position is now posted and the search committee is working on finding the candidates to fill it.  

“The gaps lie in the fact that we didn’t have the experts there; look at our LGBTQ program,” Shingles said. 

On the other hand, even without experts, students have had opportunities to do the services and jobs to fill in the needs of the programming, which has helped them grow and build community, Shingles said.  

Similarly, Shingles said he plans to fill in the positions of the director of Indigenous Affairs and the assistant director of Multicultural Academic Student Services Office, which have been both already posted. 

“It’s my goal before school starts in August that that area will be fully staffed and will be able to respond in a timely manner, but more importantly, serve students in the way that not only we want to serve them, but they deserve to be served,” Shingles said. 

When contacted, Watson declined to comment. 

Director of LGBTQ Services

After 15 years with the university, Director of LGBTQ Services and one of the Co-Directors of the Institute of Transformative Dialogue (ITD) Shannon Jolliff-Dettore left the university at the beginning of the 2023-24 school year. 

Jolliff-Dettore was a major asset to the university and helped many students by mentoring them on having hard conversations and showing empathy, according to alumnus Morgan Barbret and graduate student Emmy Montgomery. 

“(Shannon) embodies humility and curiosity and advocacy and has shown me so much of what it looks like to stand up for injustices and compassion,” Montgomery said. “And I think it’s CMU’s biggest loss that they did not see what they had when they had her.”

Barbret said that she thinks Jolliff-Dettore was ignored when she went to the Student Affairs and university leadership about concerns with DEI efforts, including the ITD being defunded.

“She’s an expert, she’s a consultant,” Barbret said. “She was being treated like her services and her ability to contribute to the university was less valuable than it was.” 

Jolliff-Dettore confirmed Barbret’s comments but declined further comment.

Barbret questioned the leadership who ignored Jolliff-Dettore’s concerns. 

“As far as I understand, that means they’re not doing their job,” Barbret said. “Their job is to serve campus and serve the people who are a part of it, so if we’re not listening, then I feel that’s ... an error on their job description.

Shingles said he was not a part of the university’s conversation about ITD being defunded. He didn’t have the information on which direction the university would take the program in the future.

Montgomery said that losing someone like Jolliff-Dettore has an impact on the university’s ability to meet students’ needs. 

“I think that is one of the hugest oversights and losses of the university not listening to the impact of this defunding choice because it was so illustrative that the values and gifts and skills that Shannon uniquely brings to campus and provides for students was not prioritized,” Montgomery said. “Students needed that advocate; you need someone in that position.

“It’s hard to find the words for how frustrating that is for students and how understandable it is for people who are just giving everything they can to fight for them and not feeling the institution alongside on that fight.”

When discussing why she thinks the position has not been filled yet, Barbret said that CMU has not done a good job of helping people in those DEI positions who are known to have a heavy workload. 

“DEI work is hard,” Barbret said. “And therefore, the people who are doing that work need community and support. And I think that admin seem to believe that they could just put all of that work on, you know, just a couple people and not spread that work out.”

Going forward, Barbret and Montgomery hope the university can have the tough conversations and listen to the people who are a part of the CMU community when they come with concerns. 

“Just … have real conversations, where they’re actually listening to the people who are doing that work, because I feel like in general ... they’re not understanding the level of support that those roles require,” Barbret said. “They’re not understanding how overburdened they are and how much is being expected of them.” 

The two said it was discouraging to not be listened to when students are the ones who will be most affected by the decision. 

“It feels tragically ironic because the whole purpose of understanding what dialogue is, is that it’s to seek understanding of another person, which is what makes the dialogue different than discussion,” Montgomery said. “Dialogue is just about trying to find understanding, and it was infuriating that we could not even open up dialogue to be understood, we were resisted from the get-go.” 

“It’s just discouraging, because it seemed like student opinion did not faze their decision,” Barbret said. 

Montgomery hopes students who are continually battling this issue find a safe space where their concerns will be listened to, and they are not alone. 

“I would want students to know that frustration with the institution is extremely legitimate,” Montgomery said. “And while systemic change is painfully slow and hard to identify, there are individuals that are still fighting for them and ... they’re not alone.”

