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UNL proposes restructuring, slashing budget of diversity and inclusion office

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UNL proposes restructuring, slashing budget of diversity and inclusion office

Nov 27, 2023 | 6:45 am ET
By Zach Wendling
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UNL proposes restructuring, slashing budget of diversity and inclusion office
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University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Rodney Bennett meets with UNL students in June prior to being confirmed as chancellor later that month. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — While the University of Nebraska says it is seeking a president committed to advancing diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, its flagship campus has proposed slashing the budget of its Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Rodney Bennett has proposed budget cuts totaling $12 million, the result of a structural deficit through declining enrollment. These reductions are separate from the NU system’s $58 million shortfall projected over the next two years. The University of Nebraska at Kearney finalized $2.3 million in academic cuts Nov. 20 as faculty across NU have blasted state leaders for not investing enough in NU.

The full proposal

View the proposed $12 million budget cuts here.

In a statement to the Nebraska Examiner, Bennett said all those engaged with the budget process “recognize its significant effect on UNL faculty, students and staff.”

“The university has no choice but to make difficult decisions to address a structural budget deficit, and we are proceeding in a manner that allows us to continue to fulfill our mission as Nebraska’s land-grant and flagship university and remains consistent with our status as a Carnegie R1 institution,” Bennett said.

One major proposal would cut $800,000 from the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and would restructure it from a central hub for DEI to a role primarily supporting university-wide priorities or initiatives. DEI work would instead be focused within smaller colleges, departments or units.

Marco Barker, UNL’s vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion, described the cuts last week as disappointing in an email to the UNL National Diversity Advisory Board obtained by the Examiner.

“But we understand the many external pressures impacting higher education and diversity and inclusion that are outside of our control,” Barker said. “Still, ODI will work to discern and reimagine the best strategies and structures possible to preserve and build on the progress we’ve made thus far.”

Faculty, staff and student positions

Bennett’s recommendations, explained in more granular detail in a Nov. 21 update, also call for:

  • Reducing state-aided funding for graduate and undergraduate student teaching assistants ($923,816) and temporary lecturers ($515,829). 
  • Eliminating an unspecified number of vacant faculty positions ($2.5 million), 14.76 vacant staff positions ($943,819) and nine filled staff positions ($777,024), three of whom work in diversity and inclusion. 
  • Finding alternative funding for graduate student assistants, 20.34 staff positions and 0.93 faculty positions (totalling $2.1 million).

Those figures do not include the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, which would absorb $1.15 million of the proposed cuts.

UNL’s Academic Planning Committee is seeking feedback on the proposals, which remain flexible until plans are finalized sometime in December.

‘A proud Husker’

ODI, created in 2018 under Barker’s inaugural vice chancellor role, has worked to promote “inclusive excellence” and uplift the “power of every person.”

UNL proposes restructuring, slashing budget of diversity and inclusion office
Marco Barker, vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion at UNL, takes notes during the fifth annual State of Diversity on Nov. 16, 2023, in Lincoln. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

In 2021, Barker joined former UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green in creating an anti-racism and racial equity plan, which students and faculty rallied behind in the face of political backlash.

​​“I used to always tell people like I’m going to graduate and I’m gonna lie about where I went to undergrad because of how terrible my experiences were here,” former UNL Student Regent Batool Ibrahim told The Daily Nebraskan at the time. “But now, I’m gonna be able to be like, ‘I was a Husker, and I was a proud Husker.’”

ODI has a budget of just over $1.1 million, according to UNL’s 2023-24 operating budget, while the adjacent Office of Academic Success and Intercultural Services has a budget of $581,455. Together, they have operating expenses of $253,504, according to a university spokesperson, which would be reduced by $172,689 under the proposal.

The proposed cuts would reduce the combined budgets of ODI and OASIS by more than 46%, though how the cuts would be divided and whether the areas are impacted through any other proposals is unclear.

My hope is that all Nebraskans are able to see just how important that is, again, not only for the university but also for the state to thrive, whether that’s socially or economically.

– UNL Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion Marco Barker

Julia Schleck, vice chair of UNL’s Department of English and an associate professor of English, told the Examiner that once cuts are implemented, the work will fall back primarily on faculty of color on campus, who she says could be less inclined to stay.

It could also lead to a more racially and ethnically homogenous state and campus, she added.

“The end result of this is to push away everybody who might be contributing in their life experience and their critique and all the things that a diverse population brings to our campus,” Schleck said.

DEI in the crosshairs

UNL’s work around diversity, equity and inclusion has in the past drawn the ire of some state lawmakers in a national climate that has called into question DEI efforts, including in neighboring Iowa.

NU has been in the crosshairs of the criticism, including:

In other states, Florida lawmakers banned public colleges or universities from spending money on DEI programs this year, while Texas lawmakers banned DEI offices at public institutions, starting in 2024. 

Last week, Iowa’s Board of Regents voted to eliminate DEI programming unless necessary for accreditation or compliance.

Bennett previously committed to DEI

Bennett, who became UNL’s first chancellor of color July 1 with a salary boost of 37%, about $200,000 more than his predecessor, committed to DEI efforts before taking the job.

Bennett told attendees at an Office of Diversity and Inclusion forum in June that he would always use the chancellor’s position to “move the needle forward” and would never sit silent and not speak up.

“I’m on board with doing all that I can do as chancellor of the university to take forward the narrative and the message of, ‘This is something that we absolutely need to be committed to,’” Bennett said of DEI work.

Bennett added that he believes educators have an obligation to put in front of students many scenarios where they may not be comfortable so they can become familiar with what they’ll face later in life.

That same week, Bennett said he dealt with budget cuts every year at the University of Southern Mississippi during his nearly 10 years as president. While he never saw increased university funding, Bennett said, USM still thrived.

Barker told the Examiner that whatever the work is ultimately called, it’s important that UNL lives up to its N2025 Strategic Plan that “every person and every interaction matters.”

“My hope is that all Nebraskans are able to see just how important that is, again, not only for the university but also for the state to thrive, whether that’s socially or economically,” Barker said. “It’s going to depend on us being able to work together collectively.”

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to reflect the current $12 million reductions at UNL are separate from the $58 million budget shortfall across the University of Nebraska.