The press release was innocuous enough, on its face, like so many others sent by the university about comings and goings within the administration. However, as is probably true with many other resignations, there is a story behind this one that goes beyond the glib PR explanation that a vice chancellor will step down June 30 “for personal and family reasons.”
Sources say that the University of Colorado at Boulder’s diversity chief, Sallye McKee, had a tenure of nearly three years that was marked by controversy as well as formal complaints filed against her with CU’s Office of Discrimination and Harassment.
They describe situations in which McKee allegedly made questionable hiring decisions and inappropriate comments based on race and religion.
Others say the complaints have arisen simply because disgruntled, entrenched employees didn’t like that McKee made changes.
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Diversity, in a university environment, is a big deal. And it’s not just about the number of ethnic minorities anymore. Among other things, it’s about the number of women, ensuring access for the disabled and creating a welcoming environment for homosexuals. And, in recent years, it has sometimes meant “intellectual diversity,” which has been construed as code for finding more conservative faculty to offset the liberal majority, and ensuring that left-leaning professors aren’t attempting to inculcate impressionable college students with their “socialist” or “anti-American” ideas. (But that’s another story. See “Ward Churchill.”) Diversity initiatives can open doors to groups of people that haven’t traditionally had access to public higher education, and they can break down the perceived walls around the “ivory tower.” Diversity can enhance students’ critical thinking skills and learning environment, exposing them to other cultures and opening their minds, so that they are prepared to step out into the world and compete in a global economy, among other things. Back when CU had bona fide academics as presidents, diversity made a regular appearance among the goals in their strategic plans. For example, in 2001, boosting diversity was one of the five goals that former President Betsy Hoffman outlined in her plan, “Vision 2010.”
Well, it’s 2010, and over the past decade, the percentage of students of color has increased by only about 1.5 percent, to 14.4 percent of the student body. Meanwhile, in 2007, the proportion of underrepresented minority high school graduates in Colorado was about 25 percent, according to the report “The Status of Minorities and Women in Colorado’s Higher Education Institutions” by Lauren Sanz.
The goal, say diversity officials, is to achieve a percentage of minorities on campus that reflects the proportions in the state.
But CU-Boulder faces many challenges, including what is known as the “pipeline” problem: There are a limited number of minority students who graduate from high school in Colorado and meet the campus’s relatively high admissions standards.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” McKee is fond of saying when asked about the slow progress of diversity efforts.
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Perhaps in an effort to accelerate that pace, McKee was hired in August 2007 by former CU-Boulder Chancellor Bud Peterson, about a year after Peterson had taken the helm of the campus. He had just elevated the title — and pay — of the diversity chief to that of a cabinet position: vice chancellor for diversity, equity and community engagement. McKee, who had worked at CU as director of the Minority Arts and Sciences Program from 1993 to 1996, was brought in at an annual salary of $160,000. During the interim, she had held executive-level positions at Bowling Green State University, the University of Denver, the University of Minnesota, East Carolina University (where she resigned because her husband was not given a job there, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education) and Metropolitan State College of Denver.
The hiring itself was controversial, not just because some preferred another of the three announced semifinalists, but because the incumbent, Christine Yoshinaga-Itano, was not encouraged to apply for the job. In April 2007, the Pan Asian Faculty and Staff Association wrote a letter to former Provost (and now Chancellor) Phil DiStefano decrying the decision to disregard Yoshinaga-Itano and questioning why the new position wouldn’t continue to be held by a faculty member with a Ph.D.
Yoshinaga-Itano, a professor of speech, language and hearing sciences, told Boulder Weekly that while she was not encouraged to apply, she did so anyway, at the behest of the search committee. “But I told them it wouldn’t make a difference, because [DiStefano and Peterson] didn’t want me,” she says. “The recommendations from the search committee are only as good as the people who receive those recommendations. … You give the impression that you are including people, but you already know what you’re going to do, so you do it. You try to ensure equity. But equity can only be assured by the people who make the decisions.”
She says she doesn’t know why Peterson was leaning toward McKee, “but it was loaded in a particular direction. … The truth is, it was badly done because they didn’t follow the process.”
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Carmen Williams, who recently stepped down as assistant vice president for diversity for the entire CU system, says that after McKee arrived, she did a lot of restructuring to streamline reporting lines and measure effectiveness. While some of her personnel moves were controversial, Williams says, McKee is all about proving whether methods are effective — and if they’re not, getting rid of them.
Williams says McKee helped shepherd some postive trends related to the retention of students of color.
“Her only agenda is the well-being of the students,” she says. “I think she’s great for that campus, and has not always gotten the support she deserves.”
Recruitment, on the other hand, is always a challenge, Williams says, especially among African-American and Latino students, because they often get more financial aid at other institutions. She explains that CU has seemed to struggle in two key areas when it comes to boosting diversity and, in a university system starved for state funding, they boil down to resources: financial aid and outreach.
