Over Coffee: Leaders Talking Humanities, a chat with Douglas M. Haynes

School of Humanities at UC Irvine
15 min readOct 22, 2020
A professional head shot of Douglas Haynes smiling in front of a navy background

In this episode of “Over Coffee: Leaders Talking Humanities,” Tyrus Miller, dean of the UCI School of Humanities, sits down to chat with Douglas M. Haynes, Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity & Inclusion and professor of history. Over coffee, they discuss UCI’s Black Thriving Initiative, Haynes’ background as a historian, and what the humanities have to offer during a crisis.

Tyrus Miller: Welcome to “Over Coffee: Leaders Talking Humanities.” Cheers, Doug. I’m Tyrus Miller. I’m dean of UCI School of Humanities, and I’m pleased to be joined by Doug Haynes, who wears many hats on the UCI campus. At the campus level, he’s Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. He’s also a historian in the School of Humanities, so welcome, Doug.

Douglas Haynes: Thank you, Tyrus; I really appreciate being here.

Miller: Great, let’s start with your campus-wide position, and I want to ask you a little bit more about your role as Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. Can you tell us kind of what comes under your purview, and what you’re asked to do in that role?

Haynes: Well, it’s both inspirational and remarkably vast. Overseeing equity, diversity, inclusion, and free speech — it’s really about how the campus fulfills its aspiration. And so we do that in four ways.

One, through my office, the Office of Inclusive Excellence, we actually provide accountability. And so that extends from, are we recruiting broadly? Do we have fair and equitable processes? How do we know people are thriving? And assessing the climate. And it really is about, essentially, people and their aspirations, and to what extent are we meeting them as a campus?

The second area is education and teaching. And one thing that I’ve learned over the years is that universities are wonderful engines for research, for transmitting knowledge, and even engaging the community, but we need to do a better job in being a university within a university. There’s thousands of students and career staff and faculty who may be experts in some things, but coming to a conversation about equity, diversity, inclusion and even free speech, may be relatively new. And so we do a great deal of that, it spans from our search presentations to faculty committees, and it includes a new set of modules on anti-Blackness in the United States, to a certificate program organized around inclusive excellence.

And so the third area is research, and the historian in me gets quite excited about that because it’s not enough for the campus, or for individuals, to say they’re personally committed to inclusive excellence, we actually want to see, are we making progress? And so we’re continually engaging, and analyzing different metrics so that we can learn and better appreciate, I think, what we do, which is our research, teaching and service.

And then the final area is strategic partnerships, which is a broad category, but — you know, we are many things, but we’re also a campus that’s part of a wonderful system, the University of California. We have relationships with the Cal State system, the community college system, and we’re also a minority-serving institution. And so all of those connections provide possibilities for strengthening pathways from these different systems: the community colleges, the Cal State, to UCI. It allows us to sort of grow our capacity to support our Latinx students, our AAPI students, and grow the participation of students who graduate from historically Black colleges and universities, and that’s just for starters.

Miller: You have really a very extensive, and probably growing mission, really reaching into all kinds of different areas that touch on the university. Allow me to ask you a little bit about leadership, and what are some of the obstacles that you see in developing a more diverse university leadership, but maybe leadership more broadly, also, in our institutions and society? What are some of the ways in which we as a university can facilitate and build that leadership, and support individuals who are aspiring to be leaders, and kind of need that training and access and opportunity?

Haynes: It’s a great question, and I’ll be a deadly candid. I never saw myself as a leader. I’m the youngest of nine children, and so there was always someone ahead of me. And I was pretty overwhelmed by the models of leadership that I saw outside of my immediate family. They didn’t look like me, I wasn’t quite sure they came from the same background. But where I sort of discovered that, discovered my capacities, was actually in school. And often it took a teacher or a friend to see something in me that I couldn’t see. And then to be able to take a risk, to try something, be vulnerable. And often you learn a great deal, I’ve learned a great deal. And so I think this sort of dynamic was true in graduate school, and it’s true, believe it or not, when I joined the faculty in the 20th century. And I think what I really learned is that by serving, you’re actually leading, right?

