The Cruel Dismantling of the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the University of Arkansas

The University of Arkansas Agriculture Building. Photograph Source: Brandonrush – Public Domain

In an email message sent on Tuesday, June 13, Dr. Charles Robinson (Chancellor at the University of Arkansas flagship campus in Fayetteville, Arkansas) announced that staff and resources from the campus Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) would be reallocated to other campus offices beginning this fall. I’m posting a link to the message Chancellor Robinson sent the campus so you can read his words.

Robinson sent his message two weeks before the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) decided, by a 6-3 vote, that the admission policies at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina (UNC) are racially discriminatory because both schools include racial identity among the factors considered in determining who to admit. The SCOTUS decisions in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard University and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina affect every institution of higher education in the United States that receives federal funding.

Some people may consider the decision by Chancellor Robinson to dismantle – and make no mistake, this is what he decided to do – the DEI division at the University of Arkansas as a smart move in light of the SCOTUS rulings about the Harvard and UNC programs. They might hail Chancellor Robinson’s decision and announcement as an example of visionary leadership.

I do not suffer from that delusion.

I earned a degree in political science (Bachelor of Arts, 1973) and a law degree (Juris Doctor, 1979) from the University of Arkansas. Between 1973 and 1976, I was an officer in the United States Army. In 1975, I graduated from the Defense Race Relations Institute (then it was known by the acronym DRRI) which is now the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute (DEOMI). Here is a link to an article that summarizes the history, mission, and work done by the more than 50,000 DRRI/DEOMI graduates.

One of the equal opportunity management principles I learned at DRRI is that organizational goals are achieved when leaders are held accountable for achieving them, and suffer consequences for not doing so. That is why the US Department of Defense (DOD) mandated race relations equal opportunity training for all personnel in 1971. That is why race relations/equal opportunity management was considered integral to unit readiness, harmony, and effectiveness. That is why proficiency in race relations/equal opportunity management is evaluated in reaching personnel evaluations and promotion decisions.

Before my honorable discharge, I was awarded the Army Commendation Medal “for meritorious service” as head of the Race Relations/Equal Opportunity (RR/EO) office of the 43d General Support Group at Fort Carson, Colorado. Let me put it bluntly. I studied, was credentialed, and excelled at what is now called DEI more than two decades before Chancellor Robinson got his first job in higher education (in 1999 as an assistant history professor) and long before his service began as vice provost for diversity at the University of Arkansas). Beyond that, I taught constitutional law (as a visiting professor at the Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock), and served as an Arkansas jurist for twenty-five (25) years, including thirteen (13) years on the Arkansas Court of Appeals.

Based on that knowledge and experience, I know that Robinson’s decision to dismantle the DEI Division at the University of Arkansas was not visionary, necessary, or prescient. The SCOTUS decisions about the admission programs at Harvard and UNC do not mention DEI initiatives at either institution, or elsewhere. The decisions addressed the admission policies and procedures at Harvard and UNC, nothing else.

The DEI Division at the University of Arkansas did not establish or administer student admission policies. DEI staff provided training, technical assistance, and held events to help UA faculty, students, and staff function effectively in an inclusive and equitable academic community.

In a letter dated April 6, 1998, which I hand-delivered to former UA Chancellor John White after he became UA Chancellor, I wrote:


“… the Alumni Association urged the administration to establish goals and objectives for recruiting Black faculty. I have no information suggesting that they exist. Absent information to the contrary that demonstrates serious effort and the will to make changes, I find it hard to believe that the University has a genuine commitment to recruiting, retaining, and promoting Black faculty.”


Twenty-five years later, Robinson disbanded the division that was responsible for monitoring the performance of UA departments and their leaders concerning issues of faculty, staff, and student diversity, equity, and inclusion. Robinson disbanded the DEI division knowing that the Arkansas legislature did not enact a measure that would have abolished affirmative action and equity and inclusion reporting and staff in governmental offices and education institutions (Senate Bill 71 proposed by Senator Dan Sullivan of Jonesboro).

Thanks to Robinson’s unwarranted action, UA faculty, students, staff, and other scholars are unable to learn about that important work. One no longer finds any information about how to access DEI resources or staff when accessing the UA website.

Robinson knew when he shuttered the DEI division that no court outlawed DEI offices or efforts. No other law banned them. His decision to “reallocate” DEI staff and resources to other offices did not cite any data or report showing that DEI efforts have been ineffective, that they distract from academic performance, or that they duplicate human resource, student success, or other administrative support functions. Because he once held the title of vice provost for diversity at the University of Arkansas, Robinson knows that DEI is different from Human Resources, Student Success, University Advancement, and the Office of Equal Opportunity Compliance.

The bitter truth is that Robinson betrayed DEI personnel, UA faculty, staff personnel, and students. He was not, from outward appearances at least, pressured to do so. Even had he been so pressured by UA Systems president Donald Bobbitt, UA Trustees, or Arkansas politicians (including Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders), Robinson could have refused to acquiesce to those pressures.

For these and other reasons, Robinson’s action is more than disappointing and wrong-headed. Almost two months have passed since Robinson announced he was disbanding the DEI division and scattering its staff and resources to other UA offices (Human Resources, Student Success, Student Affairs, the Office of Equal Opportunity Compliance, and University Advancement). A new academic year begins in days. As of this date, Robinson’s June 13 assertion that he would “share more about the specifics of this restructuring, including where to find information and key contacts” is not merely hollow. It is hypocritical.

In February 1948, Dean Robert A. Leflar of the UA School of Law made history by admitting Silas Hunt, a Black World War II veteran, as the first Black student since Reconstruction to be admitted to the flagship land grant university in Arkansas, and made the University of Arkansas the first all-white higher education institution below the Mason-Dixon line to admit Black students without the threat of litigation. Dean Leflar chose to make good history. Unlike Leflar, Robinson chose to make grievous history.

From my perspective, Robinson chose to disband the UA DEI effort after he personally and professionally got as much benefit as he could gain from it. Robinson is not merely a hypocrite for disbanding the very DEI bridge he crossed to attain his high position. His hypocrisy is a cruel blow to current and prospective students, faculty, and administrators. Considering what Robinson has done – coupled with the failure of UA Systems president Bobbitt and UA Trustees to refute or criticize it – current and prospective students, faculty, and administrators have no reason to trust UA statements about diversity, inclusion, and equity.

Nor should anyone else.

Wendell Griffen is an Arkansas circuit judge and pastor of New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Ark.