She also stressed the importance of students asking questions and being curious about what the university is doing. 

“If people find this conversation of funding for DEI resources and all of that confusing, ask questions, be curious, learn more,” Montgomery said. There’s reasons this is valuable. And if they’re hard to see, be curious please.”

According to the university’s operating budget for LGBTQ Services, for the last four years the unit received $2,551 for all supplies and equipment, which is essential to the programming. 

Johnson said when he had heard how much the office was receiving a few years ago, he thought to himself, “why (and) how is it so completely underfunded?” 

“But I think if you were to look at an (organizational) structure eight years ago, versus now and look at budgets, I think there’d be quite an interesting story to tell because it’s always been my perception and always been what I’ve heard, and experienced that they (Office of LGBTQ+ Services) are underfunded,” he said.

From 2020 to 2023, the office received an extra $20,000 from the university, but was declined that one-time payment for 2023-24. 

Shingles said his highest budget priority when he accepted the role as interim vice president was to restore the $20,000 funding and he has already submitted the request for that. 

However, he said that the office didn’t have a deficit of resources this year, because the division had given a one-time payment of $20,000.

Impact on OIDEI

Staff vacancies within student affairs has also impacted Patterson-Stephen’s workload, she said. She said she is trying to make efforts beyond seeing how staff are doing and provide support in loosening some of the load. 

“How can we share some of the flow and how can we be more strategic in our planning, so that some of this work is disseminated across campus and not just in student affairs?” she said. 

“There’s a lot to be done,” Patterson-Stephens said. “And I think we’re all feeling the strain as a result.”

Nikita Murry, the director of Diversity Education, and Patterson-Stephens directly report to President Robert Davies.

In the operating budget for 2017-2018, OIDEI and Diversity Education was under the academic divisions budget. Joe Garrison, the executive director of financial planning and budgets, said it was taken out because they were among the few cost centers within that budget; therefore, they would not get their own account to be presented separately in the university’s operating budget. 

From there, institutional diversity and diversity education — the two cost centers within the original institutional diversity budget — was put under the president’s division for more of an overarching university education with respect to diversity, as well as a broader lens, Garrison said. 

In conversations with President Davies, he saw the importance of having an institutional view on diversity from high-level institutional support areas such as Diversity Education and OIDEI. 

“I think that by not having it (OIDEI and Diversity Education) in the President’s division, it would likely not be as elevated if it were in a separate division, such as in the past when it was in the academic division,” Garrison said. “It may be more focused on college-related matters if it’s in the academic division. 

“If all diversity efforts were in another division like student affairs, it may be focused more on student initiatives, rather than looking at that broader umbrella.” 

Aside from Patterson-Stephens and Murry, there are only two other positions in OIDEI, and those include the executive office specialist and the assistant director of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. 

The Director of Research, Evaluation and Communication position has been vacant since August 2021. 

Patterson-Stephens said when the first search was run, an offer was made but not accepted; therefore it has been vacant since. 

In terms of the impact that has had on her ability to do her job, Patterson-Stephens said she has had to look at what resources she had available and develop the best structure she could. 

As for the director position, Patterson-Stephens said she knew the position involved her need for an analyst, a grant writer, someone to write on behalf of their office when incidents like the recent racial slurs arise and give feedback on campus messages, while keeping the office’s social media outlets running. 

“I already knew then I had to (take) communications (the director position) off and figure out a different way to attend to that need in our office,” she said. “And I’m still languishing if I’m honest, like, it’s not what I want … most things are not what I want, but it’s what I’ve got.”

Right now, Patterson-Stephens said she will suffer the design of information as long as people know she does not have the capacity to care about the way it looks. 

“My first point of need is needing people to know that these things are happening,” she said. “It’s (that process is) not what I want.” 

A lot of OIDEI’s reporting has been slow, because the director’s position would be the person to handle that, Patterson-Stephens said. Although she does not have the time to fulfill that role within her own leadership, Patterson-Stephens has been doing it. 

While the position has been vacant for the last three years, Patterson-Stephens has taken the lead in developing and authoring the 2023-2028 strategic plan and also bringing committees and councils together to synthesize those ideas while keeping record. 