Because if you are engaged in servant leadership, you’re thinking about building capacity of other people, not just yourself. And I think that kind of ethos has been extremely powerful for me, and it’s been reinforced by different individuals, both within the school, and outside the school and across the campus.

And I think that what I’ve learned as I’ve entered into administration is the importance of listening. That’s so important. And then asking questions to try to get at the core of the issue, because then you’re better able to know how you can help someone succeed. I think two other attributes that are particularly important is collaborating. And I think that is a skill that is so important in a university, where people are able to communicate, identify a common objective, understand what the obstacles are, and then to figure out how we can work together.

And I have to say, I mean, and I’m sure you know this as dean of a school as large as the School of Humanities, that it takes a lot of work precisely because you need to build trust. And so I think my experience is indicative that it is possible, that there are opportunities through committee work, through working with people, through taking risks, right?

And I guess my final point is that in graduate school, at least in my experience, we’re socialized to see leadership with eyes askant. And I think the problem with that ethic, which I hope isn’t predominant now, is that it discourages people from seeing themselves as leaders. But at the same time, it also permits the same type of leaders to be reproduced.

Miller: That’s a great point, and I will say from my personal experience and from what I know, you’re seen as a really great partner and collaborator with a lot of people on campus, so great job modeling that leadership as well.

Haynes: Thank you, I appreciate that.

Miller: In response to the immediate circumstances that have, in various ways, been in the news around the Black Lives Matter protests, and the very tragic events that precipitated those, as well as longer-term needs to combat anti-Black racism, internal support for Black faculty, staff and students, you have put forward for the campus a Black Thriving Initiative. And I wonder if you could say a little bit about what the goals of the initiative are, and maybe, even from a little bit more personal perspective, what do you understand Black thriving to mean for UCI?

Haynes: I think Black thriving is a very affirmative expectation of what the experience should be for Black people here at UCI. And I was very deliberate in using that term, in part because I think it commits the campus, I believe, to mobilizing itself to support that outcome.

And it means a number of things: it means diagnosing what the issues are that are preventing us from realizing that. And so I make the argument in the Black Thriving Initiative report that anti-Blackness poses an existential threat to the mission of this university. And just to be clear, it does pose that threat because anti-Blackness harms people; it makes people feel that they don’t belong. It robs them from fully participating in our mission. It also has the effect of, I think, diminishing the capacity of the university to do its research, to innovate, and to serve.

I mean, if Black people, whether they are members of the community or members of the general society, are not included, it means that our research capacity is limited. It’s not as rich.

And finally, I think that anti-Blackness fundamentally challenges our identity as a public research university serving the residents of this state. And so I think most people would agree that anti-Blackness does pose an existential threat. But knowing that it also requires us to be far more mindful, and I think if anything, the Black Thriving Initiative is about that.

And so it really consists of three action platforms. The first is change the culture, right? And at the heart of that, is to have far more people take responsibility for confronting anti-Blackness. And underlying this challenge is the idea that accountability begins with understanding. You really cannot meaningfully engage with anti-Blackness if you don’t understand what it is. And for that reason, we’ve launched a set of modules to enable people to sort of both engage and learn and equip themselves. There’s other activities that we have listed under that category of change the culture, but at the heart of it, it’s about being mindful, and it’s also about recognizing that it’s simply unreasonable to expect Black people to do it themselves. To constantly reconcile these contradictions in their day-to-day lives.

I think that the second action platform is leverage the mission, and I’m not quite sure people fully understand the significance of this. But what I’m saying is that this campus will mobilize its research and creative capacity to advance the understanding of the Black experience and drivers of wellbeing. And no other campus in the United States, has ever declared that. No campus in the United States has ever said, “We’re going to change the culture by confronting anti-Blackness as a whole university.”

