Leadership Q&A: Advancing the values of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion across U-M

Tabbye Chavous, PhD, is the Vice Provost for Equity & Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Michigan. She is also a professor of education and professor of psychology. Dr. Chavous has held leadership roles at the department, college, and central administration levels during her almost 24 years at U-M. Across all of her roles, the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion have been central to her leadership approaches and practices and infused throughout the initiatives, programs, and practices she helped develop and implement. Dr. Chavous’ expertise and research activities center around social identity development among Black adolescents and young adults; achievement motivation processes among ethnic minority students; and the measurement and impacts of diversity climates in secondary and higher education settings and implications for students’ academic, social, and psychological adjustment.

As the Vice Provost for Equity & Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Michigan, what are some of the aspects of your role that you enjoy most?

This is a great question. I’ve been in this role for over a year now, and I have really enjoyed the opportunities I’ve had to meet people from all across the campus – faculty, staff and students, and from around the country and world who are invested in U-M’s DEI work. 

I am awed and humbled by the great ideas and actions developed across our campus units – from our schools and colleges to our administrative and service units. Our DEI progress is only possible when our campus community feels a sense of ownership of the work and when we leverage our campus community’s deep and comprehensive expertise in planning and leading the work with them. When I talk with alums about their time as students, they are excited to share stories about their involvement in DEI work (including many different types of work) as a crucial part of their U-M experience, which has influenced their career trajectories and ability to be leaders in their workplaces and communities in the state of Michigan and beyond. The testimonies of these alumni demonstrate why DEI work is so important and how it’s been such a critical part of the educational experience of generations of U-M students. Learning about the experiences of these alumni is inspirational and encouraging. 

I also have enjoyed and appreciated opportunities to hear from Michigan communities – students, families, teachers, and community members – who have participated in one of U-M’s pre-college programs or have worked with one of our college advisors in our Michigan College Advising Corps, or who are part of our Wolverine Pathways program. They have shared with me the many ways our programs have been a resource to them and have provided opportunities they may not have had without them. I also want to add that I’ve been a faculty member here for almost 25 years. In my administrative role as CDO, I don’t get to do as much research right now as I’d love to do, but what I do have more opportunities to do in my role– and this is also a part of my work I enjoy – is to support innovative research and scholarship and our exceptional U-M scholars (faculty, staff and students) who engage in work that impacts the lives of the citizens of our state, our nation and the world.   

What is on the horizon for diversity, equity and inclusion at U-M as we get underway in the new academic year?

One of the most exciting aspects of our DEI work this fall is launching our next DEI strategic plan (DEI 2.0) in October. Following our initial five-year DEI strategic plan, our community of faculty, staff and students have spent the better part of a year, in addition to their existing work and commitments, developing a strategy for what we want our University to be five years from now, and how we intend to get there. Seeing the renewed commitment and the optimism to learn and grow from our first plan has been exciting. 

Some of our major focus areas at the university level will include fostering students’ academic success, which includes identifying and addressing opportunity gaps across demographic groups; enhancing physical and digital accessibility on campus, with an emphasis on identifying and evaluating opportunities to go beyond ADA compliance and establish broader university-wide accessibility requirements; and expanding DEI education and training resources for all U-M employees which will go beyond awareness and really hone in on skill-building.

I’ll also add that our work focuses on encouraging systems-level thinking. Increasing awareness and skill-building for individuals in our campus community is important. It represents one aspect of our institutional change strategy. Still, we must remember that this institution – like higher education more broadly – was not originally founded to educate, employ or serve/engage all communities. As such, even though U-M’s founding was over 200 years ago, there are still structures, policies, practices and norms that unintentionally restrict access or opportunities for thriving for all – which need to be challenged and changed. The good news is that the U-M is committed to reflecting on our history and current practices to mark the progress we have made and the progress we still need to make. I have seen this commitment affirmed by President Santa Ono, his leadership team, and other key university leaders. 

This type of systemic change – institutional and cultural transformation – is both urgent and incremental. It is urgent because it is high stakes – it impacts the lived experiences and life chances of many communities. But because the stakes are high, it also requires time and deliberate, evidence-informed action. So, while this kind of change work takes time and progress can feel too slow sometimes, in my 25 years here – and buoyed even further in the past recent years of our DEI plan initiatives – I’ve seen real progress happen. We’re committed to doubling down on that progress in the coming years.

