Universities are more than just academic institutions; they are vibrant communities where students should feel safe, supported, and welcomed with open arms. As Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), Karen Dace has spearheaded groundbreaking initiatives to champion diversity and inclusion on campus.
GoodCourse, sat down with Karen to gain insights into her innovative approach and the remarkable progress she has achieved at IUPUI.
I’m currently VC for DEI at IUPUI. I was brought in around 10 years ago to create a diversity plan for the entire campus. Since then, we’ve added a multicultural office, disability services, and an LGBT+ center.
That’s an interesting question. Growing up, kids learn a lot from their parents. My father was a computer programmer who also had responsibility for representing people who were discriminated against. So I heard those conversations around the dinner table, which helped spark my interest. When I graduated with my doctorate, my first position was as a faculty member at the University of Utah. I had a joint appointment in Ethnic Studies and Communication Studies. There, I got my first insights into the real work of DEI. I eventually became Director of Ethnic Studies and African American Studies before assuming the role of Associate VP for Diversity.
I’m not sure there’s a lot of pushback from students. I’ve done this work across three institutions — IUPUI, the University of Utah, and the University of Missouri. At Utah, there was a diversity requirement that meant students had to take one 3-hour diversity-related course. I’m not a fan of that approach, as it gives the false impression you can cover everything in a single class. But when I moved to Missouri, the program was focused on helping faculty to infuse diversity into existing courses. I think the key to cultural competence is to include everybody and demonstrate how diversity can benefit all.
We see so much engagement. It’s a place where students can come together to support one another and receive advice. They can access resources that can teach them how to advocate for themselves. They also have the chance to run their own programs, which helps them build leadership and experience. While the Multicultural Center and the LGBT+ Center have been designed for those communities, they are accessible to everyone. Those two centers are right next to each other, and they often work together — we want students to understand the importance of intersectionality.
We’ve conducted three climate surveys: 2014, 2018, and 2022. They give a snapshot of what’s going on around campus. We’re fortunate to have a very good assessment office: we didn’t have a lot of data about the diversity of our student body, so we needed to start from scratch. One of the things our surveys helped us realize was the need for an LGBT+ center — we found out students from that community weren’t having the best experience, and we needed to change that. We’re also making all the rights enshrined in the Americans with Disabilities Act are respected. I remember when I was a teaching assistant, a student came up to me with a note asking for extra time for a test. She told me “I might have a disability, but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn.” I realized she must have had to say that to every faculty member for years. No student should have to go through that — we need to make sure we aren’t making things harder.
One of my students once said, “Education is hard. But it should be.” Education is difficult because you often learn about topics you’ve never been exposed to. We need to be having these challenging conversations — not just with students but with staff, too. When we hear viewpoints we don’t agree with, we learn more about ourselves. I’m not sure why some people just want to listen to things they already agree with. If you don’t understand something, how can you even know you’re opposed to it? At universities, we’re supposed to grapple with difficult topics — you don’t just get to say, “I don’t wanna hear it!”
It’s about listening to students to discover where issues are coming from. Recently, some students have become increasingly worried about the threat of sexual assault. So we’ve held conversations and town halls and decided to install more cameras around campus. You need to listen before you can act.
Students get involved with the things that are most relevant to them. We have a Diversity Speakers series open to the campus and community, and students show up in huge numbers when the topic interests them. About a year ago, we invited Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to be an Antiracist.” It was a packed room. A few years before, we brought in Kimberly Crenshaw, who works in intersectionality and Critical Race Theory. There wasn’t enough space in the auditorium. If you can offer things that matter to students, then they will turn out.
Help students understand that diversity is a benefit for all. Diverse groups expose you to different perspectives and encourage creativity and innovation. The world is a diverse place, so our campuses need to reflect that.