Equity and Justice Initiative
LETTER FROM DEAN JONATHAN OVERPECK TO THE SEAS BLACK STUDENT BODY AND SEAS COMMUNITY:
Dear SEAS Black Student Body and SEAS Community,
As the nation’s eyes are on Louisville today, our thoughts and hearts are with the family of Breonna Taylor and all those who have experienced any form of police brutality and discrimination. Today, we say her name: Breonna Taylor, and join the call for justice. We must do more.
I want to thank the SEAS Black Student Body for all the hard work you put into your thoughtful, researched, candid, and heartfelt letter, and for taking the time to meet with us Friday September 11. Your letter included fair and honest critiques of the school, and I respect your efforts to hold SEAS accountable. I appreciate the opportunity to understand your concerns more fully, and learn how SEAS can - and will - do better when it comes to supporting our Black students. I know this letter and the meeting took courage, and I am thankful to have students like you at SEAS pushing us all to reach higher and do better.
Now, more than ever, is the time for honest reflection, conversation, and most importantly, strong action. This is a moment for us as an institution to acknowledge where we have fallen short, and to acknowledge the issues of harm, exclusion, and erasure throughout both our school’s history and the history of the environmental movement. At SEAS, we are committed to creating an environment that advances equal rights for all, and recognizes the intersectionality between issues of race, identity, gender, socioeconomic status, religion, and background. To create communities that are truly just and equitable, we need to get our own house in order, and at the same time create systemic, transformative change in society.
I wholeheartedly agree with the calls to action you expressed in the Black Students at SEAS letter, as well as the urgent need for reform. In response to your recommendations, I am officially announcing a new SEAS Equity and Justice Initiative. This response letter is just the start of the actions we will take, with more actions to follow in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead.
University leadership, including deans from across campus, has been having conversations with students, faculty, and staff about doing much more to combat racism and injustice on our campus and off. We look forward to learning more about the university-wide initiatives and how SEAS can help to support them. In the meantime, we are focused on doing what we, in SEAS, can to accelerate actions with the agency we have within our own school.
In this response, you will find tangible and immediate action actions that I and the school are committing to, including new, full time staff and faculty hires to support and expand DEI initiatives. Additionally, the Associate Deans, myself and the entire SEAS Executive Committee are also firmly committing to undertaking the training outlined in your letter, and adopting equity and justice pedagogies throughout the year and into the future. I’m also asking all faculty, staff and students to similarly commit to this training so that we can make SEAS a place where we instill equity and justice strategies in perpetuity.
I am deeply committed to the above goals, and to rolling up my sleeves and getting the work done. This summer, for example, I teamed up with the Dean of Social Work to develop and advocate for a cross-campus cluster faculty hiring initiative focused on equity and justice. The idea began with a discussion I had with the environmental justice and other faculty at SEAS. They challenged me to find a way around the U-M’s hiring freeze preventing us from initiating new faculty searches this year. We presented the cluster hiring concept to all the deans across campus, and worked with them and the Provost to refine the proposal to ensure deep institutional impact and support. Although the details of this initiative have not yet been finalized, we anticipate that over 20 new faculty will be hired across campus over the next several years, and that these hires will focus on environmental justice, health justice, understanding race and power dynamics in society, and activism. All in our community will benefit from these hires, as well as the cross-campus efforts that I hope will be developed to build community and collaboration around them - the goal is that existing students, faculty, and staff focused on equity and justice will become part of a much expanded community with the same focus across campus. This idea came directly from our own SEAS community.
As part of the SEAS focus on faculty hiring in this area, I’m pleased to commit to at least two new faculty hires focused on equity and justice as they intersect the other environment and sustainability foci of SEAS. The first hiring opportunity will hopefully be part of a cross-campus cluster hire initiative described above focused on equity and justice. We anticipate that some of the new faculty searches for this important initiative can begin this year, and SEAS will do whatever it can to be among the first to search for a leader in the field to join our faculty. We are especially appreciative of this opportunity as it comes in the midst of a campus-wide hiring freeze. The second hiring process will begin as soon as the end of the hiring freeze allows.
In addition to these hires, we will work to implement as many of your recommendations as possible, as you will read in detail below. Some actions can be implemented immediately, others will need deliberate strategies co-created with key stakeholders within the school, including students, faculty, and staff. We also want to begin the process of initiating broader dialogues between members of the SEAS community with professional facilitators so that we can better see, hear, and understand multiple situated perspectives and address systemic changes.
