After a significant reorganization to the University of Kansas’ diversity and equity office and calls for more transparency regarding the decision, KU’s provost met with a small group of students within student government and varying university advocacy groups Friday.
KU Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer set up the meeting after months of students, staff and faculty asking for more information about a large change to KU’s now-named Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging. Bichelmeyer said she wanted to listen to more concerns and provide clarification, but many inquiries still remained unaddressed.
The provost’s office sent an invitation out Thursday afternoon to members of the Student Senate Diversity Equity, and Inclusion Committee and members of the Black Student Coalition naming the time and Zoom invitation. On Thursday evening, other students received invitations upon request to meet with Bichelmeyer Friday afternoon.
In the call, both Bichelmeyer and Vice Provost of Student Affairs Tammara Durham were present. Bichelmeyer noted there were a couple of staff in the background with her to help take notes and follow-up on different items.
D.A. Graham, the interim vice provost of the Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging, was not included in the call. Graham offered to come, but Bichelmeyer said she didn’t extend the invitation because she wanted students to have the opportunity to talk directly with her.
“As provost, I am the person who’s responsible on campus for DEIB, and D.A. is vice provost and taking the lead on our activity … I wanted to give you the opportunity to speak freely on things you wanted me to know,” Bichelmeyer said.
Initially, the meeting was not going to be recorded until Azja Butler, a student at KU and president of the Jayhawker Liberation Front, requested it be recorded and published for accessibility and transparency purposes.
Mazzy Martinez, a student at KU, asked Bichelmeyer why the meeting was invite-only and why the provost set up such specific parameters without consulting students on what time would potentially work best to meet.
“You are under a lot of scrutiny now, and I think that, in the interest of the students and the benefit of the students who you serve, it would have been much better to ask us what time might work,” Martinez said.
During Bichelmeyer’s response, she apologized for not being able to offer times because of her schedule constraints and because the meeting was called last minute. She also said she opened the meeting to a small group to create a more meaningful dialogue, and that her understanding was “that the Student Senate DEIB group and the Black Student Caucus would be the two important groups to work with.”
During her response, Bichelmeyer had misidentified one of the student groups, which is known as the Black Student Coalition.
“I understand that names and things like that can be confusing, but I think even just you not knowing our name is very frustrating to me,” said Niya McAdoo, co-founder and president of the Black Student Coalition. “Because, how are you going to speak with us? How are you going to address the frustrations and issues that we have?”
A DEIB town hall
During the meeting Ximena Ibarra, chair of Student Senate’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, asked Bichelmeyer if she would commit to a public town hall about some of the changes made to the DEIB office. The town hall Ibarra proposed would be hosted by Ibarra, Butler and McAdoo.
Senate had also passed a resolution earlier in the week calling for Bichelmeyer to be a part of a town hall.
“I would have to have further conversations with the three of you representing those groups to see what that looks like, because again I know one of the challenges of the town hall was the facilitation of it,” Bichelmeyer said, referencing a town hall Senate previously hosted with Graham. “I’d be happy to explore numbers of people and how we’d go about making sure that it is constructive dialogue.”
Ibarra pointed out that most of the students present in the meeting who have been advocates for diversity, equity and inclusion on campus have had a toll on their own mental health through the process, especially because they’re not paid to do that work.
“I wanted to make it clear that this is very hard for people who are not paid, people who are struggling very hard during this pandemic and on top of that, are not heard in our administration until we organize to the extent that we have,” Ibarra said.
Butler returned to Bichelmeyer’s response on whether the provost would commit to a town hall, because Bichelmeyer committed to having a conversation about setting one up.
“It begs the question of why it is fair for you as a white woman to determine what is constructive or fair for people of color and what we need and when those dialogues need to happen?” Butler said. “I thought a lot of us got what we needed in terms of how we view the higher administration from that town hall … I am concerned that you feel like you need to vet what dialogues we think are constructive.”
Bichelmeyer responded that she wasn’t trying to impose any parameters around a town hall, but wanted to have a conversation to understand how to best work with everyone.
Administrators are supposed to start coordinating a town hall with McAdoo, Ibarra and Butler within the next week.
Termination of employees
Students, faculty and staff have also been pushing for more answers about the termination of two employees that occurred as a result of the DEIB office reorganization.
A student submitted a question during the forum that asked more about why those changes were made, and how students can trust the KU administration as it fires Black and queer faculty.
Administrators have declined for months to answer more information about the termination of those employees. They cited that because it’s a personnel matter, they are unable to discuss the details. Bichelmeyer reiterated that stance during the meeting.
"The Kansas Open Records Act has a broad exemption for personnel files," said Frank LoMonte, director of the University of Florida’s Brechner Center for Freedom of Information. But legally, “there is a difference between closing personnel files on one hand, versus answering questions about personnel decisions on the other hand.”
“They have discretion to explain if they want to,” LoMonte said. “They have a discretionary KORA exemption that allows them, if they choose, to withhold access to personnel files.”