Decoding DEI: Students, staff and faculty say CMU's DEIJB strategic plan 'looks good on paper'

Women dancers wait to get judged after performing at the Annual CMU "Celebrating Life" Pow Wow, Sunday, March 24, in McGuirk Arena. (CM-Life | Jo Kenoshmeg)

Central Michigan University has never had a strategic plan dedicated to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Justice and Belonging. Just recently, that changed. 

Starting in 2023 until 2028, the DEIJB strategic plan will be implemented by campus leaders, including the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (OIDEI) as well as the Division of Student Affairs. 

OIDEI has been charged with leading all nine goals, consisting of 59 tasks out of the 82 in total, meaning OIDEI is leading 71% of the strategic plan's tasks, and 100% of the goals.

The Division of Student Affairs is leading 42% of the DEIJB strategic plan’s tasks, taking on 35 of them. Student Affairs is involved in seven of the goals, therefore taking on 77% of the work.

Shawna Patterson-Stephens. Courtesy of CMU website.

Shawna Patterson-Stephens, the vice president for Inclusive Excellence and Belonging, said it is prime time for learning how to embed some of the strategic goals into daily practice, so it does not become an “extra thing” to do in staff’s workday. 

“I think faculty and staff need to be supported in doing that,” she said. 

Matt Johnson is a professor in higher education and the program director of the Master’s in Higher Education and Administration program. He said the university is closer to achieving concrete D.E.I. efforts than “I think we’ve ever been in my 12 years here.

Matt Johnson. Courtesy of CMU website.

“I think the problem is ... we're doing all this in the seventh year of continuous cuts at this institution,” he said. 

The university has been taking budget cuts for seven years in a row across campus in different percentages for each department, college, office and division.

“So, we have fewer people; fewer hands trying to do the work,” Johnson said. “And those hands are also saddled with lots of additional work because we lost faculty, we've lost staff and, you know, it's really, I think, hindered and dampened the efforts of trying to do this (strategic plan).”

Aaron Foote is an associate professor in the school of politics, justice, society and public service. He said, “put your money where your mouth is,” when addressing how Student Affairs leads majority of the goals in the strategic plan while being underfunded and understaffed. 

He recalled a conversation he had with someone from Student Affairs who had said the university kept giving them awards but does not support them financially. 

“You can't dump all these ambitious goals on three people (Multicultural Academic Student Services staff),” he said. 

“I know those (MASS) folks do good work, but none of us are Superman or Superwoman,” Foote said. “We can't do all these things.”

The success of the strategic plan is relying on offices that are “severely understaffed and underfunded,” Johnson said. However, CMU as a whole could say the same thing. 

“There is not an office on this campus right now that I think I could point to that would say, ‘Hey, I think this office is sufficiently staffed,’” Johnson said. 

Central Michigan junior Imani Ellsworth gives her proposal to the Board of Trustees, Thursday, April 18, in the Bovee University Center President's Conference Room.

Junior Imani Ellsworth said with Student Affairs leading the plan it is just adding to the workload those offices already have. 

She said it puts the division back into a cycle of having to lead this plan to make campus more inclusive, while also listening to students voicing their concerns. 

“It kind of just puts us back in that cycle of ‘we can’t help you right now’,” she said. “So then incidents like (recent issues involving racial slurs) happen again. And then ... we’re back in the same place. I definitely think it starts with adding more staff and … resources for the staff to talk to those students who are being affected directly.” 

Foote said that most offices that cater to Black and Brown students are typically overworked, lacking resources, funding and support. 

“Central wants to be the leader,” he said. “Let's be the leader. Let's support those offices, right, let's recruit Black and Brown students. Let's build the apparatus for that to happen.”

Foote referred to this issue as a "crossroads": the institution and students get to decide what the future is going to look like. 

“I believe we can do it right if we want to do those things,” he said. “But this is a question of do we want to do it? Or do we want to superficially address this, let it go away, and can get back to the business as usual?”

“It’s happening in pockets in different places, in different ways across campus, and a lot of that is, you know, related again, to turnover, loss of institutional history and energy,” Patterson-Stephens said.  

Additionally, with new hires or staff and faculty that have been on campus for years, it can be easy to rely on the ways they have been used to, rather than trying to move forward as one, Patterson-Stephens said. 

“The one thing that I've been asking people across campus think about is adding reflexivity or reflection into their day-to-day work, so some of that doesn't get lost in the shuffle and then become an add-on later,” she said. 

There are more people talking about DEI on campus, and subcommittees in the University Diversity Equity and Inclusion Council (UDEIC) are looking at how to measure the progress of the strategic plan’s goals as well as publicize this progress to media and the community, Johnson said.

He serves on one of the nine subcommittees within UDEIC that consists of about 50 members providing representation from across campus. Each subcommittee is charged with different goals from the strategic plan. 

