CU Colorado Springs’ diversity chief says she was forced out, blasts “toxic workplace environment”

Andrea Herrera alleges she was pushed out of her job as chief diversity officer for the University of Colorado’s Colorado Springs campus last month after facing “openly hostile and intimidating treatment” from Chancellor Venkat Reddy.

Herrera, who made the charge in a letter to faculty, had served as associate vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion since 2018, and remains a professor in the Women’s and Ethnic Studies Program.

“This treatment has been both subtle and overt, created an increasingly toxic workplace environment, and caused me undue anxiety and duress,” Herrera wrote to faculty last week. “My greatest concern… is that what I have consistently experienced over a three-year period points to a pattern of behavior that ultimately negatively impacts our workplace environment and campus climate. This is consistent with larger patterns respecting the experiences of women and/or people of color in academia.”

Chris Valentine, assistant vice chancellor of marketing and communications at UCCS, declined to make Reddy available for an interview Monday, saying the issue was a personnel matter that can’t be discussed publicly.

“UCCS is committed to fostering a community of learning, engagement and inclusive belonging to nurture the growth and success of our faculty, staff and students,” Valentine wrote in a statement to The Denver Post. “We aspire to strengthen equity, diversity and inclusion as integral components of academic excellence in preparing students for success in a culturally, ethnically and racially diverse global society.”

In an email to the UCCS campus last week, Reddy announced Herrera would return to her faculty position effective Nov. 1.

“I am grateful for Andrea’s years of dedicated service in this critical role for our campus,” Reddy wrote.

Herrera joined UCCS in 1999, first as a professor and later as interim vice chancellor of academic diversity and development, as well as interim co-director and then director of the Women’s and Ethnic Studies Program.

Stephany Rose Spaulding, a UCCS associate professor and director of Women’s and Ethnic Studies, will assume the role of diversity chief until the completion of a national search beginning in spring 2021.

In Herrera’s nine-page letter to faculty members involved in the university’s diversity and inclusion work, she said her interactions with Reddy from the start of her time as the chief diversity officer were “neither healthy, nor functional.”

“Women of color are told you’re not focused, you don’t understand your role, disappointment is expressed about your outcomes and when you look — I am the only person in my office. I didn’t have staff support for 13 months,” Herrera said in an interview. “This is a bigger story about whether universities are really committed to diversity or if it’s just superficial lip service. Literally look at your faculty on campus. How diverse are we?”

According to 2019 data, 73% of UCCS’s faculty and staff were white, 9% were Hispanic/Latino and about 4% were Black.

Herrera said tensions surrounding her job escalated to a point where she sought a professional mediator in May 2019. The mediator concluded that Reddy and Herrera should no longer have direct interactions and that UCCS Provost Thomas Christensen should report Herrera’s activities to Reddy, Herrera wrote.

The mediator also encouraged UCCS to conduct a third-party external review of equity, diversity and inclusion, which Herrera said was agreed upon but never honored.

In May, Herrera said she was told she would report directly to Reddy again.

“At that time, the Provost told me that I would ‘not survive the Chancellor’ — a warning he had expressed in various ways throughout my tenure… Over the years, this ominous warning and seemingly impending outcome has caused me to fear for my position,” Herrera wrote.

During an Oct. 9 meeting of the Faculty Diversity Assembly, Herrera said she shared her concerns about Reddy, noting she feared losing her job. Shortly after the meeting, Herrera said Reddy contacted her to say a faculty member shared Herrera’s statements with him, prompting him to reprimand Herrera. Herrera said Reddy told her they didn’t agree on job expectations for the role of chief diversity officer.

Since taking the job, Herrera said she created a diversity and inclusion strategic plan with measurable goals and outcomes, established a faculty diversity assembly with representatives from all UCCS colleges and schools, established a student diversity assembly, adapted a white anti-racism course and created and administrated four diversity scholarshipss.

On Oct. 22, Herrera said she was called to a meeting with Reddy, Christiansen and a human resources director, at which point she was told she could sign a resignation and release-of-claims settlement and receive a “lump sum” payment or simply resign her position.

Otherwise, Herrera said she would be terminated from the vice chancellor position on Oct. 31 and return to a faculty position the following day. Herrera rejected the two options and was removed as chief diversity officer.

“My decision to reject the first option was partly informed by the belief, on the one hand, that women and underrepresented and/or minoritized peoples have been historically silenced from time immemorial; and on the other hand, in response to a larger pattern of disregard for genuine commitment to equity, diversity and inclusive excellence,” Herrera said. “My rejection of the second option was prompted by the fact that I did not willingly or voluntarily resign my position.”

The University of Colorado has been criticized for its diversity management for years, from its delayed hire of a systemwide diversity officer to consternation on individual campuses as students claim administrators leave their concerns unheard.

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