Attorney Chandra Bhatnagar is the inaugural assistant vice chancellor for civil rights within the UCLA Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. The creation of this office was announced last fall in a message to the UCLA community about UCLA’s commitment to advancing equity across campus.
Bhatnagar, who has been in his position since Jan. 25, formerly served as UCLA’s director of staff diversity and equal employment opportunity compliance. In that role, he was responsible for overseeing investigations of discrimination and harassment complaints involving staff. He also led the development and implementation of UCLA’s staff affirmative action plan, programs to ensure equal employment opportunity for staff and educational efforts to advance staff diversity and inclusion across all of campus, including the UCLA health system.
Prior to joining UCLA in November 2017, Bhatnagar was the senior attorney advisor to Jenny Yang former chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He advised on a range of legal and policy matters including complex employment relationships, immigrant migrant and other vulnerable workers, LGBT discrimination, advancing diversity in law enforcement, labor trafficking and strategic communications. He previously served as a senior staff attorney in the Human Rights Program of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Bhatnagar brings a wealth of experience and a deep commitment to civil rights and the principles of equity, diversity and inclusion,” Anna Spain Bradley, UCLA’s vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion wrote in an email announcing his appointment to lead the office of civil rights. “I am delighted to welcome him to this important leadership role that will benefit our UCLA community.”
What experiences influenced you to pursue work in this field of civil rights and human rights?
I have been interested in issues of freedom, justice and equality from an early age. I was born in New Delhi, India, and I grew up in New Jersey and New York City, but regularly returning back to India to be with my extended family. My own personal experiences with discrimination in the United States, the experiences of family members and of close friends all played a role in shaping my awareness. As a high school student, I developed an understanding of the American Civil Rights movement and its connection to global movements for freedom and independence for formerly colonized countries, including the movement for Indian independence. In addition, in college, as a student of American history and a student of world history, I was particularly interested in social movements and in contemporary assertions of human rights.
I was also profoundly impacted by the example of the great Nelson Mandela and the powerful anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and simultaneously, I began to understand the impact that generations of courageous activists in the United States — many of whom were high school or college age, like myself at the time — had in shaping educational institutions, workplaces, and all areas of American life. It became clear to me that the opportunities that I enjoyed were a direct consequence of these courageous women and men who fought for inclusion and opportunity.
When I began a professional career, I could conceive of nothing more rewarding than having a career that also advanced civil and human rights. The work that we do in the UCLA Civil Rights Office is part of this effort. We work to remove barriers to equality. We work to ensure that all members of the UCLA community are treated with dignity and respect. This work is important because, fundamentally, it should not matter what you look like, who you love, what gender you are, your gender expression — binary or non-binary, who you pray to (or even if you pray at all), what country you or your ancestors came from, or what your physical or mental abilities are, everyone should feel as though all aspects of their humanity are embraced here at UCLA.
The announcement of your appointment said the Civil Rights Office would be coordinating all civil rights investigations involving academic personnel, faculty and staff. What specifically does that mean your office is tasked with doing on campus? How does creating this office within UCLA’s Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, enhance and promote equity for different groups and individuals on campus?
The UCLA Civil Rights Office is here to make certain that everyone who is part of the UCLA community is able to learn, teach or work free from discrimination or harassment and free from the threat of sexual violence. There are federal laws, California state laws, and UC policies and the civil rights office is responsible for keeping UCLA in compliance with these obligations. If any member of the UCLA community has observed or experienced discrimination or harassment, they can access our new “Report an Incident” page.
There are three units contained within the civil rights office: the Title IX office, the discrimination prevention office, and the staff diversity and equal employment opportunity compliance office. These units receive complaints of discrimination or harassment or sexual violence and conduct impartial civil rights investigations into the allegations. Of course, not every matter that is reported will be the subject of an investigation, but we always welcome any member of the UCLA community to engage with our office should they ever have a question or concern.
Having the civil rights office located within the office of equity, diversity and inclusion, means that we can look at issues of discrimination and harassment holistically. We can connect civil rights enforcement with training and education resources. We can integrate research and data into our work to ensure that our strategies are effective as we continue to aim to better serve the UCLA community. It is clear that we cannot solely investigate discrimination and harassment after it occurs, we need to find strategies to proactively promote equity and inclusion and prevent discrimination in the first instance. This is particularly vital when discrimination takes subtle or systemic forms. For more information, I would encourage members of our community to visit EDI’s Bruin X Office page, where you can access tools, guidance, and resources.
Are there specific types of issues in civil rights that are more likely be part of a higher education environment?
Challenges in higher education are often a mirror of broader societal problems. As such, addressing issues of racial discrimination and particularly anti-Black racism, combatting sexual violence and sexual harassment, and ensuring accessibility for people with disabilities are challenges that virtually all institutions of higher education are confronting.
At UCLA, in addition to being the top-ranked public institution of higher education in the United States, and in addition to having a nationally ranked health system, UCLA is also a very large employer. Indeed, UCLA is the fourth-largest employer in Los Angeles, with close to 33,000 staff. Add to that 44,000 students, and close to 8,000 members of our community who are academic personnel (both faculty and non-faculty) and we have a community of nearly 90,000 people. With this large and diverse community, it is the case that some of the issues of inequality and discrimination that our country is currently grappling with are also challenges that we face at UCLA.
As you take stock of your first three-plus months in the role, what have you learned about what UCLA is doing well? In what areas do you seem room for improvement?
One of my favorite authors, James Baldwin, once said that “(n)ot everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” What we are doing well at UCLA is that we are facing what it is that needs to be changed. We are working to identify areas in need of improvement and we are making significant commitments to achieve that improvement. Chancellor Gene Block’s and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Emily Carter’s joint statement “Rising to the Challenge” set certain strategic priorities for the university.
There is additional work that will be required by leaders at UCLA and at the University of California level to identify additional areas where improvement will be required, both at UCLA and throughout the UC system.
In my own experience in this position, one necessary area for improvement would be on ensuring that we have consistent accountability measures that we employ so that we can better ensure a consistent response for behaviors that violate discrimination and harassment policies. Another area that we can improve is ensuring that students and employees who require appropriate accommodation are properly receiving the accommodation.
What can the campus community expect to see in the next year? Next five years?
This is a challenging time at UCLA. We continue to confront the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our nation is grappling with structural racism and anti-Asian hate. Many members of our community have faced economic hardship over the past year.
At the same time, this is an exciting time at UCLA. We have a commitment from senior leadership to improve the way that our university functions in a meaningful way. This work will take time. It will require institutional mindfulness and members of our community who remain engaged and share their ideas and concerns along the way. I am hopeful for what the future will look like at UCLA and I am excited to be part of this important effort.