Anju Reejhsinghani started as UC Santa Cruz’s first vice chancellor for diversity, equity and inclusion Sept. 12 after moving to Santa Cruz just days before. The opportunity to help develop DEI initiatives appealed to her at UCSC, where she felt she could have the most impact and “where folks are ready to do brave and challenging work.”
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Anju Reehjsinghani’s parents had to flee Karachi. As Hindus living in Pakistan, the 1947 Partition of Pakistan and India had made their lives there untenable. They eventually made their way to the United States. That family history — and hearing stories of exile, diaspora and the journey of creating new homes — helped form Reehjsinghani’s views of difference and diversity.
“These are things that have really helped me in the work that I’m doing now as well, because I can pretty much see connections with almost everybody,” said Reejhsinghani, UC Santa Cruz’s newly hired vice chancellor for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). “Because of this perspective, growing up and hearing these stories and hearing about both moments of triumph, like the end of British colonialism — in a largely peaceful way — and yet the violence and upheaval of Partition.”
Her experiences working as an educator, as a DEI assistant vice provost and her personal experiences are what set her apart and guide her in this enormous task. She’ll report directly to UCSC Chancellor Cynthia Larive and oversee the campus Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, which was established in 2010.
“What got me into DEI work was simply being a woman of color in this country,” said Reejhsinghani. “And not being able to avoid, if you want the brutal truth, experiences of racism, sexism, xenophobia on a daily basis.”
Beginning work in September, she has plotted out the next six months, and that means lots of one-on-ones with faculty, staff and students as she assesses the university’s state of equity, programs and initiatives with the goal of increasing inclusiveness.
Reejhsinghani comes to Santa Cruz from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. There she served for almost two years years as the assistant vice provost for strategic diversity, equity and inclusion. Before that, she taught in the Department of History and International Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
She earned her Ph.D. and a master’s degree, both in history, from the University of Texas at Austin, and also has a diploma in economics from the London School of Economics & Political Science. She holds her bachelor of arts in history from Princeton University.
Reejhsinghani grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts — often referred to as the home of basketball, though she emphasizes that she’s a “very bad basketball player” and is “much more of a baseball person.”
She wants to use her experience in various roles and on different campuses to ensure everyone thrives and that DEI work doesn’t primarily become the work of students and faculty of color.
“I could see very clearly that academic work heavily falls on folks of color, other marginalized identities, especially women of color,” she said. “This is something that I’ve heard here very frequently at Santa Cruz.”
During her job-interview process, Reejhsinghani spoke to students and faculty who brought ideas of how to improve DEI on campus. Faculty and staff, she said, wanted more opportunities for professional development, and students wanted to see “a sort of a baseline level of understanding [of DEI].”
“I can’t speak for the statistics here but elsewhere, it’s been shown that faculty are often the ones who unintentionally may commit microaggressions in class that affect student progress academically,” she said. “If that’s happening, that’s another place where potentially we can forestall some of that through greater professional development opportunities.”
As part of her assessment of equity on campus generally, Reejhsinghani will also be leading the DEI portion of the university’s upcoming strategic plan. Her DEI committee, and the other involved committees, will start meeting this fall before submitting final reports in April. The university’s new strategic plan — the first since 2013 — is expected to be completed and published by September 2023.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Lookout: In taking on this new role at UCSC, what have you seen as some of the strengths and weaknesses in DEI at the university?
Anju Reejhsinghani: I know quite a bit about the some of the background, the history of UC Santa Cruz, and the ways in which, you know, it’s pushed for ethnic studies, academic resources, the impact of the resource centers for students that are affinity-based, some of the facilitated educational opportunities. All of that are things that really attracted me to this campus. I feel as though Santa Cruz really has leaned into some of the ways in which it can make a difference for marginalized community members in general, but also to bring majority voices into the discussion in a productive way.
In terms of opportunities, or areas that have challenges, I think one thing is sometimes some of the work is siloed at times, so that folks may be doing work in isolation without much awareness of what’s being done elsewhere. Helping to introduce folks to each other, helping to create structures where folks can contribute with each other as opposed to sort of independently in their departments or in their divisions. Really thinking through how we can unite these efforts and making sure that they are as productive and efficient as possible. I see a lot of opportunities for doing that in this role.
Lookout: Considering those strengths and weaknesses, could you talk about initiatives, programs and anything else you’re hoping to do in this role?
Reejhsinghani: In addition to launching the strategic planning effort in the DEI space, I’m hoping to work with the associate deans. I’d like to know more about the work that they’re doing, how we can support them in the classroom, with advising with some of the events and outreach opportunities that they have, and maybe help set the tone for what they need moving forward for their faculty, and academic and nonacademic staff.
Specifically, I would like to be a resource for associate deans.
So if they are looking for resources for their faculty members around how do they help become more familiar with terminology or developments in diversity equity inclusion. How do they ensure that they build a more positive climate? If they have issues with microaggressions or other incidences that affect climate and specific populations, in particular, what resources exist beyond compliance? Because that’s one of the areas that I’m getting a lot of inquiries about (here) is, beyond compliance — and everyone understands that that exists for a reason — how can we improve climate? How can we improve relationships with each other across affinity lines? I feel as though the messaging in particular, the communication strategy is something that I hope that I can bring some insight to, because I think it’s important that we ensure that we bring in all the voices into that process. So that when we are responding to incidents, whether regionally or nationally, that we are impactful and empathetic to the communities that are affected. And so I want to make sure that we always center those voices. And it’s not so much about having a specific point of view that we want to get across, as opposed to making sure that everyone knows that they are heard and seen in this community.
As for the diversity certificate program, one thing I’d like to see is an expansion, not just of the content that we produce, but also the level of nuance and the depth of discussion that we have available. We’ve talked about perhaps launching a more intense version of the [Diversity & Inclusion Certificate Program]. I can’t say that we’re going to do that right now. It’s really a question of resources and all of that. But I would like to see in the future, more levels of training than an introductory level certificate. How else can we maybe help folks along their journey? How can we encourage people to really specialize in a few areas that they would like to really go farther? So that’s what I was thinking about, as well as maybe ensuring that our educational opportunities continue to develop and really go beyond the baseline level.
Lookout: What was one of your proudest accomplishments in your role as assistant vice provost for strategic diversity, equity and inclusion administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison?
Reejhsinghani: I managed the Office of Strategic Diversity Planning and Research (among other divisions). That work was around developing climate surveys and doing other assessments of climate issues [with] data scientists who do a lot of surveying both micro level and macro level. I worked with them on a campus climate survey that went out to every single student on campus. That’s about over 40,000, I’m not sure the exact number, but that includes full-time students, part-time students, undergrads, grads, special students who are those just taking a course, once a semester or once a year. All of these types of students and regardless of traditional age or otherwise, and so they were given the opportunity to complete the survey, which took us time to develop when I was working with the unit directly. We developed the survey, we fielded the survey, we had over 13,000 people complete the survey, which was about a 28% rate of response.
And from that, I was co-chairing a campus climate survey task force. Over the summer, we convened the task force, we went through all the technical data, we went through the qualitative data, which is the general comments, people left in the survey that otherwise wouldn’t have been picked up. We went through all of these things over several weeks. And then we developed a report, which two days before I left Madison, we submitted. So now it’s on them to implement and develop the communication strategy.
The kinds of things that we were trying to accomplish wasn’t just to give broad guidelines, it was really to dig into the data, dig into the into the qualitative responses and ensure that we have pretty much all the perspectives represented and as much as possible to connect that to specific data points, so that the university can have a plan, hopefully, that they can take moving forward. I feel like that was a major contribution.