In April 2019, University of Utah President Ruth Watkins announced Mary Ann Villarreal would join the university as the inaugural vice president for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI). For the first time, the U had created a position that would serve as a strategist and organizational leader for diversity efforts over all of campus, including University of Utah Health.
“Over the past 30 years, we have made many advancements in our diversity efforts, but now is the time to move our university forward more swiftly and holistically as One U,” Watkins said. “With the creation of the vice president position, we will be able to accelerate our work to address systemic racism in the policies, practices and structures at the university.”
An academic affair
The U established an associate vice president within Academic Affairs to oversee diverse academic programs in 1983; a year later, that position was refocused to have broad responsibility for campus diversity efforts. The first person to serve in this role was Afesa Adams.
“Having grown up in Salt Lake City, she was quite well-known, mostly through church and community groups,” said Steven Bell, Adams’ son and assistant professor in the Department of Occupational and Recreational Therapies. “Her being a Black woman and the first in this position was a big influence in the community for civil rights and acknowledging what was going on in the nation at that time.”
Adams created the first Martin Luther King Jr. celebration, now known as MLK Week, at the U. She also spearheaded the first U Remembers activities commemorating the lives of the victims of the Holocaust and helped establish the Math, Engineering and Science Achievement (MESA) consortium whose purpose is to increase the number of underrepresented women and minorities in STEM fields.
“We’ve come quite a long way from the early 80s,” said Bell. “Creating this position gave the U some national attention and encouraged minority students, faculty and staff to come to the university because they could see a Black woman in an important leadership role.”
When Adams left the U in 1989, Ron Coleman took on the role of leading diversity efforts on campus. Coleman said he spent about a decade expanding upon the groundwork laid by Adams and Irwin Altman, then vice president for Academic Affairs—including a focus on supporting Asian and Pacific Islander community members, working with the Women’s Resource Center to expand programming, creating a new faculty orientation and launching the Equity and Diversity Awards.
“Afesa Adams was certainly the architect of the modern programs that exist at the U today,” said Coleman. “I was fortunate to have built upon everything she put in place and worked on gaining institutional support and commitment to issues of diversity.”
Even in retirement, Coleman continues to be a strong mentor and advisor to colleagues doing EDI work today, including Villarreal and his successor at the U, Karen Dace.
“We talked just last week,” said Dace, now the vice chancellor for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. “When I took over in 1999, Ron said, ‘Call on me if you need anything.’ I told him last week, ‘You may regret having said that to me,’ because I call on him all the time.”
Dace served as the U’s associate vice president for diversity from 1999-2007. Her tenure saw the creation of the Utah Opportunity Scholarship, an American Indian teacher training program, the opening of the LGBT Resource Center and a Center for the Study of Empowered Students of Color. Her team was also able to double the percentage of faculty of color.
“For the most part, during my time in this role, those conversations and initiatives around diversity were welcomed,” said Dace. “I give a lot of credit to the university president at the time, Bernie Machen, for always talking about diversity. He showed up for our events and really made it clear diversity was a priority.”
The first name change of the department came when Octavio Villalpando became the associate vice president for diversity in 2007. One of his first moves was broadening the Office of Diversity to the Office for Equity and Diversity (OED).
“We added the word ‘equity’ because at that time, we had made some significant strides in recruiting more diverse faculty, staff and students, but we needed to ensure we had equitable processes in place that would support their success,” said Villalpando, now the vice president for EDI at California State University, Los Angeles. “In order to increase retention efforts, we invested a lot of resources into expanding the Center for Ethnic Student Affairs. We built out that dedicated staff and focused on helping students locate and apply for financial aid and scholarships. And we created the Diversity Scholars Program.”
Villalpando was also the first to work with an assistant vice president for Equity and Diversity, and the first in this position to serve on the president’s cabinet.
“It was significant that President Michael Young and Vice President David Pershing supported this position and welcomed me to the head table on campus because that gave an additional voice to these issues at the cabinet level,” said Villalpando. “So, when we would decide campus policy or campus directions, there would be somebody there to bring up the issues of equity and inclusion.”
Prior to leaving his position, Villalpando supported the idea of a new college that would house ethnic and gender studies. Today, Kathryn Stockton is the inaugural dean of that school—the School for Cultural and Social Transformation (Transform)—which was created based on a detailed, written proposal crafted by Stockton, Susie Porter (then chair of Gender Studies) and Ed Muñoz (then chair of Ethnic Studies). The plan then had to pass through six decision-making bodies, and would later include Disability Studies as well. But before solely serving as Transform’s dean, Stockton spent five years as the associate vice president for Equity and Diversity.
It was during Stockton’s tenure, in 2015, that university leaders crafted 13 initiatives in response to the Open Dialogue on Racial Climate.
“We asked for the open dialogue because it was a time of national conversation due to the protests taking place at the University of Missouri and Yale,” said Stockton. “We felt the moment demanded it and the students showed up and spoke truth to power exactly as you wish they would. Students from the Black Student Union were specifically instrumental in voicing specific action items. In keen support, President Pershing and then Senior Vice President Watkins asked me to draw up a list of actions that would be responsive to what we had just heard.”
Stockton said all 13 initiatives have since been either implemented or put into motion, including the Faculty Hiring Initiative that significantly increased faculty diversity over a three-year period. She and Watkins also worked to promote the assistant vice president for equity and diversity to a co-associate vice president position—held first by Nicole Robinson and then by Paula Smith. In 2018, Smith and Stockton visited all 18 colleges to begin building action plans related to EDI.
“I think the most effective way to create true, lasting change at an institution as large as the U is to commit to that transformation at the college level and that’s what we’re starting to see now,” said Stockton. “I do believe we are once again in a moment that demands acceleration and we have incredible people in position committed to this work.”
The various associate vice presidents who came before Villarreal never reported to a vice president of equity and diversity. As work around equity and diversity continued to expand and evolve, university leaders recognized the need for a position with a broader mandate outside of Academic Affairs that would include the University of Utah Health system.
“Leading up to the position now held by Mary Ann, we did have great partnerships with the Health EDI team and many other campus units,” said Stockton. “But we didn’t have this broader, policy-creating, overarching position that we do now. And prior to Mary Ann coming on board, Transform fell under OED. Now that you don’t have a college inside the EDI boundary—though we loved being inside OED—the vice president is able more single-mindedly and holistically to focus on institutional inclusion perspectives.”
In her first year as the inaugural vice president for EDI at the U, Villarreal has been working to understand and strengthen relationships, listen, evaluate the campus climate and lead the U’s anti-racism efforts. Moving forward, she hopes to continue building bridges across campus and weaving the values of equity, diversity and inclusion through the fabric of the university with a deep appreciation of the difficult work done by many before her.
“I stand on the shoulders of so many colleagues and friends who have done and been doing this important work for decades,” said Villarreal. “I am privileged, in my new role, to have some doors open to me that were more difficult for others to open. The creation of this position is a testament to the commitment by university leaders to equity and inclusion, and we are well-poised in this moment to work together to become better.”
Learn more about EDI’s work and Call to Action for the campus community here.