I believe this is a critical turning point for our school, and I am fully committed to ensuring the success of the new actions outlined below. I’d like to thank you, as well the SEAS DEI Committee, the SEAS Executive Committee, and members of the SEAS leadership team (Michaela Zint, Ivan Eastin, Bilal Butt), plus Kim Elliot, Sonia Joshi, Carole Love, D’Shaundra Payne, and Jeff Keeler, for help in finalizing this letter and the actions contained throughout, and with it, the launch of the SEAS Equity and Justice Initiative.
Here are some details on actions we are taking in the short- and medium-term in response to your letter:
1. Acknowledge SEAS’ History of Anti-Black Racism
Over the past several decades, research and activism has pointed to how the very foundations of environmental thought have their roots in racist ideologies and practices. We recognize that these ideas and actions have had irrevocable repercussions on Black, marginalized, Indigenous and underrepresented peoples in Michigan, the U.S. and around the world. As a school that is committed to addressing just environmental sustainability, we will continue to develop curricula, critical pedagogies, and conduct engaged research that seeks to dispel racist ideologies and to work on developing more attentive and reflective critical environmental thoughts and actions. We further acknowledge that BIPOC students and faculty are drastically underrepresented in our school and that actions our school has taken have caused unintentional harm and feelings of exclusion and erasure. We understand that to acknowledge this authentically, we need to adopt material and tangible changes beyond notions of verbal solidarity and take action.
- Require faculty and staff DEI professional development: Require participation in one or more SEAS-DEI approved professional development opportunities per semester (beginning Winter 2021). This training will focus on both equity and trauma-informed care.
- Offer additional DEI professional development for students: For example, in Winter 2021, the DEI office will begin to offer co-curricular programming to prepare students for engaging in difficult dialogues on social justice issues.
- Decolonize syllabi and courses: This summer we launched a pilot to decolonize SEAS syllabi and courses (Summer 2020-Fall 2020). The pilot engaged teams of seven faculty and 11 paid students in decolonizing efforts with the help of a three paid student and DEI Office support team. This pilot was granted funding to work on one course per specialization as a place to start. The pilot will be evaluated this fall, adjusted and expanded such that all SEAS syllabi and courses will be decolonized at the latest by the end of Winter 2023.
- Highlighting stories of Black environmental leaders throughout the year: The SEAS Communications Team will allocate resources to highlight stories of Black environmental leaders and scientists of color throughout the year on both the website and social media platforms, in addition to developing ways to highlight and celebrate Black History Month. Far too often, Black environmental leaders don’t get the respect and attention they deserve, contributing to Black erasure. We want to tell those stories because it is the right thing to do. The communications team welcomes student engagement at any level throughout this process.
- Consider clients’ commitment to justice and equity as part of the Master’s Project selection process: Ask clients who would like to work with our students and faculty as part of the Masters Projects process to share their Corporate Social Responsibility and/or Diversity, Equity & Inclusion statements, how the proposed master’s projects will advance these goals, and share this information with students so that they may opt in or out of participating.
2. Co-Create and Co-Own DEI planning
We agree and support the importance of co-creating and co-owning DEI planning, along with other efforts in our school. The challenges confronting us at SEAS and beyond are ones that need the engagement of all members of our community if they are to be successfully addressed. Throughout the summer of 2020, the DEI committee, made up of students, staff, and faculty, met twice a month to develop a new charge and to find ways of institutionalizing DEI throughout the school. This charge was co-developed by students, faculty, and staff. For background, several students are present on the committee including a PitE representative, SEAS student government vice president for diversity, Erb’s Student Advisory Board DEI representative, and a member of the doctoral organizing committee who are tasked with reporting back to the wider student body. Also in the summer, we expanded representation to be more inclusive of SEAS’s student body which includes the MLA program, international students and SEAS student of color group, PGMEnT.
- Creating an improved DEI charge and addressing ways to expand DEI initiatives (Fall 2020). Please note the existing DEI strategic plan can be found here.
