Turning CU Denver Into an Equity-Serving Institution

Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion, Antonio Farias. || Photo Courtesy of the University of Florida

Antonio Farias sees diversity as a starting point, not the end goal

Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion Antonio Farias has worked as a chief diversity officer (CDO) in multiple states, across a spectrum of different kinds of higher education institutions, for the past 17 years—but CU Denver, he says, “really feels like home.” Chancellor Michelle Marks appointed Farias to his role about six months ago, with the mission of turning CU Denver into an “equity-serving institution.”

Before this, Farias served as the chief diversity officer at the University of Florida, “a huge public research institution, the flagship of Florida, with about 80,000 students.” Before that, he says, “I was at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, a small, elite liberal arts college with about 3,000 students. And before that, where I started this CDO role, was at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.”

Farias grew up in the Bronx, and while Denver is nothing like the Bronx, “the sense of an urban-serving university in a major metropolitan city, and what its mission is,” drew him to CU Denver. “I grew up in the inner city, where education wasn’t a given. Public education was my pathway out of poverty and into an understanding that the world is much bigger and much more complex than what I’d been taught to think.”

CU Denver has a relatively diverse student body, with half the undergraduate population consisting of students of color. Farias was drawn to this position at CU Denver by the opportunity to help develop the college experience for first-generation students and students from marginalized backgrounds. “Right now,” he says, “we’re an HSI (Hispanic Serving Institution) because 25 percent of our students identify as Latinx. We are an AANAPISI (Asian American, Native American, Pacific Islander Serving Institution) because 10 percent of our students identify as AAPI. The majority of our students are Pell and first-generation.”

But these numbers are only a starting point—and may be more a result of CU Denver’s urban setting and the diverse demographics already present within that setting, rather than a result of efforts taken by the school to cultivate a diverse population. “We can’t just sit on our laurels and pretend that, just because we have the numbers, we are serving,” Farias says. “Just having you in the building does not mean that we’re serving you.” Instead, he says, he and his team have the responsibility to look at the actual experience and result of higher education on that diverse student population. “Let’s look at your graduation rates, let’s look at the kind of internships [or] jobs you’re getting. Let’s look at the culture: if you walk in as a Latinx student, do you feel like you belong at CU Denver?” he asks. “If the numbers show that they’re not succeeding at the same rates as all other types of students, then we’re not serving them.”

How does CU Denver become equity-serving? Farias says, “It’s less about helping students succeed than it is about removing the barriers to their success.” He describes how universities tend to think of the student as something that’s broken, which they are supposed to fix. In fact, he says the opposite is closer to the truth. The student is fine—if they are not succeeding, then it is the university which is broken. “For us to be an equity-serving institution means that, depending on who you are, we’re going to modulate in order to make you successful.”

First-generation students in particular suffer from what Farias calls an advantage gap. “There’s an ‘invisible playbook,’” he says—a body of knowledge and advice which one can only access if they know someone who has been through college. “My daughter got the invisible playbook because she grew up with two educated parents in a middle-class household,” he says. “So that’s what we call advantage. Sometimes we use the word privilege, and that gets people all tied up in a knot, but it’s an advantage. It’s not an advantage that she should feel guilty about. But the question is: how do we get that advantage to all students?”

One solution Farias emphasized was an improved mentorship program in which upperclassmen and recent alumni could pass this “invisible playbook” on to first-gen students. Ultimately, Farias would like to see this program become self-perpetuating, with students who were mentored going on to become mentors themselves. “The power of mentorship, for me, is that there’s always a sense of gratitude, and then, you have an opportunity to give back.”

Farias says there is still progress to be made in order to achieve equity; however, diversity is not simply a platitude at CU Denver. “Everything we do has an equity lens through it,” he says. He goes on to describe how last year, a CU Denver equity task force came up with a road map, had a conversation with the Chancellor, and, as a result, secured $4 million in funding for equity initiatives in multiple offices. “I see that as a down payment,” Farias says, “not as a ‘here’s a four-million-dollar check, now go away.’”

Farias says he has come into an environment that is willing to take the necessary action to achieve its equity goals. “I’ve been doing this long enough that I can smell when people are BS-ing me,” he says. “I’ve been fortunate enough to be in positions where people don’t just completely tokenize me, but at the same time, it becomes a question of your values…and how those values are manifested. It’s one thing to say them out loud, it’s another thing to [resource them].”

Although Farias occupies a leadership role as vice chancellor for equity and inclusion, he says, “It’s not me, being the chief diversity officer, telling everybody else that we should be focused on this. Everyone at the table already has that mindset.”

Though he is a leader, he does not see himself as an authority. “For me, leadership is about empowering others,” he says. Before going to community college in California, Farias joined the Army in order to take advantage of the G.I. Bill. There, he sculpted an attitude that prioritizes service. “When I walk into a room, what centers me, and what de-centers my ego, is [this question]: how may I be of service to this group and this mission? It’s not, ‘How can you do something for me,’ but, ‘How can I do something for you?’”

This collaborative spirit is built into the equity strategy. While Farias and his team have specific initiatives, such as improving the mentorship program, he believes in flexibility in order to be receptive to the needs, input, and ideas of the students, staff, and faculty. “We have a strategy, the 2030 strategy,” he says, but “I want [the community] to read it, and engage with it, and then tear it apart, so we can build it back better. Find yourself in the strategy, and if you don’t find yourself in the strategy, let us know. Be an active partner in building this.”

Farias’ office sits on the top floor of the Lawrence Street Center building, surrounded by other administrative offices—but he tries not to spend too much time there. Its symbolic position “almost sends this wrong message.” Instead, he likes to get outside, walk the campus, and meet students and staff where they learn and work. His goal is not just to meet students, but to develop relationships with them as well. From there, he plans to continue to modify his strategy based on what he learns about them—not administrator to student, but human to human.

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