Mary Ann Villarreal

One U Thriving: How can we make this a better place?

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.


This summer Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, led by Vice President Mary Ann Villarreal, will launch a new initiative called One U Thriving to bring together four campus committees to look at policies and practices that perpetuate racism and inequity at the U. EDI also will establish a new executive committee that will initially take a similar look at hiring and retention practices. In this episode, Villarreal shares her vision for these efforts. Recorded on Thursday, June 24, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams and Dave White for technical assistance. Music by Taylor Hartley.


President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising podcast, where you get to meet people who are helping the U achieve new heights. I'm Ruth Watkins, president of the University of Utah. My guest today is Mary Ann Villarreal. Mary Ann is our inaugural vice president for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. Welcome, Mary Ann! Good to have you here today.

Mary Ann Villarreal: Hello and thank you for having me back. I'm excited to share all that is happening in our world.

President Watkins: We are both and all, as a university, committed to addressing racist policies and longstanding practices that perpetuate inequality on our campus. You are a leader in this area, and I'm proud to say that I join with you in that work. I want to acknowledge that our efforts to create an equitable, diverse, and fully inclusive campus cannot be the work of one person. It has to be shared by all of us. You are a critical leader in helping us, guiding the way towards change. I think you're really conceptualizing your role in our campus with a framework and in a new way. Share with listeners a little bit about that framework and how you're seeing it evolve.

Mary Ann Villarreal: The framework that will officially launch in August is One U Thriving, and it embodies the wholeness of the university through four institutional committees at this time. The Anti-Racism Committee, the Racist and Bias Incidents Response Team, the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, and the Universal Design and Access Committee. Those four committees were in progress prior to my arrival and all are grappling with similar questions in terms of what is happening across the U. How can they make it a better place? What are some of the policies? What are they seeing in terms of some actionable items? But they were all talking separately and not having the opportunity to come together.

So One U Thriving will allow for the autonomy and the creativity of the four committees to continue and develop a steering committee of the co-chairs to meet on a quarterly basis so they can share information, can align direction, can discuss what they're discussing or what needs to be addressed in real time, as well as setting some action plans for the future of the U.

President Watkins: I think it's really smart work that you will bring together in the One U Thriving vision—groups that share a commitment to an equitable, diverse and inclusive community and also have the roles that allow us to act towards change. It's a powerful vision and bringing together leaders in these areas will make a difference for the University of Utah.

I know another effort that you have. With your guidance, we are going to form an executive committee for equity, diversity and inclusion. That committee will have an initial focus. What we've talked about as an initial charge for the executive committee for equity, diversity and inclusion is a focus on policies and long-standing practices that perpetuate racism and white privilege at the University of Utah.

How do you see that work going forward? Who are the people who will be on this committee and are in some ways empowered to identify those problematic policies and practices and help us drive change?

Mary Ann Villarreal: Well, the key piece to the makeup of this committee is that it allows the new division of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion to have opportunity to have partners at the table who come to us rather than having me, as an individual, going out to all divisions to learn what is happening across campus and to get input. And in this, through this committee, we'll have the senior-level decision makers and influencers looking, at this case, at policies and practices. One of the challenges with policies and practice is that while we recognize they are gatekeepers, that they're used for practices of exclusion, we also maintain that they keep us around conversations of quality. So, this team really has to be the team to disrupt what we mean by equality. And to acknowledge that often policies are invested in a particular identity.

And so to be an inclusive campus means that we have to look at the language of policy. We have to look at the assumption of policy. Some of them are long-standing, some of them may have worked for us for quite a while, but the “us” has become much smaller in this process. So, this is a team that I believe will be one that is influential and really being willing to interrogate—not just the policy—but how we talk about policy, how we implement policy and our expectations around policy which then is what defines how it is that we live in practice. I anticipate it's going to be a lively group and one that is very committed to making the U an inclusive campus.

President Watkins: Yeah, let's dig into that a little bit because I think you've really touched on some very vital issues and my own belief would be that there are policies that serve as barriers. And then there are also unwritten things that we do and say that really become part of everyday practice that aren't really codified anywhere but are equally problematic. So maybe we can talk about hiring and recruitment a little bit specifically, because I think that'll help listeners understand the kinds of things we're talking about identifying and really trying to change.