- The SEAS DEI Committee will be meeting with the Black Student Body on October 1 to discuss shared goals and objectives between the DEI Committee’s new 2020-21 charge and priority actions from the Black Student Body letter. One of the Committee’s priorities over the summer was to create a DEI Student Subcommittee to be inclusive of the diverse student population and to foster more DEI co-ownership and co-creation. This will also assist in more equitable student representation on the committee.
- As part of this meeting, we hope to begin discussions about how we can improve participatory approaches and processes in SEAS.
- In addition, the DEI office has committed $5,000 this year to the Black Student Body to help support any activities at their discretion. This comes in addition to the $3k given to URM students earlier this semester to address hybrid learning, COVID, etc. SEAS commits several tens of thousands of dollars to student groups at SEAS, and will continue to do more. Our goal is to increase funding as we can, and ensure empowerment of all communities who may be marginalized, and who may or may not have the same level of student body organization.
- As the university moves into phase two of its DEI efforts, SEAS DEI office will be reaching out, using multiple methods (e.g., listening sessions) to engage SEAS students, faculty and staff, including affinity groups, along with prioritizing those within the community who are most marginalized to ensure their recommendations are incorporated into the new SEAS DEI Strategic Plan for 2021-2026. The goal is to make DEI, justice and equity more integral and systemic in SEAS.
3. Achieve Equitable Representation
We share your deep concerns for equitable representation among our students, faculty, and staff. We acknowledge there are still places where there is more work to be done, and we want to provide some background on recent discussions and what’s been done to anchor future conversations. The DEI Committee is one of the largest in the school. We acknowledge and have implemented wider consultation and representation, balancing this against time commitments and scheduling. We have also had conversations throughout the semester emphasizing that the DEI committee should not be a check box for process implementation, but rather that there has to be sincere, constant, equitable and dedicated attention to questions about representation, diversity, equity and justice. Additionally, the committee has long been in agreement that any form of tokenism for Black, Indigenous and People of Color (POC) is unacceptable in school practices. Finally, we have emphasized the problematic nature of performative representation and wokeness which reflect how narratives effused with social justice concerns may not actually be understood or acted upon meaningfully.
- Explore ways to provide information about the composition of SEAS students, faculty and staff on SEAS website: We will build on insights from information shared by Rackham and other UM schools (e.g.https://www.engin.umich.edu/about/facts/) while ensuring we do not violate FERPA. This may require additional conversations in collaboration with key stakeholders or a working group to determine the best way to increase transparency on these important metrics while adhering to FERPA and other University requirements.
- Draft a set of performance disaggregated metrics/outcomes to monitor, evaluate, and report on the impact of the SEAS equity and justice initiative and on BIPOC SEAS student, faculty, and staff recruitment, retention, and advancement based on relevant metrics used by National Academy of Public Administration's and U-M’s Campus Climate Support frameworks, American Community Survey (ACS) and other relevant sources. Once the new DEI office staff are hired, they will explore how best to co-create these metrics, administer surveys, and make sure we are measuring what matters as we work to create change, in addition to the best way to share these goals/outcomes with the entire SEAS community. We will also look at ways to integrate an equity report into the DEI annual report on an on-going basis and determine how that aligns with the metrics we are tracking for central campus reporting.
- Create and implement new annual performance measures for SEAS faculty that specifically consider their efforts to decolonize their syllabi/courses, include grants that fund BIPOC students or diversify their scholarship, publish on a topic to advance DEI scholarship, spearhead internal and external service that leads to documented achievement of internal SEAS or external DEI outcomes.
4. Recruit, Retain, and Advance Black Students, Faculty, and Staff
We recognize the need to provide a suitable climate in which all of our students, staff, and faculty can thrive. Achieving this climate can, in turn, make SEAS a place where there is increased diversity of students, staff and faculty.
Student diversity has been a high priority for the Office of Academic Programs. OAP has increased Underrepresented minority (URM) diversity from two incoming Black students three years ago to having fourteen new Black students in the current class. We fully acknowledge, however, that much more diversity is needed.
U-M Master’s Program Statics can be reviewed here. Rackham’s summary of the master’s enrollment for African Americans students over a 5-year average is 5%. Note that ethnicity is reported for domestic students (US citizens or Permanent residents). Categories with fewer than 5 students are not shown to protect their privacy.