How is the U-M Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion meeting the moment to provide resources to the U-M community?

I get excited at this question, because I genuinely believe the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (or ODEI) is not just meeting the moment, but knocking down the door to create long-term, institutional transformation.

ODEI is home to four programming units that serve the entire U-M community, the state, and the nation –the Center for Educational Outreach, the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives, the National Center for Institutional Diversity, and Wolverine Pathways. These units connect and support students, faculty, staff, alums, and community partners in many ways. From community and preK-12 outreach to student transition and academic success programming to research and scholarship, our office touches on every aspect of the university experience.

In addition, our office also leads the University’s DEI strategic plan process, which involves the development of 51 unit plans on the Ann Arbor campus and Michigan Medicine, including our 19 schools and colleges, complemented and supported by a university-level plan. We also support and partner in numerous efforts with campus units, groups, and organizations across the University focused on advancing DEI. Our central office and unit leadership teams also play significant roles in connecting, engaging and educating communities, both internal and external to the University. 

I’m incredibly proud of the work that we’re doing in leading, partnering, collaborating with, and supporting our U-M campus communities across the state and beyond.

With U-M’s Annual Diversity Summit taking place on October 9, what can U-M community members expect at this year’s event? 

I’m incredibly excited to mark the launch of our DEI 2.0 Strategic Plan with this year’s DEI Summit. Each year, our summit planning team invites and helps develop new ideas and opportunities for community engagement. A priority is inviting impactful speakers – representing diverse backgrounds and perspectives – who can share expertise and lived experiences that help educate, stimulate our thinking and reflection, and inspire action. I believe this year’s summit will accomplish those goals.  

The DEI Summit has featured themes exploring social justice issues at the forefront of public discourse for the past three years. Our theme for this year’s DEI Summit is Truth Telling: The Kinship of Critical Race Theory and Hip-Hop. This theme explores the transformative power of storytelling, which is a fundamental element in both the Critical Race Theory (CRT) Movement and the Hip-Hop Movement. We will delve into the intersection of these two movements and how they have permeated many aspects of our society and culture (nationally and globally), emphasizing the presence of these movements in various racial, social, political, and economic communities. With this theme, the aim is also to take two phenomena that are currently salient and apply them to a variety of issues impacting our society related to identity, marginalization, resilience, and justice.

The DEI Summit in October features various centrally sponsored events for students, faculty, and staff to delve deeper into the theme. To further support student engagement, we are excited to introduce Student Organization Grants, an initiative that will amplify and enhance student-led DEI events and initiatives that foster a more inclusive and welcoming campus climate. These student events will be primarily held during the month of October in connection with the DEI Summit.

How do the efforts of U-M’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion help to impact communities beyond U-M’s campuses?  

As part of a public institution, ODEI’s commitment to the state of Michigan is essential to the work that we do. We know that in order to make lasting changes to our society, we have to go beyond our walls and connect individuals where they are. I take enormous pride in knowing that our programs are outward-facing as much as they are inward-facing.

These efforts cover many areas that are important to our community. Our research and scholarship often addresses broader societal issues. Research findings, publications and academic contributions from scholars who work closely with our office can influence and inform policies, practices and discussions at local, national and global levels. We’re also actively engaged with the community, including collaborating on initiatives that can lead to increased access to resources, and shared knowledge and expertise. Through educational outreach and pipeline programs such as Wolverine Express and Wolverine Pathways, we’re continuously building relationships with students, educators and families about college access, readiness and sharing resources that can help them achieve their long-term goals.

Also, in terms of impact, it’s important to address something important that many of our local and national communities are facing, which is this movement to defund and ban DEI work on university and college campuses. State legislatures nationwide also seek to mandate what should and should not be taught in our classrooms. To those of us who truly understand what DEI work is (and isn’t) to those of us who care about free speech and academic freedom, and to those of us who care about the future of our democracy, we should be using our platforms to say “enough!” With this role, I know I have a unique megaphone that I need to and will continue to use. I am proud that at the U-M, we are not backing down on our DEI commitment, and in fact, we are accelerating our work with more creativity and energy.