We've had a faculty diversity hiring initiative, roughly 2014 to 2017 or 18, and it was very effective. We brought more diversity to our faculty through that initiative. At the same time, perhaps we didn't really address underlying principles and practices in how we hire, recruit, welcome people to the university that could be problematic. Do you have any examples of the kinds of practices and policies on hiring that might really serve as barriers to true diversity, equity and inclusion?

Mary Ann Villarreal: Well, this committee will in fact start backwards, right? Instead of looking at how are we hiring, it will look at our policies and practices around retention and promotion to help us better understand what are those barriers for people advancing? For all communities advancing? Who's not advancing? Where do we have people in the ranks that we see gaps, that are not so much gaps because of no interest but because people didn't feel safe or supported in moving forward in their careers? And so I'd like to say, the tension in diversity hiring initiatives is that the charge of hiring diverse peoples is often misunderstood or misstated as the individual as diverse. Diversity hiring initiatives should really be about diversity, culture, department cultures. Creating cultures where people who bring their best intellectual scholarly practitioner and teacher selves into a department are valued for that work, not for the work that they add in terms of a body.

So to shift policy from thinking about the singular identity of a body to policies changing, to how it is that the culture, how we are as prepared as departments, as a university, as a college to behave differently in our welcoming practices. Often, we say, "Welcome, be like us. Welcome. This is who we are, and this is how you'll fit in." We don't say, "Welcome. And how are we going to change to ensure that who you are is now who we are."

And we don't often look at policies. We look at individuals to make those changes. But policies, in fact, when we get in a tight moment, we revert to a policy to say, "But this is how we do things." To support not changing. And so by reviewing the policies, looking at the language, looking at how we enact them in terms of practice, allows us to say, "Okay, if we're going to use policy to stop a moment, then we have to actually change policy to create new moments."

President Watkins: Very powerful language and perspective that you're taking because I think for a long time in higher ed we have thought that access was our most critical issue and access to the opportunity to be part of the university, whether faculty, staff or students. And for quite a while I've been advocating that, on the student side, access is actually not our biggest problem. Our problem is completion. And there are things about the university's culture, perspective, lack of welcoming, that actually after we've opened the door of access repeatedly suggest to people that they're not really welcome here fully as members of the community. And in a way, I think what you're pointing at as far as retention, particularly of faculty and staff, is that that's exactly what we're doing for faculty from diverse backgrounds, who may not actually feel like they really belong here once they arrive because of some of the long-standing practices, the lack of perspective on culture and diversity that we really need. So what you're talking about is pretty significant systemic cultural change in the university. It's a big vision and a bold one and an absolutely vital one for our success and our future. I look forward to joining you in that key work.

Let's talk a little bit about the For Utah Scholarship, on the student side, launched this fall. We have, I heard yesterday, nearly a thousand students who said yes to that scholarship offer, which is remarkable. It's designed for students who are Pell eligible, and not only the door of access being opened, but the door to completion being available. Maybe you could talk a little bit about how you see the For Utah Scholarship, and how can we ensure that we are doing and taking the actions that will help students feel that they belong in this institution, in addition to the scholarship support they're going to receive, because we want them to stay and finish. The scholarship matters, but so does the culture of the institution.

Mary Ann Villarreal: I tell you that everyone I talked to is excited about the scholarship. And the EDI team that works on the ground with students, they're all excited about the scholarship. The scholarship itself allows for a sort of sigh of relief moment. We're not having to chase dollars, find dollars, figure out how we're going to put together different funding for students. So it's such a key piece to saying, "Okay, I can put my energy and my focus elsewhere as a student." And for those of us who provide support on the ground to say, "We can put our energy and focus towards completion." The challenge on my team, on EDI's team, is to not look for the roadblocks, but rather to say to our students, "We are going to put these plans together. And then we're going to connect you to everyone across campus that can help make that plan come to fruition."

And so the work ahead for us is continuous road mapping, continuous connection, serving as the conduit so that students can move through the university seamlessly, rather than feeling like they need to go back to a space, a marginalized space, where they feel comfortable because they don't feel comfortable in the rest of the institution. So, our job is walking with them to another part of the institution to say, “Yes, you belong here. And here is the person who's going to work with you who recognizes what your dream is, what you want to do next.” And start to build into that culture.