- SEAS has been and remains committed to a holistic and qualitative admissions review, and welcomes submissions from all applicants. Please note: Proposal 2 forbids granting preferential treatment on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, and gender in public education, but does not forbid collection of that information. Moreover, the University is required by law to report these data in some instances. University-funded financial aid programs do not consider race, ethnicity, gender, or national origin when making awards. Where Proposal 2 permits consideration of these factors, such as in certain federal grant programs, we comply with the requirements.
- To reduce barriers, eliminate GRE requirements: A major step that we anticipate will assist us this coming year in recruiting is our elimination of all applications’ fees for both PhD and Master’s applicants, as well as the GRE requirements for Master’s students (new this year)
- Continue to advocate for a hire as part of the planned U-M equity and justice cluster hire, and begin to work on a proposal for an additional (second) new SEAS faculty member (see above).
- Explore with Rackham the ability to accept Postsecondary Correctional Education Credits (PSCE) when reviewing applications, and how that would align with broader university policies. We have reached out to Rackham to determine what is possible.
- Develop and offer a new Fall 2020 - Winter 2021 Environmental Justice Seminar Series: Thanks to Drs. Rebecca Hardin and Tony Reames for leading this exciting new effort to enable students and faculty to learn about race, class, gender and the environment. The seminar features leading scholars and practitioners on the topic and we hope they will be among those applying for the anticipated faculty positions. Over time, our goal is that this seminar will feed into the development of an annual (inter)national workshop and community, building on efforts like those at the University of Minnesota, to establish a valuable resource for both our SEAS community, as well as the broader community.
- Continue to write grant proposals to fund summer fellowships and assistantships for BIPOC students: At the recent faculty meeting, faculty pledged to write more sponsored funding proposals to fund summer fellowships and assistantships for BIPOC students. One such grant was just submitted to a federal agency last week, and we know others are in the pipeline, including ones seeking to create programs similar to those that Dr. Taylor led. Associate Dean Ivan Eastin has offered to provide funding and proposal writing support to help faculty prepare such proposals to facilitate this process and others as alternatives to the programs formerly led by Dr. Taylor.
- Continue to make fundraising for BIPOC student support a priority. This includes fundraising for financial aid. SEAS remains committed to increasing funding year-over-year,, and we are looking into ways to provide more funding support to students with financial need in a way that is aligned with the requirements of Proposition 2. Fundraising efforts will also include a focus on programmatic support.
- Continue to work with Black students to assist them with creating a community of support and access to alumni mentors via SEASNet: OAP will continue to work with Black students to help connect them to each other and Development & Alumni relations will continue to work on setting up a Black Alumni Group on SEASNet.
- Launch a committee of faculty, staff, and students charged with improving SEAS hiring processes, including its transparency: We recognize the need to make the faculty and staff hiring processes at SEAS more transparent. SEAS HR, along with other members of our community, are reviewing the recruitment processes to address opportunities and to ensure equity and inclusivity for all applicants. The processes will include a more robust sourcing strategy intended to reach a broader audience, as well as a new framework to improve consistency and effectiveness. Other strategies to be considered by the committee will explore how we can improve the hiring processes at SEAS include:
- Leveraging the concepts outlined in “Interrupting the Usual: Successful Strategies for Diversifying the Faculty” and “Diversifying the Faculty: A Guidebook for Search Committees” and advertising through platforms such as PRISM (per Black Student Body letter)
- Require search committee members to complete supplemental diversity training (beyond STRIDE training, which is already required)
- Assessment and benchmarking of other colleges and schools across campus and other external institutions based on best practices
- Launch new awards - Institutionalize a school-wide award for students, faculty, staff to honor contribution to SEAS DEI to recognize the dedication and labor to advance the SEAS equity and justice initiative and related DEI efforts.
- Include BIPOC representation as part of SEAS events including those led and organized by students, alumni relations, and SEAS Communications team.
- Continue to recruit diverse students and faculty from HBCUs and other forums: OAP has been recruiting at Minority Serving institution (MSIs) in a variety of ways the last two years by generating contacts and building relationships with MSIs leaders.This fall, for example, OAP will participate in the Atlanta University Center’s virtual recruitment event, among others. This past year, OAP pursued and received a Rackham grant to bring MSI leaders for visits to SEAS to further strengthen relationships. OAP will also partner with Dr. Reames on a new Rackham-funded MSI partnership between SPH, SEAS, Fisk and Hampton Universities (two HBCUs) for BS to MS/PhD Environmental Health w/ EJ Certificate. Lessons learned from this experience will inform similar grant applications to Rackham and other funders.
