As a lifelong Californian, woman of color, daughter of immigrant parents, first generation college student, and first person of color elected to office in my community – never in my wildest imagination would I have envisioned myself having to uphold the law in defense of white employees in Wisconsin. However, that is exactly what I have done, and I am now out of a job. Here are the facts – everything else is just noise.
The Eau Claire Leader Telegram published a limited word count edition, this version includes more detail and links.
For the record, I did not resign my position as Vice Chancellor of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion & Student Affairs at UWEC. I was fired, as an act of retaliation by Chancellor Schmidt who has failed to address the toxic work environment that festers on his campus. I was offered severance to resign in exchange for absolving the university and the Chancellor from liability but more importantly from accountability. However, I refuse to be complicit in what I now recognize to be a dysfunctional, racist environment that goes against the essence of equity, diversity and inclusion work. Instead, I have chosen to speak out – This is how I see it.
I was selected after a nationwide search that included highly qualified applicants. Chancellor James Schmidt told me I was the top choice of the hiring committee and his number one personal choice as well. I assumed my duties on June 14, 2021. As the third person to serve in this role in less than three years, I had reservations about the turnover. However, no workplace is perfect, and I was fully committed to a long career at UWEC.
When I arrived, I joined a team of professionals dedicated to serving students, but it was clear that they were exhausted, many relationships were strained, and the administrative infrastructure to support an effective team was in disarray. I attributed these conditions to the high turnover in leadership and the fallout of a global pandemic. Structure was needed so I prioritized the work to build a stronger foundation for what lay ahead. This included a reorganization that would distribute workload more effectively, reduce duplication of efforts and use limited resources in a fiscally prudent way.
As elements of the reorg were finalized through the appropriate shared governance process, which include my meeting with hundreds of students and faculty in a series of open forums, the public attacks lauded at me personally were alarming, but I remained professional – frequently receiving compliments from colleagues about my grace in the face of such vitriol. I did my best to shield others on my team, but the aggression was obsessive, relentless, and specific faculty members were behind it.
On June 30, 2022, the Leader Telegram published an article filled with unsubstantiated and anonymous quotes and a letter drafted by faculty who would not speak on the record. Instead “the letter” is repeatedly referenced and quoted in the news article. Having spent twelve years in elected office, I did not let the cowardice of anonymity affect me. What concerned me was that Chancellor Schmidt, who I had regularly apprised of my work, emboldened the harassment, giving audience to a constituency obsessed with removing me, while failing to counterbalance their criticism with facts. I began to realize Chancellor Schmidt is not a principled leader.
The reorg inadvertently exposed the underpinnings of racism at UWEC. There are faculty and staff who support the creation of exclusive spaces (often referred to as ‘safe spaces’) as territory for students of a specific racial background, at the exclusion of others. This concept has been used to indoctrinate many students of color to believe they are only safe from oppression if they can inhabit spaces that exclude all white people – yes, you read that correctly. This cringe worthy fact is documented in a student senate resolution later signed, without dispute, by Chancellor Schmidt as well as in emails and social media posts by faculty, students, and alumni.
To be clear, it is my personal philosophy that the concept of safe spaces is flawed and does not prepare students of color, or any student, for life in the real world. And when the concept is taken to the extreme as had been encouraged by some faculty members and alumni of UWEC, the practice is illegal. No function of any organization should explicitly exclude employees of any race – including white employees.
It was in this environment, that a long standing employee shared concerns about instances of workplace harassment based on race. The fact that the employee was white was irrelevant to me. I encouraged the employee to seek advice from Human Resources (HR) and supported the HR recommendation that an Affirmative Action (AA) complaint be filed. The complaint was referred to the UW system office of Compliance and Integrity rather than our internal AA office due to concerns about conflict of interest between the AA director and Chancellor Schmidt.
When I informed Chancellor Schmidt of my support for the employee’s legal right to file a complaint, he was visibly irritated and said that an investigation would only “add fuel to the fire.” I thought this comment seemed to lack concern for the root issue – racism on our campus.
On Monday, September 26th, 2022, one week after I provided testimony that validated the complaint of racism in the workplace, Chancellor Schmidt asked that I submit my resignation and that I leave by that Friday. He said “you do great work” and that he “enjoyed” working with me but I had “become a distraction.” I left his office concerned that his decision was driven by factors related to the investigation and my testimony.
On the following day, I returned to Chancellor Schmidt’s office. I pointed out that the employees accused in the AA complaint of racism were the same ones aggressively seeking my dismissal. I told Chancellor Schmidt that his sudden call for my resignation felt like an act of retaliation. He became irritated, dismissed my concern and wondered why I was “making this so difficult”. That afternoon, he emailed to tell me to leave campus and work remotely the rest of the week. He included a UW system attorney in the correspondence. That same evening, at 7:41 PM, he sent out a hasty and abrupt email, that said in part ”Olga Diaz has left the university and is no longer serving as vice chancellor for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Student Affairs.”
The next morning, two days after I had been asked to tender my resignation, which I had refused to do, the Leader Telegram published an article with a headline that reported I had left UWEC.
So how did all of this happen?
I believe my advocacy to create a truly equitable approach to student services lead to a targeted campaign by specific faculty and alumni to discredit me. They refer to themselves as “the collective” and they apparently hold great sway over Chancellor Schmidt.
On the evening of September 27th, when Chancellor Schmidt prematurely and publicly announced my departure, it was out of desperation. Beginning on September 28th, the University of Wisconsin Regents meeting was to be hosted by UWEC. I had been scheduled to host a dinner attended by my UW system peers, greet Regents at their hotel for a walking tour to campus and give a presentation alongside the Provost at the Education Committee meeting – all important components of my work that I had prepared for and looked forward to. I suspect members of the collective threatened to disrupt the UW Board of Regents meeting with a protest unless Chancellor Schmidt immediately announced that I had “left the university” even though it was false.
Incredibly, one of the faculty members of the collective, named in the AA complaint and engaged in the ongoing harassment, made no attempt to hide her involvement in my dismissal. In fact, she brazenly boasted about it. Thirty-seven minutes after the Chancellor sent out the email, prematurely but publicly announcing my departure, she claimed responsibility by posting a Game of Thrones meme on social media that said, “I want her to know it was me.” Even more disturbing was a second social media post by an alum affiliated with the collective. In a post sharing the Leader Telegram article incorrectly reporting that I had left my position, this person called out the Vice Chancellor of EDI at UW-La Crosse, with a chilling, “Coming for U Next.” This is clear evidence that the failure of leadership on the part of Chancellor Schmidt is threatening to spread throughout the entire UW-system.
It is the policy of the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System that all campuses maintain an academic and work environment free of discrimination, discriminatory harassment, or retaliation for all students and employees. Further, the federal Civil Rights act prohibits discrimination against protected classes – including race, even if you are white. Chancellor Schmidt failed to uphold and defend these basic workplace standards to foster an environment of respect and dignity while preserving the widest possible dialogue within its educational environment at UWEC. I have been contacted by former employees of UWEC who had similar experiences and were deterred from filing complaints – a pattern exists.
At great personal expense, I believe sharing this account will protect future employees from feeling discarded and invalidated by Chancellor Schmidt. Somewhere in this country is a university chancellor or president looking for a principled administrator with the personal and uncompromisable conviction to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. I want to work for that person.
There is absolutely more and I’m happy to share in response to future criticism. I will not be silent.