I think there are a lot of, real or imagined, there's a great sense that students, when they don't see themselves, they're not wanted in particular spaces. So, we at EDI have the responsibility to help move open those spaces for them so that they can move in, find that place within that community, but always know that they can come back to us for anything around retention or other scholarships. We're always there for them, but how is it that we help open those spaces for them? So, supporting students with scholarships is key. I think also opening the doors for them because as we all know, the access doesn't end just when they come through the first time.

President Watkins: Well said, I think we are delighted to see the response to the For Utah Scholarship. We know that it will only fully realize its potential when students feel fully a sense of belonging and connection in the institution and stay through the completion of their degrees. So particular thanks to the role of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in helping every unit on campus do their work and be part of that mission.

The truly tragic murder of George Floyd and many others, I think, has created a conversation around systemic racism and white privilege that I have not seen in my 30 years in higher education. The moment for engagement on real genuine change in universities is here. I'm hearing so much desire from many of our colleges and units across campus to do something, to act, to be part of change. Hearing a lot about individual plans and ideas. Do you have particular actions that you would like to highlight or any recommendations that you would offer to our academic and administrative units that really want to be part of changing the university for the better, for all people?

Mary Ann Villarreal: Two ideas that we are planning. One is a forum on race in higher education, which will be a great starting point for launching conversations about race and racism across the university. The second, in regard to talking about race, is that I think it's important for us to identify where we're already doing this and expand. I know that we have the ‘lunch and learns.’ How can we expand those resources to have our ‘lunch and learns’ focus on the climates in our units and people's experiences, and what we're doing to address some of those challenges? I'd say the first thing that we need to do is talk more about race and racism, and how it's built into the bones of our institutional culture. And that's not just the University of Utah, but it's built into higher ed.

And so for those of us who have spent our careers living in higher ed, what does that mean? What does that look like, regardless of your community, to acknowledge how it plays out in the everyday? When we talk about having courageous conversations, but we save those for, we save those for an annual conversation, or they happen at various times. And so how do we make that a regular part of our conversations with staff in our departments across campus? We should not be afraid to talk about race or racism because we have to be able to talk about the experiences that folks also experience–homophobia, transphobia—and we start creating hierarchy. So I think that we have to have regular conversations about race and racism in our cultures. And that goes back to my own recently, 40 Latinx leaders signed an editorial saying that Latinos must face their own racism. So, there is work to do everywhere. And I think that's one of our charges.

I think the second thing that I'm asking departments to do, as they reflect on what can they do, is to pause and ask what are the three areas that are significant, signature events for you? How are they framed? Who are you inviting? Who is your idea of audience here and how are they, how is that being exclusive to people? And those are simple practices. Those are just simply rethinking language, rethinking commitment, rethinking who are we talking to, what are we assuming about who, to whom we're talking to?

The third thing that is very clear on the academic side is that we have to really push around our conversations around our curriculum. Studies show that students face the most racism on university campuses in the classroom. And we can't be afraid to take inventory of what that looks like and how that happens and the degree to which our curriculum perpetuates that. So those are three different starting points for staff or faculty or students that I think will make a difference immediately when we start doing that work.

President Watkins: Very, very helpful, Mary Ann, I think the guidance of talk more, really open up to genuine dialogue about race, racism, systemic inequality, and white privilege. It's hard to do that and people avoid it because they're afraid of making mistakes. So, I think it's powerful guidance. We have resources on this campus that can support people who want to do that. And we'll make sure that we share those.

I like your perspective on thinking about the important events in the life of your unit and who those are for and how those are celebrated, and who feels included and who doesn't. And then taking a look at your own curriculum because in many ways, that's how we perpetuate and continue the university, through how we teach the next generations of students who become leaders and citizens in our world. Powerful guidance and advice. Thank you so much for your time today.

Thank you, listeners, for joining us on the U Rising podcast. We will share some resources with everybody who's interested in joining a genuine dialogue about race and racism in America. I hope, listeners, that you will continue to tune into the next to U Rising podcast. Thank you so much.