Ever since a University of Nevada, Reno student was pictured at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia last month, the university has been putting extra effort into touting its diversity. But behind the scenes, concerns are brewing that the administration’s diversity efforts are not as robust as they may seem.
And, as Jacob Solis reports, a very public resignation is shining a spotlight on internal divisions.
Iris West had worked at UNR for ten years when she decided to quit earlier this month. She was the assistant director of the school’s Latino Research Center, which is a bridge between the burgeoning community of Latino students and the university.
Now though, West says the institution is hanging by a thread after years of budget cuts which left the LRC hunting for extra grant money to help pay the bills.
“The Latino Research Center came to a point that it had no funding, it had no staff. It was just me in the office with no support," West says.
Before West left, she distributed a scathing, 4-page resignation letter. Among other things, she calls UNR president Marc Johnson “tone-deaf” for his appointment of Patricia Richard to the position of chief diversity officer, someone with no background in diversity.
Richard, who also works as Johnson’s chief of staff, was appointed as interim chief diversity officer in 2015 after the sudden departure of her predecessor. That interim role became a permanent appointment from Johnson earlier this year, even though the university never undertook a national search with a hiring committee.
“The choice to make an appointment is one that’s made by the president, and he has the liberty to make it. The previous diversity officer was also an appointment," Richard says.
KUNR reached out to President Johnson for comment, but he was unavailable.
Like Richard said, her predecessor, Reg Stewart, was also appointed by the president back in 2013. However, Stewart had two decades of experience in various diversity-related roles when he finally took on the top job.
And those years of experience are something Richard’s critics say she lacks.
“UNLV just hired a chief diversity officer. I know a chief diversity officer at the University of Kansas, at Des Moines University, at Baylor, at Texas A&M, at the University of Florida. Just Google any search for chief diversity officer and tell me what the requirements are," says faculty member Blane Harding. "The number one requirement is that they’ve had experience in diversity, equity and inclusion.”
Until earlier this year, Harding was the head of The Center, Every Student. Every Story., which provides programs and services to underserved groups at UNR, including minorities.
Richard says she understands why some faculty feel the way they do, but...
“I think chief diversity officers come from a wide number of backgrounds. And I do have a masters in communication, and have had conversations with others about how we grow the program and develop the program, and I’m proud of the accomplishments that we’ve made," Richard says.
Even so, critics — including West and Harding — say the administration hasn’t been transparent with the hiring process for a position that’s crucial to fostering diversity.
And now, the events in Charlottesville have cracked the conversation wide open. Missives from the president’s office have reaffirmed the commitment to diversity while massive banners display bulleted lists of all the different minority groups at UNR.
But at a student government meeting late last month, dozens and dozens of students turned up to say they don’t feel safe on campus. One student, senior Brittany Brown, didn’t mince words.
“If I was coming in as a freshman, I would be terrified to sit in a class where people are talking about history, and we’re watching that history repeat itself right now. I would be very terrified if I were a new student here," Brown says.
These concerns come at a time when the minority student population is more than forty percent of all students — and growing quickly. It likely means the conversation — and the criticism — won’t be going away anytime soon.
Jacob Solis is a senior at the Reynolds School of Journalism. Since the original airing of this story, UNR President Marc Johnson has responded. As a note of disclosure, the license to this radio station is owned by the Board of Regents for the Nevada System of Higher Education. Also, Iris West is a former member of KUNR’s Community Leadership Board.