As we strive to advance Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in Higher Education (HE), it’s important to learn from the lessons of the past. This understanding is at the heart of the work done by Dr. Chia Youyee Vang, Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who has drawn on her understanding of the past to foster a more welcoming environment for the next generation of students.
Chia sat down with GoodCourse to discuss topics ranging from the debate around free speech on college campuses to the values needed to succeed in DEI leadership.
I’m currently the Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. I’ve also been a Professor of History for 17 years.
I never really planned to pursue a career in DEI. My background is as a historian — researching, teaching, and publishing books. So I didn’t come to DEI through the traditional path. But although DEI has only been part of my job title for two years, I have always viewed my work through the lens of equity. In my research and teaching, I have been practicing DEI for as long as I can remember. It’s important to consider who has a seat at the table and who is being left out. As I moved up through the ranks as a faculty member, I started to think about other ways I can contribute. After I was appointed as a senior administrator, I realized I had more opportunities to make a difference. So, my path in DEI has been a lifelong journey, although the job title is more recent.
We must consider who cultural competency is for and where it’s coming from. When I think about cultural competency, I see so many different dimensions: the culture of our institution, the culture of the local community, and the wider culture of HE. In my role, I oversee several cultural centers created by and for students to promote inclusion on campus. Our cultural centers don’t just serve students who identify with specific groups; they are open to the whole campus community. We’re also carrying out training on disability awareness, racial equity, and gender. It’s about facilitating a dialogue — creating opportunities for students, staff and faculty members to come together. Sometimes those conversations can be difficult, but they provide valuable learning moments.
You can’t escape it in today’s society. It’s certainly a challenging time, but times have always been challenging. As a historian, I often look back on difficulties in our past and how we overcame them. Right now, we’re in a time of division and political polarisation. So we need to protect free speech every single day. We’re trying to bring people with different perspectives together to have constructive dialogues. Along with some colleagues, I helped to create a series called Dialogue Across Difference, which brought in people of different political ideologies to engage in conversations. It can be challenging to put opposing perspectives on the same platform, but it’s necessary if we want to bridge divides. Some contentious debates are going on: there has been a backlash against Critical Race Theory and DEI, and over 20 states have introduced legislation to remove funding from DEI programs. Sometimes these debates have very little to do with facts and are based on perceptions: in some cases, they rely on targeting people who are already marginalized. But as leaders, the best way to respond is to listen, engage and remain focused on our institution’s missions. The division in our society means that many people are living in their bubbles: we need to help build bridges to close those divides.
I became a Senior Administrator in 2017. In late 2019 we were already working with the USC Race and Equity Center provide professional development for leaders across our university. But then 2020 brought the pandemic and the nationwide protests following George Floyd’s murder, which changed many things. That summer, I led Racial Justice dialogues with staff, faculty and students — it allowed our BIPOC community to speak out about the trauma facing their communities. We began to rethink our approach to diversity training, and we wanted to develop our own program instead of bringing one in from outside. So that summer, we worked hard to create a five-module diversity program that addresses issues from the history of race to practical actions people can take. We worked with HR to deliver it to all of our nearly 4,000 employees. We opened it up to feedback, and we’re working hard to respond — for example, we’ve added a new module to include more indigenous perspectives in the program. Now, every new employee who joins the university is assigned this learning opportunity.
We need to center our work around people’s lived experiences. People often talk about ‘the other’ — using terms like ‘them’ and ‘those people’ — which can be highly alienating. Though we’re a highly diverse institution, with many BIPOC and first-generation students, our learning community is still predominantly White. So for DEI leadership to be successful, we need to be authentic but also willing to listen. You can’t take things personally — it’s pivotal to understand that it’s not about you.
I’m very proud of this generation of students. They are always curious and eager to learn. For me, the most important thing is to ask questions. Just because things have been done a certain way for generations, it doesn’t make it right — you always need to ask why.