Advancing diversity, equity and inclusion at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been a major priority for L&S Dean Eric Wilcotts since taking the post back in 2020 — so much so that Wilcots viewed establishing a permanent role to support inclusion initiatives as a top administrative priority after becoming dean.
On April 7, 2021, DeVon Wilson was named to spearhead those efforts for the College of Letters and Science as the Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. After formerly heading the Center for Academic Excellence as director, he currently works with the L&S senior leadership to advance the college’s goals related to diversity in recruiting and retaining students and staff.
The Daily Cardinal sat down with Wilson to discuss L&S initiatives and how they’ll affect the greater UW-Madison campus. Wilson touched on the role of the liberal arts in creating an inclusive culture, UW’s comparatively low racial diversity and commented on current trends in higher education.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Why is it important to create a diverse student body, especially in the study of liberal arts?
I think liberal arts are at the core of this institution in terms of having multiple departments exploring a number of important issues — climate, sciences, humanities — and the intersection of different disciplines. [Liberal arts] are at the core of studying how we are being impacted by the world. This is an important place for thinking about DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) because of the diversity of the departments we have, and the multiple perspectives to be able to look at these issues. Liberal arts is all about thinking how we address problems with multiple perspectives, and it is obviously an extremely important lens to look at the world through.
Regarding Black History Month, what are some of the efforts taken by the College of Letters and Science to highlight African-American history?
The Strategic Communications unit has been doing interesting profiles on students and faculty to highlight the important contributions that folks are making for our learning and intellectual enterprises. There are a number of units and departments engaged in these activities, and a lot of it is partnering with the university to reinforce activities by the Chief Diversity Officer and the Black Cultural Center.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison has often lagged behind other Big Ten schools in maintaining a diverse student body, with only around 2% of students on campus being Black and around 68% white. What is the cause of this disparity, and what are some of the steps the university is taking to change that?
One of the things that the university has done is demonstrating their commitment to developing strong pipelines for enrolling diverse students. They have partnered with the “Posse Foundation,” which is one of the leading institutions in building those relationships. We want to draw in students from across the country and set the foundation for really trying to increase the number of students necessary to diversify our university. Part of that begins with ensuring positive experiences for students, making sure that the campus and house is in order. When students arrive at UW-Madison and have great experiences, they activate their networks and let people know that Wisconsin is a destination university.
There is also an intersection between making the campus racially diverse, as well as economically diverse. Make this place affordable. Make sure the Wisconsin Experience is a reality for all students. By working from the inside out, we are able to increase the number of students deciding Wisconsin is the right place for them.
Improving Diversity, Equity and Inclusion of a University is a very broad goal, are there measurable or quantifiable markers that you are looking at to change or improve?
Diversity is about having a broad representation of peoples. Among the staff, we ask, ‘What do we think about the Wisconsin Experience?’ ‘What does it mean to be a member of this campus?’ We look at Climate Studies, find out what people are saying, how we can improve for students with a broad set of identities. We seek to be very aggressive in trying to grow and reflect what we see with our peer institutions. We work hard to reflect peers to measure progress and use what we see with them as benchmarks to see how far we are moving along in our efforts.
How is the College of L&S amplifying efforts to recruit and best support first generation students and those from economically disadvantaged communities?
One of the things we really try to pay attention to is advising. This is one area where we have spent significant resources. Over the past ten years, we have done a lot of work in our advising community for them to understand the various backgrounds people have and inform faculty and staff about the people coming into the university. We look for our faculty to share what is happening in terms of midterm reports, how to jump in and engage to support students. We focus on how we are structuring our coursework and the impacts we are having.
The key is to have really good support systems early on. It is critical in the first 54 credits that students get their legs on. Through summer bridge programs, like the Summer Collegiate Experience, we can get students to get credit and connected to early on. Programs and steps like these are critical for those students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
What is something you have learned during conversations with UW students regarding DEI?
What is so great is that students come into Wisconsin, place a priority on it and have an expectation that we as a university deliver on our promise. It has been a joy to engage with students. Many of our students come with their own training and understanding, and they’ve engaged with these subjects and issues in high school. It is very unique that students come in with expertise, which our faculty and staff must try to meet. We try to activate our students as partners to advance goals, and they are generally very clear on how they want their learning environment.
Students are a very important partnership. In listening sessions with undergraduates and graduate students, we look to gather feedback. They are often very explicit on ways to enhance their learning environments to be more equitable. Another part of the process is to help students understand some of the challenges we have as a university, and get their feedback on structural barriers. I have always found students to be great resources. To truly have a Wisconsin Experience, it needs to be equitable and work for all of our students.
A number of universities in recent years have moved to test-optional admissions, including UW-Madison to some extent, due to the historical disparities seen between marginalized groups. Can you discuss the impact of these policies on diversity on college campuses?
A number of institutions have discontinued test scores or gone test-optional. What we at Wisconsin have tried to do is lean on a holistic review process. All of our students bring assets. We want to find a way, through admissions, to create a dynamic learning environment that will benefit all students. We want to find students looking for us and find ways to support them when they get here. We look at what students will add to this environment.
Using holistic reviews, we partner with our colleagues in Admissions to find impactful, bright and engaging students. One of the great things about Wisconsin is the applicant pool. They are dynamic, from all types of backgrounds. These are the kinds of things you find when you look beyond test scores. Test scores might indicate early success, but longer-term success is related to dynamic, interesting students from all types of backgrounds. Our colleagues in Admissions and others have been great in the question of how we can get the right students here and then try to ensure they have a positive impact on the environment.