- Launch a new Doctoral Committee by the end of Fall 2020 and explore ways to improve the preparation of doctoral students for both academic and non-academic employment. This new committee will report to Associate Dean Michaela Zint.
5. Increase the Number of Dedicated DEI Staff
We are excited about institutionalizing and expanding our DEI efforts. In response to Dr. Taylor’s departure, we appointed a new DEI Director, Dr. Bilal Butt. We also applied for and were awarded one of Rackham’s DEI graduate student staff assistant (GSSA) positions.
- To ensure DEI is interwoven throughout SEAS, the aforementioned DEI Director position was elevated to participate in the Dean’s leadership group.
- Hire two additional DEI staff members to support the school’s efforts and assist with tasks that will require additional committee discussions, such as how to better recruit and retain BIPOC students, faculty, and staff. In your letter, we acknowledge that you requested 4 additional student positions, in addition to the new GSSA starting this fall. Given current funding constraints, we are focused on hiring the staff positions, and will look at developing funding for GSSA/GRSAs in the future. In addition, we will continue funding student positions to work on decolonizing all SEAS courses.
- The DEI Office will also advertise positions for available work study students who are seeking positions to advance SEAS DEI and justice efforts.
6. Establish an Ethics & Accountability Board
It is essential that SEAS students, faculty or staff who experience instances of exclusion, harm or erasure have options for reporting such instances, are aware of these options, and can feel confident that such reports will be acted upon. As a Rackham School, SEAS follows Rackham’s grievance policy. As a UM School, SEAS is also expected to draw on U-M resources such as Campus Climate Support and the Office for Institutional Equity. We fully acknowledge that greater transparency is needed to assist any members of our community who have experienced and want to report that harm and, to ensure those responsible are held accountable.
- The DEI office has investigated existing U-M and other Schools’ policies and resources, and will propose revisions to SEAS’ existing grievance policy for students and expand it to include faculty and staff. This policy will allow for any community member to anonymously report issues. Special efforts will also be made to ensure that all in SEAS are aware of the accountability and grievance policy.
- We will explore the feasibility of creating an Ethics & Accountability Board with U-M’s Office of General Council to learn how this would align with university policies.
Medium Term Action:
- Ask members of the SEAS community to review and contribute to improving the draft grievance policy and suggest how best to share this policy to ensure students, faculty and staff know how to report harm they experience as a result of a member(s) of our community.
We are aware that there are still a number of other concerns that you have raised, that we agree with, and that we will still need to address. From our perspective, there are a number of items that need more clarification and discussion to ensure ultimate success and a more complete response. To ensure DEI is addressed in a systemic way, we think this approach will be critical. We envision these items to be approached in a manner that will ensure co-design, co-creation, and co-ownership. As you noted in your follow-up letter, discussion is also needed on the topic of SEAS and policing, and I agree this is of critical importance. As a potential next step, we propose to invite the Executive Director of U-M DPSS, Mr. Eddie Washington, along with U-M’s Chief Diversity Officer, Dr. Robert Sellers, to join SEAS for a conversation. We’d like to engage both the university and the school in follow-up conversations about how SEAS can approach this within the context of university policies, and were pleased to see that the Provost and President also recently committed to address this at the broader campus-wide level.
To move forward with the medium and longer-term actions that will be needed, we plan to have additional conversations (e.g., the Oct. 1 meeting with the DEI Committee) and form breakout committees mentioned above, which will help develop additional concrete and measurable actions for how best to move forward. We sincerely hope that you will consider participating in these groups and discussions in the spirit of co-creation and co-design. As we are doing with the decolonization pilot and with the students who work in the DEI office, student compensation will be determined on a case-by-case basis when students are asked to engage in substantive work beyond committee representation or providing general feedback.
This is the time for change, and now is the time to act. Transforming SEAS will take dedication, time and resources, and we are committed to meaningful engagement to help design a better, more equitable and more just future together. SEAS -- our students, staff, faculty, alumni, and partners -- is a community that has the greatest capacity for making a difference when we work together both on and off campus. Once again, and on behalf of all in SEAS, I thank everyone for your time and ideas in moving SEAS forward to ensure that we are successful in fighting racism and injustice.