Additionally, she has been tasked with gathering data for the climate survey reports, on top of her daily duties as vice president of OIDEI and chief diversity officer. 

“The climate survey reports have been so slow … I would prefer to turn out data much faster than I can,” she said. “And I won’t give up on it because information is half the battle when it comes to these needs.” 

Working alongside an “amazing team that’s very patient” with her, Patterson-Stephens said she does the best she can while also trying to be mindful of the things the rest of her team is trying to get accomplished. 

“I don’t like people having to work under that kind of pressure, but they (OIDEI) do,” Patterson-Stephens said. “But they know I care about them. They know I’m willing to do anything for them. So I guess that’s the trade off. Yeah, our work is not as robust as I would like it to be.”

Since the original search committee was put together for the director’s position, Patterson-Stephens has not submitted a position justification form to get it filled. 

When thinking about what needs to happen within the unit of Institutional Diversity, Patterson-Stephens said some of those needs are not funded, but for what is, the office works to sacrifice some pieces to ensure DEI programming can happen on campus. 

“I mean, people are still looking to us for financial support,” Patterson-Stephens said. “And I think it makes sense because we’re Institutional Diversity. By and large at different institutions that’s where you go if you can’t find your funding anywhere else: You go to program board, you go to institutional diversity. 

“So we have to make sure that at the best of our ability we’re able to support but we are not able to support like we would like to.” 

As for being tasked with being the direct report for institution-wide diversity efforts at CMU (whereas Murry handles the academic side) Patterson-Stephens said different institutions have different models. 

It is a lot of work for two people, Patterson-Stephens said, but they always have to build partnerships. She said some of the challenges are not necessarily that they do not have the right people or enough people, but that they are being strategic about the ways they are building partnerships. 

“We are really looking at informing policy and procedure, looking at what’s going on in Student Affairs, what’s going on in curriculum development for faculty and staff, looking at hiring processes and procedures,” she said. 

Importantly, given that it is just Murry and Patterson-Stephens that handle the direct reports, she said they are not the only unit that is strapped in that way — it’s a national problem. 

“What we deal with at CMU is textbook to the tee,” she said. “So the challenge we would always have even if we were fully staffed and I had the staffing structure of my dreams, it would still be a lot of work.”

Patterson-Stephens said she has heard people blame certain units on campus for particular issues that are not being addressed. 

“If you can actually pinpoint and say this one person is the institution, then that place is a house of cards,” she said. “Because there’s never one place within higher education that is legit just one person being the institution.”

Impact on DEI efforts

When it comes to the impact of vacancies and funding for the success of DEI on campus, Patterson-Stephens said it is only part of it.

She said it comes down to making sure that staff and faculty are diverse enough that they can speak to different lived experiences, so there is not always a need for specific people from diversity units to talk about their experiences as a minoritized individual. 

“I would like to see that more readily embedded in the faculty units on this campus. … But there are other entities on this campus that students don’t think are touch points that could be better situated to support that effort too, it just takes some creativity,” Patterson-Stephens said.  

Overall, Patterson-Stephens said she would love to have more money, staff and faculty embedded within her unit to be able to achieve a broader vision she has for what the OIDEI unit and the institution could be. 

“And I do think there’s a lot of potential here to make that occur,” she said. “If we play our cards right.”

Function of DEI efforts and offices

Patterson-Stephens’ interpretation of the Division of Student Affairs leading many of the strategic plan goals is that it signals the involvement of students. 

“Hypothetically, they (Student Affairs) are great at getting a mass number of students engaged in ways that most other units struggle with,” Patterson-Stephens said. 

She noted that Student Affairs can get around 150 to 500 students engaging in their offices, whereas in a classroom setting, that engagement is more structured for 30 or 60 students at a time. 

In her world, Patterson-Stephens said, there are two arguments to be made: what should be happening and what is. 

“What should be happening is I don’t have an office,” she said. “My role doesn’t exist. Because if these things were happening in an institutional way, then it would be embedded and you would see all these things happening across campus.”

She said that the institution would then not need someone to serve as a reminder for diversity, such as diversity advocates on search committees. 

