More than 200 at UNL continue to protest proposed diversity, inclusion cuts

Campus critics call proposed $800,000 in cuts to UNL’s diversity and inclusion efforts the “antithesis” of UNL’s mission

By: - December 18, 2023 5:15 am

Marco Barker, vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. June 19, 2023. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — When Nyarial Nyoak came to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in fall 2020, under the shadows of COVID-19, she says UNL’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts provided community.

Nyoak, a political science major now in her senior year, said efforts from UNL’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion and Office of Academic Success and Intercultural Services smoothed the transition to college. Staff in those areas provided cultural awareness and lifelong learning, lessons that Nyoak says she and her friends are using to give back to those around them.

UNL Chancellor Rodney Bennett, then a candidate for the chancellor’s role, meets with students. June 8, 2023. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Now, UNL Chancellor Rodney Bennett has proposed significantly cutting the budget of the two offices, and Nyoak was among more than 200 faculty, staff and students pushing back in a joint letter two weeks ago.

Bennett proposed $12 million in budget cuts Nov. 8, including $800,000 to the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and Office of Academic Success and Intercultural Services. The cuts are meant to close a budget deficit largely fueled by declining enrollment. 

The $800,000 is a cut of about 46% combined for the two.

Under the proposal, the diversity and inclusion office would be restructured from a central hub to a role primarily supporting campus-wide priorities or initiatives. DEI work would be focused in colleges, departments and units. Three filled staff positions would be eliminated in the offices.

Finding community

Nyoak said the programs changed her life for the better as students look for resources and seek out individuals who look like them. Those are the experiences that make college worthwhile, she added.

Nyarial Nyoak, a senior political science major and president of The National Pan-Hellenic Council at UNL. (Courtesy of Nyarial Nyoak)

For example, the National Pan-Hellenic Council, of which Nyoak is president, hosted a study night last week during finals. Students stayed and talked about life in general, Nyoak said, remaining on campus until 5 a.m.

The National Pan-Hellenic Council nationwide consists of the nine historically Black Greek letter organizations. Five are represented at UNL.

Through the two programs, Nyoak also connected with Charlie Foster, known by many as Miss Charlie, who, like Nyoak, is a Zeta Phi Beta sorority sister.

“Being able to have her as a resource and a mentor to talk to has made my experience so much better on campus,” Nyoak said. “To see that that experience could potentially be taken away due to the budget cuts is kind of just heartbreaking.”

Cuts ‘antithesis’ to UNL’s mission

Two weeks ago, a letter from 200 faculty, staff and students was circulated for about 24 hours by members of AFIRE — Advocating for Inclusion, Respect and Equity — in the College of Education and Human Sciences before being sent to Bennett on Dec. 7.

“Budgets are moral documents as they reflect the values of an organization,” the letter states. “Such a drastic cut to diversity and inclusion efforts within our campus is the antithesis to the mission of the university.”

Other student organization leaders, in addition to Nyoak, signed on behalf of:

  • Afrikan People’s Union.
  • Asian Student Union.
  • Define American Chapter.
  • First Generation Student Organization.
  • Mexican American Student Association.
  • oSTEM at UNL (Out in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).
  • Spectrum UNL.
  • TRANScend.

‘Do we matter?’

Crystal Garcia, an assistant professor of educational administration and co-leader of AFIRE, said she has not received a response or confirmation that their letter was received.

Crystal Garcia, an assistant professor of educational administration at UNL. (Photo courtesy of Crystal Garcia)

“It’s just been radio silence and … the uncertainty of, do we matter?” Garcia said. “Does our voice really matter? Does what we have to say matter?”

Leslie Reed, a UNL spokesperson, did not respond before publication to the question of whether the AFIRE letter was received but said she does not expect next steps on the budget until January.

She pointed to Bennett’s past comments that all those engaged with the budget process “recognize its significant effort 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 in the statement to the Nebraska Examiner.

Bennett started at UNL on July 1 and is the first person of color in the UNL chancellor role.

The University of Nebraska system still must close about $54 million of its $58 million budget shortfall projected over the next two years, on top of the $12 million ongoing at UNL.

‘Expecting the worst’

Garcia, whose research focuses on the experiences of minoritized college students, said there are significant disparities in educational attainment due to myriad identity factors, particularly race and ethnicity. She fears these gaps could increase with the proposed cuts.

Stephanie Bondi, an associate professor of practice in UNL’s Department of Educational Administration. (Photo by Maeve Hemmer | Courtesy of Stephanie Bondi)

DEI work isn’t going away, Garcia added, but work dynamics will change because of efforts to decentralize the central Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

“You’re going to be diluting those efforts, or you’re going to be expecting people to do a lot of unpaid work and add to already very stressful and overworked educators’ plates,” Garcia said.

Stephanie Bondi, an associate professor of practice in the Department of Educational Administration and AFIRE co-leader, said UNL is so large she can go a year without seeing her colleagues, so the DEI work will happen in pockets without central support.

“They threaten so many aspects of the institution as a whole,” Bondi said of the cuts, pointing to UNL’s strategic priorities, enrollment and graduation rates.

While she is thankful to graduate in May, Nyoak said, she worries about prospective students. Nyoak said she is talking about the proposals with her younger brothers.

“I hate saying expect the worst, pray for the best,” Nyoak said. “But right now, a lot of us are just expecting the worst to happen.”

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Zach Wendling
Zach Wendling

Zach rejoins the Nebraska Examiner after studying abroad in Antigua, Guatemala, following a yearlong Examiner internship. His coverage focus areas have included politics and government, health and well-being and higher education.