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Months after students protested after hearing he was being forced out, University of Utah's chief diversity officer, Octavio Villalpando, announced Monday he will step down.

Villalpando said he's ready to return to teaching and research.

"I've accomplished about as much as I can accomplish in this job," said Villalpando, who has been associate vice president for equity and diversity for 7½ years. He pointed to the Diversity Scholars mentoring program as the office's most important contribution under his leadership.

The nearly 700 students it has served "have among the highest retention and graduation rates on campus, and also one of the highest involved rates," he said. "They're leaders in student organizations and you see their talent represented across almost all colleges."

Villalpando will return to his position as a professor of Educational Leadership and Policy.

"The last seven years have given me some important insights into the practical side of diversity," he said.

Villalpando was on research leave in December when students said they were told by his interim replacement, Edward Buendia, that Villalpando had been asked to resign. Worried about losing an outspoken advocate for students of color on campus, they eventually organized a sit-down protest outside U. President David Pershing's office.

Pershing spoke to the group, denying the rumors and saying Villalpando would be back in January. For his part, Villalpando declined Monday to comment directly on whether he was asked to leave.

"It was very unfortunate, what happened during the fall semester. I just prefer to look forward," he said. "Those events that occurred, I'm sure everyone would take back and change if they could."

Graduate student Socorro Morales was part of those protests. She said she is confident this time that Villalpando is leaving of his own accord.

"I know Villalpando has been wanting to go back to teaching for a long time. I think in part it was the treatment on behalf of the university," she said. "It's a decision he made on his terms."

Morales said she's glad the U. will conduct a national search for his replacement in the fall and hopes administrators take student concerns into account as they review candidates. In December, students said the confusion around Villalpando's status was symptomatic of larger campus diversity problems.

"There are still a couple of areas," Morales said, "that need to be significantly improved upon before the university will feel more comfortable, more welcoming."

Professor Kathryn Stockton, a respected gender and LGBT studies scholar, is slated to take over as interim director of the Office of Equity and Diversity on June 1.

In a statement posted Monday on the office's website, Pershing praised Villalpando's efforts to increase the number of students of color, start new programs and develop partnerships with civic and business groups.

"We are deeply grateful to Dr. Villalpando for his many contributions as a leader," Pershing wrote in the joint statement with Ruth Watkins, senior vice president for academic affairs, "and wish him well as he returns to his scholarship and teaching."

Twitter: @lwhitehurst