In March 2021, Chancellor Michelle Marks appointed Antonio Farias as vice chancellor for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), marking the first leader to focus on DEI specifically at the CU Denver campus, where students of color make up half of the undergraduate student body and 49% are first-generation. Farias brings a strong personal and professional perspective to the role that will propel CU Denver forward as an equity-serving institution.
Farias joins CU Denver from the University of Florida, a top-tier research university of more than 50,000 students, where he served as the inaugural Chief Diversity Officer & Senior Advisor to the President. Over his career, Farias has led cross-divisional teams in systems-level approaches to DEI at three premier institutions and served as an administrator of the McNair Scholars Program at Mercy College; an instructor of Africana and Puerto Rican/Latino Studies at Hunter College; and a Higher Education Opportunity Program counselor at Colgate University.
He received a Bachelor of Arts in Comparative Literature and an MA in Comparative Ethnic Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Riverside. Additionally, he earned management certificates from Cornell and Harvard and served as an infantryman in the United States Army.
CU Denver News virtually sat down with Farias to talk about how his background and the significant campuswide DEI initiatives underway.
How has your previous experience prepared you for your role as Vice Chancellor of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at CU Denver?
I grew up in the Bronx in the 1970s, when it was literally burning. Multiculturalism was an everyday experience, and it was often challenging, as every block had a different racial and ethnic makeup, and I had to make alliances just to get to school and back. In an educational system that was brutally underfunded, I found opportunity because people were looking out for me, and I had mentors that guided me along the way. I was one of the “lucky” ones and it shouldn’t come down to luck, which is why I do the work of expanding opportunities for communities that need it most and have amazing talent to offer.
I’ve rebooted my education many times. I was one of those students that the high school counselor said, “Go work for the airlines, because you’ll never make it in college.” I think a lot of our students at CU Denver get that kind of message, whether implicit or explicit, that they don’t belong in college. Again, I go back to mentorship. My faculty mentors in ethnic studies and in African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley crystallized my sense of who I am. They also made it clear that the opportunities I was offered were paid for by generations of civil rights activists, many who paid dearly for demanding justice, and that I had a moral obligation to do the same for the next generation.
I’ve gone through a lot of different trajectories in terms of my career—it wasn’t like growing up I was thinking, I want to be a chief diversity officer. But every single career path has taught me something. I was an airline mechanic for a while, and that taught me to juggle and meet high-pressure deadlines and find solutions to problems that weren’t in any book that kept airplanes from falling out of the sky. Then, I served in the U.S. Army as an infantryman, and that taught me to laser-focus on values that drive a mission, and that diverse teams, when crystalized around the mission, can accomplish the seemingly impossible.
In higher education, I’ve learned that the mission stalls unless we anchor it in our values. For CU Denver, what really excites me about who we are is that we’re centering equity as a core value—this is what we are going to build everything else around. And the construction of this equity-serving institution is really powerful.
In your perspective, what does equity mean?
I think it’s powerful to not just say we want to give people opportunity but we also want to give them the tools to actually succeed at an equitable rate. Part of that process is failure and recovering and learning from failure. The challenge is, how do we use failure as the fuel to do better the next time? For CU to become an equity-serving institution, it means we’ll provide a racial and culturally enhancing educational and work environment that rejects the deficit-based mindset that has traditionally informed how higher education engages with historically underserved populations, which are rooted in our organizational structures and reinforced by societal standards.
What attracted you to CU Denver?
First and foremost, the leadership. Chancellor Michelle Marks has a clear vision and the leadership chops to make it happen. During our interview process, the way she talked about “radical inclusivity” caught my attention. As an urban-serving university with a very diverse student population, we have the building blocks here to expand our capacity to deliver a culturally responsive, world-class education to our students so that they can thrive on campus and in an increasingly complex global society. In addition, we’re truly focused on our students as opposed to trying to change our pedigree or become something we’re not.
Being at CU feels like coming home. When I look at our students, especially the ones that I saw across at Cross the Quad, I see myself in them, and as a parent of a soon-to-graduate daughter, I feel the visceral joy and wonder of many of our families, for whom, a first-time college graduate in the family is such a mix of pride, love, and possibility.
We’ve also created opportunity at an affordable price, and I think that’s key. We’re providing a service back to the taxpayer, which I think is powerful, because as we diversify as a state and the demographics change, we’re responsible for creating the next generation of leaders, health care professionals, artist, and educators ready to serve an increasingly diverse citizenry. CU Denver is already ahead of that curve, and so we have to focus on expanding opportunities that lead to the jobs of the future in Colorado.
How will you drive and develop initiatives that build on and advance an institutional commitment to equity and justice?
Part of my role is to help us create a future around being an equity-serving institution, and the main drive to get us there centers on us becoming an Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) and an Asian American Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institution (AANAPISI). The work requires a broad network of offices and individuals ready to put in the sweat to make it a reality. I’m grateful because the Equity Task Force (ETF) has laid out a detailed road map and modeled a process that allows everyone to have an ownership stake in implementing effective practices that tie into our broader university strategy of being empowered by our inclusive excellence.
More than 150 CU Denver students, faculty, and staff were involved in creating the ETF roadmap, and the inclusive nature of how they came out with a top-quality product in a very short amount of time is indicative of the collaborative culture at CU Denver. We need to be transparent, and we need to put our egos in check and really look at what is best for all of us, and what is best for those that are most in need.
There’s also a new cadre of leadership coming in at all levels of the organization. We’re coming here for the same thing: we believe in the mission. Inclusive excellence will drive how we do the work, and instead of viewing it as its own silo, we’ve centered equity throughout the entire strategic process. From what I understand, a big champion for that model was the (late) School of Education and Human Development dean, Rebecca Kantor. She was one of the main catalysts for making sure that equity is pervasive throughout all of the 2030 strategy. She co-led the search committee that selected me, and I really valued her equity philosophy and vision. I know her legacy will absolutely continue.
What are some of your top priorities over the next few months, as we head into fall semester with in-person learning and activities?
One of my top priorities is to regenerate my team, as the Center for Identity and Inclusion has several key positions open at this time. I will also be working alongside my colleagues on cabinet, the deans, chairs, unit leaders, affinity groups, and those who served on the ETF so we can hit the ground running in the fall.
Receiving the HSI and AANAPISI designation is an important first step in becoming a culturally responsive, equity-serving institution, and so I’ll be working with colleagues across the campus to generate teams that will seek out grant opportunities at the same time we build capacity for change. In a collaborative manner, with a co-building mindset, the work ahead for me requires enhancing the culture so that our people feel CU Denver is an educational, research, and work environment where they fully belong, and then accelerating their growth and making sure they thrive. This summer is not going to be long enough to tackle everything, but we will begin the process of creating an inclusive change network in which people can see themselves being active agents in creating our future without forgetting our past.
Where do you see CU Denver in the next five years?
I see CU Denver evolving and leading as an institution that centers equity in all of its business processes and decision making. I think our core identity as an HSI and AANAPISI serving institution is going to drive a lot of changes here, for our research, our scholarships, the way we teach, the way we do business, how we engage with each other, our surrounding community, the level of compassion and care that we bring to each other. Change is going to be powerful, and it’s going to be visceral.
What do you think it means to be a Lynx?
A Lynx is someone that’s always looking toward the peaks on the horizon while never forgetting their past. We’re a young institution. And, and at the same time, we’ve got a storied history, and that’s a powerful legacy that needs to be taught and honored.