And the third action platform is about engaging Black communities, but we want to engage Black communities by linking the future of UCI access to Black people and Black communities. And so, there are very concrete interventions that we outlined both in the report and on the website, but at the heart of it is a whole university approach that both sees anti-Blackness as an existential threat and commits itself to creating the conditions for Black people to thrive. And to be even been more provocative, I want UCI to become the nation’s leading destination for talented Black people, right?

So, I want the campuses that are located in counties with populations of Black people, that is approaching 10% to be afraid, because I think we have the capacity to draw talented Black people from across this state and across this country. And so I know talked a bit on about this, but that’s the broad picture, the three sets of the action platforms, and the ways in which I think we can truly distinguish ourselves.

Miller: That’s terrific, and in the humanities, I’m really proud of having a really premier African American studies department, and faculty really in a number of disciplines and departments who are making significant contributions to the scholarship and to the understanding through teaching. So we’re definitely very strongly behind the initiative.

I wanted to ask you a little bit about your kind of professorial role, which maybe you don’t get to focus on a lot as a vice chancellor. But you are, as a professor, a historian of modern Europe, and done a lot of work on the history of medicine. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about your trajectory from faculty member to picking up your responsibility as a vice provost, and then a vice chancellor, and also maybe a little bit about kind of how you see the relationship of those. Are those two different, right brain and left brain? Is there a way in which your humanities scholarship, and your professorial background inform your work as a university leader?

Haynes: Well, I mean, I really love the question. I think that I was drawn to UCI in part because of the collection of colleagues who studied modern Europe, true leaders. And I’ve had the opportunity to sort of grow, and that growth has manifested a lot of different ways, but I think first and foremost in publishing and teaching and in serving, I kind of grew into the role, right?

And I think becoming a more mature scholar gave me a great sense of confidence. Not only just about myself, but more than anything else, about the power of analysis. Theoretical perspectives, different ways of assessing empirical evidence, methodologies for understanding, and believe it or not, that plays such a huge role in how I’ve evolved into becoming an academic administrator, because it all began with questions. I remember innocently asking, when I was an assistant professor, a colleague, “Why are there so few Black faculty?” And what was striking is they gave me answers.

And I’ve been trained as a scholar to ask the why question. And as I asked the why question and interrogated the evidence, it became quite clear that there was a difference between people’s explanations and the reality.

And like in many things, no good deed goes unpunished. I served on a senate committee, Faculty Welfare, and then I learned even more about the campus, but also apply my sort of skills of analysis and critical thinking. And that opened up this sort of understanding about the university, because my life up to that point had been pretty much about developing my research program, engaging students in the undergraduate program, training graduate students, and building out my international reputation.

And as I learned more about how the university operates and the implications for diversity, more opportunities became available, right? And so, I’ve always been grateful that campus leaders have thought enough of the importance of this that they decided to say, “Okay, we’re going to sort of invest in this. And we will take a risk in this type of intervention.”

And what’s happened over the years is that the campus capacity has grown, and I’ve been fortunately in a position where I’ve helped it to sort of accelerate. So, I like to think that I’m still an active scholar. My last book was published in 2017, I think. I still have one more book in me. It’s fighting to come out, but it is in me, and I think that the more I serve in administration, it makes me appreciate even more the teaching and research and the service mission of the institution.

Miller: Hear, hear! Can I ask you — I want to pick up on one thing that you said, which was about this matter of asking why. And I often will say that one of the distinguishing features of humanities disciplines, is not to any exclusion and certainly not for a historian of establishing the evidence and the facts, but the interpretive moment of asking why is really, really important.

So, right now, we have a number of different, very pressing issues that are part of our daily context. We’ve already talked a bit about the crisis of racism in the United States, obviously the pandemic, and the kinds of health disparities, and so forth, that have been revealed by that pandemic. Also, of course, the environmental situation, climate change, and the fires we’re experiencing in California. Very often those are thought of as scientific problems, or policy problems, or engineering and technology problems, but I wonder if you wanted to opine at all about what the relevance of that kind of why moment, that the humanities bring to those immediate situations, as well as the other things that we’re concerned with. But I’m really thinking about that question of the relevance of what the humanities have to offer in this very difficult and pressing context that we live in right now.

