The Interview USA
The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Sean Garrick

As the old saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Although universities are places full of a great deal of diversity of various kinds, one of the main challenges can be actually getting students to engage with those who are different from them. This can be particularly true for those from more insular backgrounds and haven’t dealt with this level of change and influx of new ideas before.

GoodCourse spoke to Sean Garrick, Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) about providing opportunities for students to learn from one another to enrich their own lives.

Sean’s Journey

GoodCourse: What brought you to DEI and your current role?

I’m a mechanical engineer and professor of mechanical sciences and engineering so it wasn’t a typical trajectory! But I’d been engaged in this type of work going all the way back to undergrad. In my senior year, I started volunteering to teach computer programming to high school students and found that really rewarding. But in doing that, I realized there are significant differences in the folks who show up. Most of them were male, and very few of them were Black, Brown, or even Asian. That’s when I first started to become aware of some of the disparities within certain communities, especially low-income. 

Fast forward to seven years ago when I was a professor at the University of Minnesota. I became a provost fellow and I started working on faculty development which is all about improving the sense of belonging between the faculty and the university. Doing that, I began to see particularly with women and underrepresented faculty, certain challenges being greater and more prominent than others. That’s what led me to DEI.

GoodCourse: What initiatives have you been working on to advance cultural competency on campus? 

We’re a diverse institution. 25-35% of our students are international, and we have a significant number from Illinois and all across the country. This is a great way for everyone to broaden their horizons. The question is, is that actually happening? You bring together 50,000+ people from around the world — are they actually interacting in ways that expose them to each other’s various backgrounds, cultural practices, heritages, religions, etc? We know that we’re enriched when we have meaningful interactions with those different from us. My personal philosophy is not to dictate solutions, interventions, or responses but to provide opportunities for those with ideas to bring them forward. 

So one thing we’ve done in this regard is to reach out to all students — grad and undergrad — to solicit their ideas as to what we can do to create this richer cultural experience on campus. We’ve introduced the Broadening Inclusion Grant (BIG) Grant, which is $3,000 for programming over an academic year given to student groups who propose activities designed to bridge differences. It’s been very well received.

GoodCourse: What to you is the importance of a university having a senior DEI leader position, and what challenges have you faced?

It’s important to have someone at the senior level doing this work because it signals to the entire campus community that the university is committed to DEI. At first, I thought the challenge would be to convince people of the necessity of DEI. That’s not been the case. I’ve not encountered any resistance. The challenge has been how to incorporate it in a way that is core to the work of a research university. How do we take our mission and see it through the lens of DEI? 

For example, UIUC is a land grant institution. So we have to ask ourselves whether we’re using these public resources for the betterment of everyone in Illinois — men and women, White and Black, married, single, etc. Are we making it available to all? Accessibility is also part of that. Part of that “all” are people who have vision challenges, other sensory challenges, learning challenges, are on the spectrum, or have a physical infirmity. To do that comprehensively, you can’t simply have a leader within a department or human resources or student affairs. You need someone overseeing it all.

GoodCourse: What approaches have you taken to address freedom of speech on campus?

That’s a very hot-button issue right now. Everyone loves freedom of speech on paper. The challenge arises when it comes to particular sensitive topics. Here’s how we try to address it. You must be adamant that freedom of speech is a primary value, especially at an academic institution. There can be no give. That being said, particularly when it comes to a DEI space, students also have to be given the opportunity to express their displeasure, or things will boil over. 

One of the things we’ve been doing to address this is convening critical conversations. For example, last year we had an event bringing together Mohammad Darawshe and Yossi Klein Halevi (author of Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor) to discuss the topic of Israel and Palestine. Much of what they discussed was the notion of working across difference. We also recently brought in Braver Angels, a bipartisan organization whose goal is to find ways to bring together Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, to actually engage with each other and talk. Because if you look at some examples of extremism that have occurred across the country, it’s largely due to people not in meaningful contact with those who are different to them. 

Quick-fire Question

GoodCourse: What is your top tip for engaging students on DEI topics?

You have to remember that students are very passionate, young, and have lots of energy, but also probably aren’t experienced in getting what they want. They may be very good at expressing it but not effective at figuring out the dynamics or politics behind it. So when I meet with student groups, one of the first things I ask them is, “What do you actually want, and how can I help you get it?” It’s not to lecture, even though I may know what I think the answer is. It’s about empowering them to bring their full intellect to reach the answer themselves. 

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