This summer, the UCI community welcomed Dyonne Bergeron as its new chief diversity officer and vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion. In these positions, she oversees the Office of Inclusive Excellence and plays a key role in university leadership as UCI’s senior executive responsible for providing a holistic and integrated vision of all major diversity, equity and inclusion endeavors on campus and at UCI Health. In short, Bergeron will lead and coordinate university efforts to advance its institutional DEI initiatives in collaboration with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community partners.
This is no small task, and Bergeron is well prepared for it. The New Orleans native and first-generation college student has held top DEI positions at the University of Colorado and several leadership roles at Florida Gulf Coast University, the University of South Florida, the University of Georgia and Louisiana State University.
With the 2023-24 academic year ready to start, Bergeron spoke with Tom Vasich of Strategic Communications & Public Affairs about UCI’s unique environment of diversity, equity and inclusion, along with the challenges and opportunities ahead for UCI and higher education.
What interested you in the positions at UCI?
So many things. In reviewing different departments around campus, I saw an intentional purpose in serving the community and helping shape the leaders of tomorrow. So that was very exciting for me. And in conjunction with that, seeing UCI as a hub of innovation and as one of the most diverse campuses in the UC system. UCI has been able to serve so many first-gen students and employ so many first-gen faculty and staff as well – there’s a proud history of that at this institution. All of these align with my values and the spirit of uplifting humanity. That’s what excites me about this position, and hopefully I can continue to help to advance the mission of inclusive excellence on this campus.
What experiences do you have from other institutions that you believe have prepared you for this role at UCI?
UCI is very different, because it’s the first school I’ve worked at that has such a high population of successful first-gen students, and it’s the first to have Hispanic-Serving Institution and Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution status. It’s a good environment to innovate and to provide some experiential learning opportunities to help other people understand what inclusive excellence really is.
Some of the issues I’ve dealt with at other institutions – when there were protests, when there were demands that were identity-based – most of the time, I’ve had to deal directly with those situations. I look forward to collaborating with the UCI family that consists of talented people who are immersed in these topics and who really understand the issues at hand. And where we’re centered in the world is quite different too. California is very diverse, which provides nuances for individuals to have experiential opportunities to understand others who don’t look like them. That’s a very exciting environment to be in.
What are your objectives with the Office of Inclusive Excellence? What can we look forward to?
First, I want to give so much honor to my predecessor, Doug Haynes, who started this office and oversaw it for its first five years. OIE has rich tools to help move the campus forward with the mission of inclusive excellence, and I’m excited about what we can do in this office. But first I need to address some important questions: How do we identify the mission-driven imperative of the university? With our commitment to inclusive excellence, what infrastructure do we have? Because right now we have so many resources, but are they aligned with accountability metrics? Are they aligned with a strategic plan? Are they aligned with a comprehensive climate survey? And how does one area impact the other as far as students, staff and faculty? Understanding this is how we move the mission of inclusive excellence forward.
So, in short, I’m analyzing all of this and putting a strategic plan together so we can provide evidence-based information as to how we can achieve the goal of inclusive excellence and what that means. That’s my goal in Year 1: to provide an infrastructure that will sustain and nurture our inclusive excellence efforts.
Can you tell us about the benefits of having a robust DEI commitment at a university?
One benefit is ensuring that we continue to make a local and global impact by cultivating equity-minded leaders. That’s very important. But to do that, you have to have a diverse set of individuals at the institution – faculty, staff and students – and provide opportunities for them to work together. The research shows that a diverse team is a more dynamic, more innovative team.
Another reason is to make sure that we are nurturing the lives of all people. We have to first give them the opportunity to be successful, to understand themselves and to feel like they belong at a university so they can go out into the world and be proud of their identity and confident in who they are. Because it’s not just about your ethnicity, socioeconomic status, political affiliation, etc. It’s about where you’re from and all the ideas that you can bring to enact change.
So it’s very important for the university to have a diverse, robust commitment, because if we’re not looking at all facets of the person – their ability to thrive in a diverse community – then we’re back to being a monolithic community where we’re not valuing the lives of others and not allowing individuals to achieve the greatness that’s in them.
With the Supreme Court overturning affirmative action, I’m interested in your thoughts, especially now, since you work in California, where the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996 banned affirmative action practices for college admissions.
I believe in affirmative action, and I think the Supreme Court got it wrong. I think there are so many systemic barriers existing in higher education that impede any type of progress for individuals who traditionally don’t have access. If you’re not reaching out to communities to give access because there are barriers in place, that’s a problem. I believe that there needs to be more understanding as to why race-based admissions is a significant factor in providing access to academia in several regions of the country where systemic barriers are deeply entrenched within those systems. Many people don’t have the same opportunities and the same information or guidance and career counselors to help them be prepared for the world of work when it comes to higher education.
I really do respect how universities in the UC system have navigated Prop. 209. They were very thoughtful, because thinking about student accessibility and life experiences should be a part of the application process, not just focusing on GPAs. Let students talk about their resilience and their different experiences that will help them be successful in college. Maybe the high schools they attended did not provide the types of resources and opportunities that are available at private schools or to those with more means.
UC schools in general make an effort to reach these disadvantaged communities – looking not just at race but at all the many predictors of success and other issues that may not be considered the norm for individuals who want to attend college.
What are you enjoying about UCI and Orange County so far?
Overall, I am falling madly in love with the UCI community. There are so many good-natured individuals who want to move inclusive excellence forward to provide an environment for all individuals to achieve their greatness and live out their dreams. This goal aligns with my purpose in higher education.
I’m trying my best to get out into Orange County. I’ve been doing my homework on UCI to make sure I have a good understanding of the cultural climate of the surrounding communities, and so far, I’ve relaxed at Newport Beach and been to the Orange County Fair and a number of other places. I love the spirit of the people, and I’m enjoying seeing such a diverse group of individuals smiling and having a good time alongside each other instead of being so separate because we look different or we’re from different walks of life. I’m looking forward to getting more immersed in the community, to have a little more dialogue and to understand a bit more, because right now I’m just enjoying the atmosphere and the environment.