Haynes: I think that the why question is fundamentally a question about what it means to be human, and I realize that’s a very broad framework. But when you look at both the sort of dramatic and traumatic crises that we’re facing, they are fundamentally affecting humans. And the why question is a question that matters, and I think it’s at the heart of the humanities, because if you look at, for example, the triggering effect of the killing of George Floyd, a superficial response would be, “that’s awful, that’s an aberrant example of aberrant policing,” right?

But at a deeper level, at least for me, I am asking the question, why did it take this particular killing for millions of people to flood into the streets, across the country and around the world, right? Why? Because there were other deaths before George Floyd, and there’s been others ever since then. And I think to appreciate that question, I believe, requires an understanding of history and culture.

And I believe that the humanities, for all practical and other reasons, provide the sort of space for that type of interrogation, looking at our past, and also looking at the ways in which structures intersect. And so, it seems to me, just in that isolated example, we can’t as a society say, this time is different, right? When it comes to the common refrain shortly after the death of George Floyd, that this time is different. You simply cannot assert that if you are unaware of the histories of the United States, right?

And that matters because how you answer that question really reveals different ways of living in this country for different people, right? And so I think that the level of sophistication really is a reflection of the extent to which people are engaged in humanistic inquiry, humanistic discussion, and anyone can do it.

That’s the amazing thing about the humanities. There are so few hurdles and barriers to do it. What it requires is the will. This same thinking applies to what we’re looking at in terms of the wildfire season, and I’m old enough, I won’t tell you how old I am, to remember when wildfire season usually took place at a very restricted point in time. Now it’s year-round. And I think there are massive implications for that, but you have to ask the why question. It’s not enough to say, why are there fires raging today? We have to ask the question, how do humans interact with the natural world to create the conditions for these real existential threats to cities, counties, states, to economies, and the implications are far-reaching when you consider the effect of the fall-off of ash. The dispersion of ash that complicates, aggravates, preexisting health conditions, particularly in communities that are already subjected to environmental racism.

And so I know I’m rambling on, but I think that it’s incredibly relevant and important, and I fundamentally believe that it’s the responsibility of global citizenship to practice this capacity for understanding what it means to be human.

Miller: And I’m picking up on something that you said really implicitly at least, that the humanities are kind of about the choices that we have, about how we want to live, how our children want to live, how we understand how our ancestors lived, and everybody is concerned with the quality of life, and I think that the humanities really remain relevant because of that focus on those kind of crucial questions.

Haynes: And I would just add, if you look at any blog posts, look at it this way. If you look at any blog posts, if you look at any online content, if you look at newspapers, if you look at magazines, at the core of all of these platforms for information is humanistic inquiry. We could not be the thinking society that we are without it. It is fundamentally what distinguishes us from our ancestors, but also from other species.

Miller: I want to conclude on a little bit more personal note, and maybe a little lighter note. We were talking before we got started about our suspended travel, so imagine a kind of future time in which, happily, we’ve come out on the other side of the pandemic, and we’re able to move around again as we’d like, where would you first like to travel to when you’re able, where would you like to go?

Haynes: Yes, I would like to visit my hometown of San Francisco, in part because my immediate family members live in the Bay Area. And it’s a great way just to sort of touch home base, to be reminded about where I grew up, how it’s changed, and how it hasn’t changed. I then would like to visit Hawaii. It’s one of the first islands that I visited. And I just find that experience of being this speck in this vast ocean to be incredibly inspirational.

And so those are the two places that come to mind, they’re not guilty pleasures, but I just can’t get there now.

Miller: Well, it sounds wonderful, and I hope that you get to go there soon. I hope we all get to go there.

Haynes: Yeah.

Miler: So thanks so much, Doug, for taking the time for this conversation, for sharing your views, and your stories, and your initiatives with our viewers. I want to thank our viewers for tuning in, and I hope that everyone will join us for our next episode of “Over Coffee.” Thanks so much.

Haynes: Thank you Tyrus.

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