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University of Arkansas prepares to dissolve DEI division

Chancellor Charles Robinson announced the restructuring of the University of Arkansas’ Division of DEI on June 13, 2023.
University of Arkansas
Courtesy photo
Chancellor Charles Robinson announced the restructuring of the University of Arkansas’ Division of DEI on June 13, 2023.

The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville will reallocate staff and resources from its Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion this year, Chancellor Charles Robinson announced in an email Tuesday.

Beginning in the fall, existing resources and personnel currently assigned to the DEI Division will be incorporated in Student Success, Student Affairs, Human Resources, the Office of Equal Opportunity and Compliance and University Advancement “so that these areas can expand programs around access, opportunity and developing a culture of belonging for all students and employees,” Robinson wrote.

Chancellor Charles Robinson speaks at the University of Arkansas. The UA Board of Trustees unanimously selected him as chancellor Nov. 16, 2022.
Russell Cothren
University of Arkansas
Chancellor Charles Robinson speaks at the University of Arkansas. The UA Board of Trustees unanimously selected him as chancellor Nov. 16, 2022.

Additionally, the Office of Equal Opportunity & Compliance will be “formally aligned” with Human Resources while also maintaining a direct reporting line to the chancellor’s office.

The decision to reallocate the DEI Division’s resources comes at a time when initiatives addressing topics like diversity and race are facing pushback nationwide.

UA Director of Media Relations John Thomas said in an email to the Arkansas Advocate that all DEI office employees will have the opportunity to be reassigned to a new position in a different unit focused on student or employee recruitment and success.

The goal of this restructure is to further the university’s mission, Thomas said.

“Aligning resources directly to the ‘front lines’ of our support for student success and employee recruitment and development will provide direct access, achieve measurable results and help us better fulfill our land-grant mission for which we are accountable to the people of Arkansas,” he said.

In Wednesday’s email, Robinson said he wanted to share a progress report on the university’s strategic planning process, which he said “has affirmed that supporting equal opportunity, access and belonging are critical to our land-grant mission and university values.”

“It is my belief based on my experience as having served as Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, Provost — and now as Chancellor — that we can accomplish better outcomes by reallocating resources into these essential areas,” he said. “We must strengthen our ability to achieve measurable results that enhance opportunity for all Arkansans.”

Robinson became the university’s first Black chancellor in November after serving as interim chancellor since August 2021.

Arkansas officials have expressed growing opposition to DEI initiatives. On her first day in office, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed an executive order prohibiting the “indoctrination” of public school students with ideologies, like critical race theory, which is typically not taught in K-12 schools in Arkansas. The same language is used in the LEARNS Act, the governor’s signature education legislation.

The Arkansas Legislature defeated a bill to end state-sponsored affirmative action programs in April, but it also passed legislation restricting state investments with firms that consider environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria.

In May, the Arkansas Minority Health Commission discontinued its Minority Health Workforce Diversity Scholarship after a lawsuit challenged the constitutionality of the scholarship, which limited eligibility based on race.

On the national level, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling this month that could end affirmative action in college admissions.

As chair of the Faculty Senate, associate professor of music Stephen Caldwell said in a phone call with the Advocate that he participates in monthly leadership meetings during the academic year with the provost and Chancellor Robinson.

Since Sanders took office, he said, they have periodically discussed how to react to potential Arkansas legislation. This included considering the possibility that Arkansas laws could mimic Florida legislation, such as a new law that prevents public colleges from spending funding on DEI initiatives.

Caldwell said the hyperfocus on DEI has created a “battle line between liberals and conservatives” nationwide, but Robinson has reframed the debate as student success.

The goal is for all students to be successful, but sometimes what a minority student needs to be successful is different from what a non-minority student needs, Caldwell said.

“Ultimately we want them both to be successful, so let’s concentrate on student success and student excellence and try to achieve that in all mediums for all students of all backgrounds, races, creeds and colors,” he said. “And I think when you reframe it like that, it speaks to what it is that he’s trying to do, and the faculty are behind student success 100%.”

Robinson said in Wednesday’s email that he’s excited to implement this new approach and share more restructuring specifics in the coming weeks.

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.