The first year the committee has been meeting to get it established and get the “goals and point people” set up, so the second year will include more progress towards the goals, Johnson said. 

Nikita Murry. Courtesy of CMU website.

Nikita Murry, the director of diversity education, also serves on the council and worked alongside Patterson-Stephens in creating the strategic plan. 

She works on three subcommittees in the council to implement the strategic plan. The focus within those committees is on communicating what’s happening to the rest of the university, diversifying staff and professional development, as well as ensuring those representing CMU understand the mission of DEIJB.

“The DEI Council has individuals across all roles,” she said. “You have senior officers, you have OPs (Other Personnel services), you have all people who are part of it. When you think about giving voice to a campus around something as important as equity, inclusion and belonging, you can't do that effectively without engaging all voices.”

UDEIC has been charged with leading 100% of the goals in the strategic plan, and 20% of the tasks. 

Johnson commended Patterson-Stephen’s leadership with the strategic plan and the people that are helping in these efforts. 

Patterson-Stephens said she, staff and faculty understand what needs to get done within the year, but they are taking the time to ensure it is being done the way the strategic plan was created for the institution. It “takes intentionality,” she said. 

They’re “doing good work,” but OIDEI and Student Affairs are understaffed and do not have the budget to do “any of this or most of the stuff that’s in (the strategic plan),” Johnson said.  

Johnson referred to his observation as “tempered optimism.”  

“I do hear a lot of ‘yeah, this is great, but there's no money for this stuff,” he said. “How is there going to be (enough) to really make a difference?’” 

Eventually money will be found for some initiatives, he said. One of CMU’s biggest issues and goals within the strategic plan is the graduation gap among white students and Latin, Black and Indigenous students, he said. 

“Even if we in five years, close that (graduation) gap by half and didn't do one other thing in the strategic plan that would be a win,” he said. “We can do more, we should be doing more … but you know, that would be a win.” 

Johnson said there is reason for optimism, since there is a lot to like about the strategic plan, but there are also lots of critiques.  

“But you know, if we accomplished some of that stuff in there and made significant progress on it -- especially amidst these constrained times financially -- I think we'd be doing all right,” he said.  

Based on his own observations, Johnson said there a lot of people who view the strategic plan as an effort OIDEI and Student Affairs will be taking on by themselves, for the benefit of the campus and community.   

“If you view the success of this strategic plan as what they're (Student Affairs and OIDEI) going to be able to do, you might as well just pack it up because they're not going to be able to do 5% of what's in that strategic plan,” Johnson said. 

“It's a campus-wide event. That's why on UDEIC, there's 50 some people on the committee,” he said. 

A strategic push

Patterson-Stephens mentioned the DEIJB strategic plan on the topic of policies students, staff and faculty need to be aware of. She said it is a very detailed plan that should act as a “cheat sheet” for engaging in DEI each year until it is fulfilled in 2028. 

“I think all of the efforts that are happening in Student Affairs to best impact co-curricular lived experiences here are crucial to student success. ... Knowing what's going on within the capacity of Student Affairs is really important,” she said. 

The hope is that students are understanding what is happening with the strategic plan and making efforts to engage with it, Patterson-Stephens said. 

“I hope that interactivity is happening, but I'm not sure it is,” she said.

Murry also encouraged students to read the strategic plan and hopes they will work to understand what diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging means.

“If people are willing to do the work and they have a different opinion or a different worldview perspective of what it means to have an equitable, inclusive society where everybody belongs ... and you're still against that, there's nothing I can do about that,” Murry said. “But I don't know how you could do the work and not understand how silly it is to say that you're against equity, inclusion and belonging.”

When it comes to the DEIJB Strategic Plan, Murry said the plan gives opportunities for the university to take action and hold themselves accountable. 

Central Michigan President Robert O Davies talks to students as they give their concerns during the Board of Trustees meeting, Thursday, April 18, in the Bovee University Center President's Conference Room.

In an email from President Bob Davies on April 17 in response to the racial slur incidents, he urged students, staff and faculty to review the DEIJB strategic plan to get an idea of the current work that is being done to strengthen DEI on campus. 

At the Diversity Symposium on April 24, Davies partook in a "Fireside Chat," which was mediated by CMU student Fatima Khan. 

On the topic of the next university president and how that transition will impact the success of the strategic plan, Davies said in his transitionary periods of becoming president, he has always worked with previous presidents to get their advice. 

“I am making myself available to the next president, whomever it is for that process to go forward in that area,” Davies said. 

As for advice he has with leaders within institutions implementing DEIJB, Davies said to be brave, visible and vocal. 

“Always be learning, always be engaging, always be listening, especially in higher education institutions," he said. "This is the place where these discussions need to occur, this is the place for these ideas to be planted and seeded, watered and grown." 

In the process of creating the strategic plan, Davies said CMU changed its mission statement: CMU is defined by the success of our students and alumni and the collective communities that surround us that we serve. 