Indeed, in some ways, it is about the money. Higher education institutions may not legally give scholarships based solely on race or ethnicity. But donations can be earmarked for first-generation students, for instance, or for those who are interested in minority studies.
In other decisions, like student admissions, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the ruling that race can be used as one — but not the only — factor. In other words, if two students, one black and one white, are equal in virtually every other way when it comes to admissions standards, like grade-point averages and standardized test scores, the university can accept the black student over the white student. The justification, according to Supreme Court justices, is that that equitable access to education among all races has not yet been reached, that affirmative action is still needed, and that the faculty have determined that diversity is crucial to the learning environment, a decision that is subject to the protections of academic freedom.
And yet, CU attorneys determined more than a decade ago — much to student activists’ chagrin — that the university may not set numerical goals for the percentage of minority students it plans to enroll each year.
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Granted, McKee has faced an uphill battle. But some sources who wish to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation say many of her actions crossed a line and were controversial, if not inappropriate.
Certain departments were relocated to report to McKee, which some say was an effort to justify the new vice chancellor title. Others say that organizationally it made sense to move the precollegiate program office, disability services and the Center for Multicultural Affairs (CMA) under the diversity office, especially since the last two came from the student affairs division, which some say was too large and unwieldy.
The former vice chancellor of student affairs, Ron Stump, says he doesn’t think the division was too big.
“Any time you’ve got change like that, people are disappointed because they felt like they’ve built up a program and have done good work,” Stump says. “From an organizational perspective, it made sense, but in student affairs it was more about we were losing colleagues and had been invested in those areas, and something was being lost. To lose them was a disappointment. … We thought it was something special and people were working well together.”
Stump subsequently left to become director of the alumni association. Other administrators, including the former dean of students and the CMA director, also left the university, although neither returned calls from Boulder Weekly. Still other current and former CU employees — even those unaffected by the changes — simply declined to discuss the situation unless they were guaranteed anonymity.
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The changes that McKee made in the CMA were especially striking. She hired Polly McLean, a CU journalism professor, to conduct an evaluation of the department, claiming that such a review had not been done in the center’s 40-year history. McLean conducted an analysis and prepared a new strategic plan for the center that called for a host of changes, including shifting away from the center’s counseling approach toward an academic model, and ensuring that all new hires have master’s degrees. Several employees had already left the CMA, and the plan recommended that all vacancies be filled with “professional-exempt” staff — in other words, at-will employees who do not have the same rights, pay scales and job protections of the state’s “classified” employees, and are therefore more “flexible,” but who can also be more susceptible to political pressures.
Asked to explain that move, McKee told Boulder Weekly that CU’s peer universities are moving away from classified systems, and that classified employees need to be paid overtime. She said that when an office has a small budget, professional-exempt staff provide more flexibility because they can be kept on salary and work whatever number of hours per week is necessary to get the job done.
But CU Human Resources Executive Director Candice Bowen says that overtime eligibility is not determined by whether a position is exempt or classified; it is determined by guidelines under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
McKee’s own office budget, not including the departments that report to her, has ranged from $682,393 in 2007 to $420,187 this year, including her current annual salary of $167,680, according to documents obtained in an open-records request.
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The last two pages of McLean's strategic plan for the CMA are devoted to a discussion of how to deal with employee resistance to the changes.
“Some may never adjust,” McLean wrote. “In one organizational change effort on Capitol Hill in Washington that I was involved with, I found that staff would be a detriment to the change process and would sabotage it at every effort, therefore I recommended the termination of 18 staff members. I say this to point out that real organizational change does not occur without people choosing to leave or being terminated.”
According to the documents obtained through the open-records request, three positions under the diversity office were converted from classified to exempt status. And of the 16 hires that have been made under McKee since November 2007, all but one were done without a search. (Search waivers — forms authorizing the elimination of a search — were obtained from the human resources office for each one.)
CU-Boulder spokesperson Bronson Hilliard says the searches were waived because there were internal candidates who were qualified, and that then-CU President Hank Brown’s guidance was to conduct internal searches first.
“Sallye saw a lot of talented people and took advantage of it,” he says.
Still, sources say the CMA may be moved out of the diversity office and back into the student affairs division. DiStefano told Boulder Weekly that he intends to name an internal candidate as interim vice chancellor for diversity, and that he will ask that person to evaluate the organizational structure in the coming months.
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McKee makes a good first impression. She has a bright smile, she is warm and friendly, and she hugs at the drop of a hat.
In an interview with Boulder Weekly, in which she was joined by seven members of her leadership team and Hilliard, McKee discusses all of the great work her office is doing. And it is great work. The list of diversity programs is long, and those based in individual units, schools and colleges seem especially effective. Many can be traced to the late Ofelia Miramontes, who was the director of the diversity office before she succumbed to breast cancer in July 2005.
