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Guest Opinion: The UI's hollow "commitment" to diversity

BY GUEST OPINION | DECEMBER 19, 2014 5:00 AM

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In a recent Press-Citizen editorial, the University of Iowa associate provost for graduate education and dean of the Graduate College reaffirmed the school’s commitment to diversity. However, Dean John Keller’s claims were both cynical and misleading.

He begins by assuring readers “that our commitment remains as strong as it’s ever been” but immediately undermines his own argument by noting that, among graduate students, “we recognize that the proportion of African-American students has decreased.” In other words, the university already had not put enough resources into recruiting graduate students from underrepresented minority groups.

Bizarrely, Keller goes on to hype his diversity efforts by pointing to the very fellowships he has slashed. “Last year, we awarded 15 Dean’s Graduate Research Fellowships to underrepresented minority students,” he said. “We recently announced plans to increase the number of these awards to 40 for the 2015-2016 academic year.”

What Keller didn’t tell readers was that those 40 fellowships are a hollow shell of their former self. The 15 Dean’s Fellowships given out last year provided Ph.D. students with two years of teaching releases. That was the primary appeal of the Dean’s Fellowship, which helped departments recruit top graduate students from diverse backgrounds.

Unfortunately, Keller has entirely eliminated the teaching releases from the new diversity fellowships, which makes it impossible for UI to compete against other peer institutions for these students. I have spoken with several current and former Dean’s Fellows, and each one said that he or she would not have not have come to UI under the new funding model.

In addition to the two years of teaching releases (a total of $36,000 in salary), the Dean’s Fellowship used to provide $4,000 in summer research stipends (totaling $16,000) and two years of tuition waivers (totaling approximately $16,500). That’s about $68,000 — whereas the new diversity fellowship is just plain pathetic, because it takes away $36,000 worth of salary support and eliminates the $16,500 in tuition waivers.

As a point of comparison, the new diversity fellowship is worth about $24,000, as opposed to the roughly $68,000 that UI invested in the old Dean’s Fellowship. As I noted in a recent op-ed in the Press-Citizen, this is an example of the structural and institutional racism that is deepening at UI. Allocating resources that encourages those who normally wouldn’t come to a place such as Iowa is crucial to combating this form of inequality. (Trust me, we have no problem finding and recruiting white grad students.)

UI’s upper administrative class seems more interested in growing the size of its ranks than putting money where its mouth is when it comes to diversity. A new six-figure-salary strategic-communications position? No problem. But when it comes to resources for recruiting those from underrepresented minority groups, well, that’s a different story.

Over the next few weeks, student and faculty campus leaders will apply pressure to persuade the UI to return the Dean’s Fellowship to its previous funding levels. In the weeks leading up to the start of spring semester, we will hold the administration’s feet to the fire in the national media until it reverses course.

Even though structural and institutional racism is an abstract concept that is hard to put a face on, the recent decisions by top administrators have made UI the poster child for this form of discrimination. Still, it’s not too late for them to do the right thing.

Kembrew McLeod
Professor of communication studies, director of graduate studies for his department


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