University of Iowa survey finds division on value of campus diversity work

Nearly one-third report 'too much emphasis put on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion'

The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top l
The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top left), Jessup Hall (bottom left), Schaeffer Hall (top right), and MacLean Hall (bottom right) in an aerial photograph. (The Gazette/file photo)

IOWA CITY — A University of Iowa survey released Monday exposes campus divisions — perhaps mirroring rifts nationally — with some minority employees reporting bias and intimidation while others express concerns the UI talks too much about diversity issues.

“While 86 percent of respondents reported that the University of Iowa has a strong commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, 31 percent of respondents reported that there is too much emphasis put on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion,” according to the 2020 Campus Climate Survey.

The survey was distributed in September and October to 19,339 faculty, staff and postdoctoral scholars. About 38 percent of those — or about 7,412 — replied, with the highest responding group being professional and scientific staff at 4,013 or 53 percent; followed by faculty at 1,212 or 41 percent, and then smaller groups.

The survey comes two years after the UI last polled it employees about diversity issues — and after years of diversity-related staff turnover, including atop the campus’ diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

It also follows a summer of racial reckoning nationally and locally, with protesters converging on the UI campus following George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police. Those protests prompted both Iowa City and UI officials to vow changes in their diversity efforts and actions — plans the UI updated Monday with its release of the survey findings, including mandating more training, creating new diversity assignments and designating a half-million dollars for diversity, equity and inclusion work.

“These are significant challenges, not just at Iowa, but across the country,” according to Liz Tovar, interim UI associate vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion. “The solutions for these issues require listening, followed by action. It takes time, and Iowa is approaching these issues to develop long-lasting culture change rather than short-term responses.”

Although campus survey data released two years ago included both employees and students, the 2020 edition didn’t involve UI undergraduate, graduate or professional students. The campus will administer a “Student Experience in the Research University” survey this spring, according to its Office of Strategic Communication.


That office, citing results from its 2020 questionnaire, reported about 80 percent of all respondents feel valued at the UI. That overall number fell to 71 percent for multiracial individuals, 78 percent for those identifying as underrepresented minorities and 77 percent of those identifying as Latinx employees.

Some of the largest disparities were among gender groups — with 69 percent of transgender or non-conforming employees feeling valued, compared with 81 percent of men and 82 percent of women.

Regarding the UI campus experience, about half of the multiracial respondents reported bias, intimidation or hostile treatment, as did transgender or non-conforming workers. About 30 percent of Asian employees said they’ve experienced bias; about 21 percent of LGBQ respondents have; and about a quarter of underrepresented minorities and also white workers reported as much.

When looking at political divides among respondents, more than 30 percent of liberal respondents reported bias, intimidation, or hostile treatment compared with 13 percent of conservatives and 9 percent of moderates.

Political divides also proved substantial in answers to a question of whether UI puts “too much emphasis” on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Overall, about 69 percent either somewhat or strongly disagreed with that. Faculty, minorities, LGBQ and liberal employees recorded the highest rates of disagreement at nearly 80 percent or above. Sectors more likely to agree that the UI stresses the issue too much include conservatives (61 percent); Asians (43 percent; those over 60 (350 percent; and men (32 percent).

Similarly, while a quarter of all respondents thought the UI’s focus on diversity, equity and inclusion “distracts us from achieving our academic mission,” that percentage jumped to nearly half among just those who identify as conservatives.

The survey included a portion for “open text” comments, and about 39 percent of respondents provided thoughts.


“There were 461 comments that indicated that there is not consensus within the UI community about the value, role, or even the effectiveness of diversity, equity, and inclusion work,” according to the survey results.

Examples given of such comments included:

“Stop talking about it all the time, stop bringing it up constantly,” and, “Too much emphasis is put on these things. Especially when Iowans are extremely welcoming and inclusive already.”

There were several comments that “flatten or minimize the experience of marginalized groups, including: all lives matter; we are all equal; and no one should be treated differently,” according to a report on the UI survey.

Responding to those comments, authors of the report indicated, “Although possibly rooted in an effort toward equality, the coded language indicates a desire for a placated environment in which individuals do not have to engage with instances of personal discomfort or challenge. ... Often, these phrases are used to cover, erase, or distract from contradictory stories of discrimination and harm from marginalized people.”

Tovar, while speaking with reporters Monday, said that diversity of opinion holds — at least in part — some of the challenge on campus.

“We need to respect people for where they are,” she said, “but also figuring out, how do we have conversations around DEI even with individuals who don’t necessarily want to embrace DEI?”

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