McKee says she patterned many of her initiatives after Miramontes’ 1999 “Blueprint for Action” and Peterson’s “Flagship 2030” strategic plan.
Diversity officials outlined their efforts during the group interview, noting that when a donor wants to target a gift too narrowly, only to people of color or those with disabilities, for example, they work with the donor to broaden the terms of the gift so that the money targets the intended student group without breaking the law.
McKee stresses that one of her priorities has been inclusion, and that the CMA previously tended to pair student clients with someone of their same ethnicity. (It’s a claim that CMA supporters deny.) McKee says someone of any ethnicity should be able to serve any client.
“We see difference as a competitive edge instead of a wedge,” McKee says.
But when the conversation turns to the controversial changes she made in the CMA, McKee ends the meeting before its scheduled conclusion.
She says the analyses and reports that McLean made prior to the final version of the strategic plan are no longer available and therefore weren’t produced in the open-records request.
Requests for a follow-up phone interview have been declined.
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One former employee in the CMA, Frances Muñoz, says her employment was terminated illegally. She says her boss notified her that her job was being abolished. But then someone from human resources contacted her to inform her that she had been improperly terminated. She was told that she could go back to work, talk to her attorney, or resign, and she says she was encouraged to resign. If she didn’t choose one of those three options, Muñoz says she was told, her record would reflect that she had abandoned her job.
“I had been a loyal and dedicated employee for 15 years,” she recalls. “I decided to go back and show them that they couldn’t push me around.”
After calling her supervisor repeatedly about resuming work, Muñoz says she heard no response, “and I got tired of waiting, so I just showed up.”
They assigned her another job. “It was just crappy stuff they didn’t want to do,” she says. “They were doing everything they could to make it uncomfortable.”
Muñoz adds that McKee “just wanted to get everyone out of that department. She was retaliating against those who showed support for [the former director].”
“Sallye’s going to get rid of anyone who’s not a ‘yes’ person,” Muñoz says.
Yoshinaga-Itano, the former diversity chief, declines to comment on McKee specifically. But she says that “there are no diverse opinions. Everyone’s singing the same song. I guess they think things run smoother that way. But no one has the energy to fight the administration, because they hurt you too badly.
“It’s easier to take the path of least resistance.”
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Individuals who reportedly filed complaints against McKee with the CU Office of Discrimination and Harassment (ODH) did not return calls from Boulder Weekly. Bowen, the HR director who oversees that office, said reports on such complaints — and the ensuing investigations — are confidential and only submitted to the accuser, the accused and their supervisors.
Boulder Weekly asked McKee about the ODH complaints earlier this spring. “In accordance with ODH practices in responding to inquiries such as this, I can neither confirm nor deny whether there have been complaints,” she replied via e-mail.
She denies running out any employees. And when asked whether she gave preference to African- Americans in hiring decisions, McKee, who is African-American, replied, “Hiring decisions are made based on the person’s qualifications for the positions. I have had no hiring or employment preference for African-Americans. I have made 14 hires that reflect a range of ethnicities and backgrounds.”
Her last day is June 30, according to the news release.
“I want to thank Dr. McKee for her service to CU-Boulder,” Chancellor DiStefano said in the release. “As CU’s first vice chancellor for diversity, equity and community engagement, she has strengthened the university’s ties to diverse communities in Denver and throughout Colorado, and positioned us to make more progress on diversity issues involving students, faculty and staff.”
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Regardless of the reasons for McKee’s departure, some say it marks a step backwards — or at least sideways — for campus diversity efforts.
Yoshinaga-Itano, the former diversity chief who was passed over for the new vice chancellor job, told Boulder Weekly that the same pattern just keeps repeating.
“It’s not just this, it’s endemic to the university,” she says, explaining that in most cases, new administrators hired at CU are well-intentioned, but they seem to have no appreciation for the work that has preceded their arrival.
“It overlooks an amazing amount of effort by people who have poured their whole lives and careers into making things better,” Yoshinaga-Itano says. “What’s saddest to me is a history of people committed to diversity, and new people come in and disregard their opinions, work and programs that are already here and that have come about because of people’s blood, sweat and tears.
“When you don’t value the work of people who have been here a long time, it’s a mistake,” she says. “If you prioritize one group over another, you disenfranchise one group; you create conflict. It’s like a broken record, and people who have been here a long time are pretty cynical.”
Diversity efforts begin to make progress, according to Yoshinaga- Itano, and “then the rug gets pulled out, and it’s 20 years ago. And then you ask those people to invest themselves once again. They see no acknowledgement, and the administration keeps changing. It’s always a different group of people.
“When these people left, they did not have a good feeling for this place,” she says of those who left because of McKee and the reorganizations. “They were not treated well, considering the amount of work they put in. I think that’s what makes me saddest. They put their heart and soul into making CU a better place.
“Lots of friends are gone,” Yoshinaga-Itano concludes. “If we had just kept the people we hired, we’d be a very diverse place.”