DEI has been a life’s work for UB’s newest vice provost


Published April 15, 2024

Seval Yildirim.

Seval Yildirim has been advocating for diversity, equity and inclusion long before it was ever a phrase.

As a lawyer, she worked pro bono on civil and human rights cases around the United States. As a law professor, she pushed for more diversity among the faculty ranks. And as a university administrator, she served as chief diversity officer.

Now, Yildirim brings her experience in DEI to UB, where she started as vice provost for inclusive excellence in November, charged with removing structural barriers to access and continuing to move the university’s culture of equity and inclusion forward.

“In one sense, I think UB is ahead of most other universities in that it already has an infrastructure that’s in place with unit diversity officers,” Yildirim says. “It seems everybody top down, bottom up is excited about and committed to equity and inclusion.”

A native of Turkey who came to the U.S. on a college scholarship, Yildirim found her way to Buffalo via the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as vice president for diversity initiatives and chief diversity officer. Prior to that, Yildirim was associate provost for faculty affairs and development, and co-chief diversity officer at California State University, San Bernadino.

Her background is in the law. An expert in international human rights, Yildirim earned her JD and LLM from New York University and held visiting faculty positions at Harvard, Berkeley, Villanova and NYU. She was a law professor at Whittier College in California for more than a decade.

As she gets acquainted with UB, Yildirim is focused on how to bring everyone in the campus community under this umbrella of diversity, equity and inclusion.

“How do we construct the umbrella that people feel like they want to be under it?” Yildirim says. “I’m really interested in that.

“At UB, that process has already begun and I think we need to keep having bold conversations around that,” she says.

UBNow recently caught up with Yildirim, who is settling into her new home in Clarence with her husband, Manoj Mate, a law professor at DePaul University scheduled to join the faculty at the UB School of Law in the fall. She spoke about being Muslim, her passion for the law and free speech, and her love for greyhounds and parrots. The interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.

I read that you basically have been on your own since you were 11. Is that true?

Yes, that’s true. In Turkey, there were schools in larger cities that provided bilingual education, so people viewed those schools as sort of vehicles of social mobility. I took an exam and got in. So, if you could do that, most families sacrificed a lot and would send their kids to the larger cities at the young age of 11. That very quickly teaches you life.

Why did you choose a career in law?

Oh, I love the law. It can be a tool of oppression, but it can also be the tool of social justice. That’s really why I went to law school. I grew up in a very politically tense environment in Turkey, where I experienced a military coup. I know what a car bomb is like. I had family members who were on the left of the political spectrum, who were jailed and experienced the military regime very brutally. So, from a very young age I was thinking about these issues — probably more so than most people.

You said UB seems to be ahead of the curve when it comes to DEI. How can it improve in this area?

UB is a large university, so it is naturally decentralized. And while that’s a good thing in that we can address specific issues in the units, sometimes we need to come together to have the conversations necessary so that we can benefit from each other’s experiences and resources. For me, I want to explore how we can do that — respecting the independence of the units, but at the same time building more of a community around DEI at UB.

There has been tension on college campuses as of late between free speech and creating an inclusive environment on campus. Your thoughts?

As a law professor who has taught constitutional law and as someone who grew up in a country where we did not have free speech, and where adults would whisper because they were so afraid to be found out and put in jail, free speech is the best thing we have in this country. It’s just very, very important.

I don’t want my freedom to be taken from me and for that I need to protect everybody else’s freedoms. Without it, we do not have a democracy. There are times when I personally don’t like what I hear around me, but I will defend the rights of those to say those things any day.

So how do you explain that to students?

I think when we speak about inclusiveness on our campus, we’re really talking about, “Are we respecting and valuing and supporting each individual where they are? Are we meeting people where they are to ensure their success? Are we thinking about our community?” I think we do that so that they have the right to say what they want. So that they have the right to believe what they want or not believe what they want. Today it will be their right. Tomorrow we will stand up for you in just the same way. I think that’s how you relay that message.

Are there any guiding principles you have learned doing DEI work?

One thing I’ve learned is you have to take your time. Be gentle. This is about change and change is difficult, even when you think you want it. When it’s actually occurring, it questions and challenges how things have been and it challenges our reality sometimes. So, it’s really important to be slow and gentle and empathetic of people’s fears of change. You know, not everyone objects to what you’re doing out of maliciousness. Sometimes they may not even understand why.

What do you like to do in your free time?

I try to read a lot so I can remain research active. I have a book project I’ve been working on. It’s called the “M-Word.” It’s about being Muslim, a minoritized person and a migrant in the U.S.

My husband and I have two greyhounds. They’re rescues from the Tijuana racetracks. I also have two parrots — one is almost 20, the other is 18. I’ve had them since they were babies. I’ve lived with birds since I was a child, so I love them.

What do you want the campus to know about you?

The door is always open. I will listen, think it through and try to find a resolution that is fair and inclusive.