Aaron Foote is an associate professor in the school of politics, justice, society and public service. He disagreed that DEI offices are a reminder for diversity. 

“DEI exists to uphold white supremacy,” he said. “It is a university apparatus of which most of the people in those offices are totally powerless, designed to curtail Black and Brown students.

“Why would a system of white supremacy build within itself something to take it down?” he continued. “It would never do that. And so, DEI isn’t a reminder. It is something that we were given to distract us from the very nature in root of these institutions.”

Foote said there needs to be an organizational restructure to get rid of white supremacy so there is no need for DEI offices. 

“If they (administration) were interested in real transformation, they would be interested in empowering those (DEI) offices to enact real change at universities all over the country,” Foote said. “This is not (just) a Central thing.” 

Patterson-Stephens asked if her office or position didn’t exist, what do people think would happen right now?

She said institutions were developed and designed for a specific reason, including the additions of diversity offices. 

“And so, we’re a public institution, who can’t be embedding belief systems into a public institution, but we can make sure that different kinds of belief systems or ideologies are made accessible in a public space. And that’s why we’ll have a diversity office,” Patterson-Stephens said. “It’s exhausting.” 

Some people view diversity as a programmatic idea such as the heritage month programming. Instead, Patterson-Stephens said those kinds of events are so people feel represented in different aspects of college life. 

“So because (diversity is) perceived as or treated as an add on, that’s why you’ll then see it at a national level (as) under-resourced, understaffed,” Patterson-Stephens said. “People don’t know what to do with it, how to engage with it.” 

Looking to the future

Shingles will lead the Division of Student Affairs until December 2024. 

“I’m excited anytime I can engage with students, anytime I can serve the university, and more importantly, sometimes in life what needs to be done is bigger than us,” Shingles said. “So for me, to be back at CMU, to be a part of supporting students success … it’s something I’ve always had a passion for.  

“I come back with a keen understanding of the priorities and the needs of our students.” 

Those priorities include student success, engagement and creation of positive experiences at CMU that help students grow, he said.

Additionally, Shingles’ goal is to ensure that every staff member in Student Affairs feels heard, appreciated and valued, he said.  

“We’re going to move forward with strategy, setting priorities and assuring that not only are there good outcomes for students, but good outcomes for our Division of Student Affairs team,” Shingles said. “As a leader, I have always been inclusive. I have always been one who listens to the team. And so, it’s never gonna be, ‘because I said so.’” 

Shingles said he also hoped for increasing resources for programming to be able to serve student needs.  

“One of the things that we’re challenged with is we don’t have as many resources as we previously had,” Shingles said. “There’s no secret that we’ve had some challenges with enrollment, but I’m excited about the direction that we’re headed. … Enrollment increases mean revenue increases, which gives us greater capacity to fund the programs and the experiences that our students not only get, but that they richly deserve.” 

This academic year the Division of Student Affairs is operating off a new budget model, which was a university-wide decision, Shingles said. He said Student Affairs is not the one who makes budget changes, but they are able to allocate for resources needed for the division. 

“The division will have a total budget that has been approved typically each year,” Garrison said. “And from there, they (division leaders) can then prioritize what they feel is most important within their division.”

Shingles said his plan is to set priorities and to deploy resources that the division has. Student Affairs will also partner with other offices on their programming for resources, finance and workers. 

“Our financial challenges have been no secret,” Shingles said. “We don’t have more money than we can use. So it’s going to have to be setting the appropriate priorities. And I know that the campus community has been supportive of that.” 

Johnson said there is a sense of nervousness on campus with the budget cuts and turnover rate; however, the people who have remained, he would describe as resilient. 

“We can be frustrated and angry and wanting and demanding more, while also loving this place, and loving what this place can be,” he said. “What this place is, loving students, loving our job, continuing to show up, continuing to do this work, continuing to invest, it’s an odd juxtaposition of ... those things.”

The reason why many staff and faculty stay, Johnson said is because of the difference they get to make in students’ lives and widening access to opportunities to help their careers and with democracy.  

“And so, I still love coming to work … I love when people are engaged and you just hope that nobody mistakes the frustration in the speaking out ... for not caring because if people didn’t care, they would just leave or just go about their business,” he said.

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