"I do think it's a great start, and I’m glad that the university is now taking accountability and presenting a structure of what’s to come."

-Imani Ellsworth
Central Michigan University junior

Nine goals, five years

The following are the strategic plan's goals through 2028: 

  • Goal 1: Enhance opportunities for holistic, intersectional development and socialization among BIPOC students.
  • Goal 2: Decrease persistence divides existing between white students and BIPOC students.
  • Goal 3: Reduce curricular/co-curricular challenges contributing to gaps in BIPOC student graduation rates.
  • Goal 4: Attract, recruit and hire diverse faculty and staff.
  • Goal 5: Retain diverse faculty and staff.
  • Goal 6: Advance CMU’s commitment as an equitable and inclusive community. 
  • Goal 7: Embed focus on DEIJB within CMU’s mission, core strategies and operations.
  • Goal 8: Cultivate an inclusive and psychologically safe educational environment. 
  • Goal 9: Cultivate an inclusive, welcoming community off-campus. 

CMU students, staff and faculty thoughts

Foote said when he was made aware of the enrollment issue on campus, he did not realize how drastic the decline was specifically for Black and Brown students. 

“Part of me is concerned about that,” he said. “And part of me is a little bit relieved because I would hate for other Black and Brown students to be here and to experience what the students … here are experiencing and also experiencing the lack of support, programming and initiatives and finances to create inclusive spaces here.” 

Foote described the enrollment issue as a "double-edged sword." CMU needs the apparatus and institutional support to keep recruiting and retaining Black and Brown students, but also recruit Black and Brown faculty to address the needs of students. 

As for the strategic plan, he said he had not heard of it or reviewed it. 

CM Life infographic | Zoey Lawrence

However, he said the institute can be alienating or hostile when it comes to retaining students of color

“Where do people get their hair done?” he said. “Where do you get a hair cut? What amenities are there for Black and Brown students? 

“I also think part of it is lumping BIPOC students together. That's why I don't use those terms. Because all those students have different needs. And so, if you have differing needs, you have to understand students on the granular level.”

Ellsworth said that as long as the school continues to listen to students and to strive for inclusivity while working with students without their own agenda, but focusing on student wants — that will go far. 

“Students aren’t gonna stay anywhere where they don’t feel welcome or like where they belong,” she said. “As long as students are happy, their graduation (rates) will increase.”

Ellsworth had not heard of the strategic plan until the recent racial slur incident. 

“While I do think its a great start, and I’m glad that the university is now taking accountability and presenting a structure of what’s to come … I’m a person of action,” she said. “So it’s great to see on paper … that it is being pushed forward. But I want to see it actually in action … making sure that they are holding everyone accountable.” 

Foote said there are not enough academic advisors, counselors or students support services personnel to support incoming and current students. 

“So, you're bringing in students without having the support necessary for them to complete and then it's no surprise that they're not completing,” he said. 

When talking about the recent strategic plan, he said it doesn’t change his perspective. 

“A strategic plan is a plan,” he said. “It's not an act and it's not funded.”

When reading through some of the strategic plan, Ellsworth said she and her peers have noticed the vagueness behind the goals. 

“When you make it so vague, it kind of allows anything to fly,” she said.

“I'm beyond just lip service to these issues without real dollars to be spent,” Foote said. 

Plans have the potential to fall through since they are just plans, Foote said. He would like to see commitment and that the goals within the strategic plan are achieved. 

Aside from making the plan more specific, Ellsworth said students should also be involved in the planning process when it comes to structuring those goals. 

“I think pushing it (the strategic plan) and allowing students to voice their opinion on this plan and what they think could be done better or that needs to changed will allow specificities to be added.” 

When looking over the strategic plan goals, Johnson said he had noticed that two populations were not mentioned concretely. The LGBTQ community was only ever referred to as an affinity group throughout the plan. 

“That's really problematic,” he said. 

Additionally, there is a large rural student population at CMU; however, there is no mention of that demographic, Johnson said. First generation students are brought up once in the strategic plan briefly in the tasks of the third goal as “first generation support.” 

“There's a lot of significant oversights in that strategic plan for diversity, in my estimation,” Johnson said. “I don't think it's a positive thing that these other marginalized and minoritized groups aren't even seen in it.

“If I don't see myself in the strategic plan of this institution or the mission statement of this institution, that's going to send a very clear message to me that I don't belong here, and my work isn't valued." 

Johnson recognized the challenges of including the names of every single marginalized and minoritized group, and said it is probably not feasible. However, there are a lot of big groups of marginalized individuals who are under threats to their safety and well being who are not named in the plan, he said. 

There are some good ideas in the strategic plan, Foote said, as he briefly looked it over. He said the people who worked on the plan are confined by structures. 

“If we want real change, we have to enable folks working on these issues to have the power to enact change,” he said. 

News reporter Courtney Boyd contributed to this story.