Despite concern from some faculty members about Baylor University’s initiative to increase diversity, the school’s new President’s Advisory Council on Diversity is promising a thorough conversation about the issue.
“Conversations were started in the fall, conversations we need to continue,” advisory council chairwoman Lori Baker said. “We’re going to do that in the broadest sense possible. What we want is to make this a broader conversation with different avenues in which faculty can be a part of it.”
Baylor’s diversity initiative began with the Chief Diversity Officer Implementation Planning Group, which hosted two town hall meetings in the fall. Then-Provost and Executive Vice President Edwin Trevathan convened the group at President Ken Starr’s request.
In a letter to faculty after the start of the fall 2015 semester, Trevathan informed them the university was committed to creating the chief diversity officer position. The planning group would study similar efforts at peer institutions, and the Baylor community would give input to define the structure and responsibilities of the new position, Trevathan wrote in the letter.
That process has spurred debate among faculty members, and the new advisory council will handle the issue moving forward.
Trevathan stepped down from his administrative post this month after less than eight months at Baylor. He will remain at the university as a neuroscience professor.
Trevathan did not respond to questions about whether the process to create the diversity officer position had anything to do with his resignation.
The planning group Trevathan convened sent a report of its findings to Starr in December, but officials declined to release it publicly.
Baker, an associate professor of anthropology and past chair of the Faculty Senate, said the advisory council will begin reviewing the report at its first meeting, which could be as soon as this week.
‘Inclusive as possible’
“I’m excited about the committee doing this and I want to make sure to let everyone’s voice be heard and heard well,” Baker said. “The community will come together to be as inclusive as possible.”
Religion professor Daniel Williams attended one of the first planning group’s town hall meetings. Williams said he and others were unhappy with the availability for faculty input.
“I’m still not absolutely certain there was room for various comments to be made,” Williams said. “The people leading the meeting really didn’t respond to anything. That was not their job to do that, but the provost was at that meeting. . . . He just showed up and gave a small speech that favored us doing it, which struck a number of us as coercive. The opposition that was taken was simply that.”
Members of the department of religion signed a letter to Trevathan in November expressing support for Baylor’s initiative to hire a chief diversity officer.
“We affirm the value and practice of diversity as continuous with the moral vision of the Christian Gospel,” the letter read.
All but four members of the department signed the letter of support. Williams was among the four who did not sign it. The department’s website lists 31 faculty members.
Williams instead signed a letter to Trevathan that expressed a “belief that broad and deep faculty consultation and deliberation is needed before beginning any search for a chief diversity officer.”
The letter calling for more faculty input was signed by 28 faculty members and a retired provost.
Williams was also confused about what would be expected of hiring committees with new diversity initiatives.
“What are they supposed to do?” Williams asked. “Something other than look for academic excellence? Are we supposed to vote based on someone’s physical characteristics rather than academic achievements?”
Rishi Sriram, an assistant professor and graduate program director of educational administration, served on the CDO group and also will serve on the advisory council. He is the only person to work on both groups. Sriram’s perception of the town hall meetings differs from Williams’.
“I thought the town hall meetings were represented by a really engaged group of faculty,” Sriram said. “I thought there were lots of viewpoints that varied from one another. People felt safe to share their thoughts and opinions on the work to be done.”
Sriram also said he thinks the group is wondering what Trevathan’s resignation means for Baylor’s diversity initiative moving forward.
But Williams felt Trevathan’s approach to the issue may have turned off some faculty.
“It seems to me to be unwise for a new provost, having never been one, to become a puller for a manifestly ideological type of agenda,” Williams said. “That’s what diversity agendas have become across universities all over the U.S. It seemed like an unfortunate decision on his part to push that card. So what happened was he alienated just as many faculty as supported him.”
“I actually find having to fight about ideology in an academic context troubling,” Williams said, “when most of us are trying to do academic work in teaching and research. Getting waylaid by agendas is very aggravating.”
Baker, meanwhile, continued to stress that input from faculty, staff, students and alumni is pivotal to the conversation moving forward.
“It has to be a community effort,” she said. “Everyone has to have a part and contribute for it to work. We want a really comprehensive plan based on what we hear from everyone.”