Category Archives: Race & Ethnicity

Making Diversity Inclusive

Last week, I attended the AAC&U Modeling Equity, Engaging Difference Conference in Baltimore. The Associate Provost of Towson University in Baltimore and I put together a student panel to speak to diversity and equity. The Associate Provost and I were each responsible for identifying two students for the panel presentation, representing four different types of institutions, in total.

When I called my colleagues at two colleges to request two students to be on the panel, I only described the program and what the students would be asked to address. I did not specify any demographics about the students. While the Associate Provost and I had a phone conversation with the four students to discuss the presentation, we did not see the students until the day of the conference. One student was studying in the U.S. from Kenya; another student, the only male, was from Pakistan; and two Black students were from the Baltimore area. All of these students were leaders on their campuses and bright, ambitious, and very much engaged in their education.

The first question for the panel was, “What does diversity and equity mean to you?” I think the question is one that we as educators should ponder, and one for which we should be able to provide a response. While I was not surprised by there being no White student from the United States on the panel, a panel on diversity and equity that includes only students of color and international students may say that when we educators think of diversity and equity, we do not include White students. How can we help White students understand that diversity includes them if we do not behave as if we understand that diversity includes all of us?

Beyond the Supreme Court – Difficult Dialogues

Affirmative Action and “Victimized Whites”

Retain Affirmative Action—Because It’s the Morally Right Thing to Do

So read the headlines of October 5 and 8 articles, respectively, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, leading up to the Supreme Court’s review of affirmative action in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. Because I have been around a while, I have seen the presentation of affirmative action in such diametrically different ways more times than I can count.

I also have been aware of the legal history of affirmative action, which in one form or another began before 1965 and 1967, when President Lyndon Johnson signed executive orders around race and sex, respectively, and before 1972, when affirmative action regulations were applicable to most institutions because of the Title IX regulation.

There have been large percentage increases in the number of traditionally underrepresented students and women, in particular, in higher education since those pieces of legislation were enacted. We all know that there are many more individuals who do not even make it to the gates of colleges and universities. On the other hand, we also know that admission is not a guarantee of success in achieving the goals of higher education.

I believe that a variable in the decline in the success of historically underrepresented students is a political environment–particularly that Academe–in which resistance to the notion of affirmative action seems to be as strong and visceral in 2012 as it was in the 1960s and 1970s. I would not have thought this to be the case, given the fact that many colleges and universities have a critical mass of historically underrepresented students and emphasize diversity as an educational benefit. As I read the comments following the articles mentioned above, however, it was discouraging to think what some students must endure on college and university campuses when members of the faculty, administration, and staff hold such views.

For me, the future of access in its broadest sense is not as much about what the Supreme Court decides in the Fisher case as it is about the ideology and attitudes of the faculty, administrators, and staff in higher education. Many of the readers who responded to the articles on affirmative action that I mentioned above did not attempt to disguise the fact that they were referring to Black people, for the most part, when they talked about “victims,” “inferior,” “unqualified,” “character flaw,” “lack of responsibility,” and “violent behavior.” Having a position that Black students are at some institutions because of affirmative action and as a result unworthy of being there appears to be the attitude of many of those who responded bitterly to the notion of affirmative action.

Our colleagues need an opportunity to be in face-to-face dialogues with one another about their beliefs in facilitated conversations where they can listen, think critically, and learn, rather than glibly write their opinions behind pseudonyms in the public media. I have faith in the power of people to learn and attempt to understand others, and no one needs these opportunities more than our educators who are carrying agendas based on historical prejudices and misinformation. We should have teach-ins for our colleagues. If students are to learn about other cultures and benefit from interacting with others from diverse cultures, including different religious beliefs, our colleagues need to experience the same kind of learning. The key is to create an atmosphere in which people with what might be considered unpopular attitudes and stances will feel free to express themselves without self-righteous indignation from their colleagues who think differently.

People make fun of what used to be called “sensitivity training,” and- D perhaps the way this training was introduced and carried out deserve the derision, but something needs to be done to get educators in the same room with others who hold different opinions on an issue such as affirmative action, regardless of the decision of the Supreme Court, in order to have what have been called “difficult dialogues.”

The decision of the Court does not end the debate; it just goes underground and it smolders and eventually may damage those who depend on educators to prepare them to live in a world where intercultural understanding and communication is a requirement for not only their careers but for their life away from work. The good news is that, more often than not, today’s students are open and want to know and learn from other cultures. Faculty, administrators and staff who are locked into positions of ignorance are unable to help students move forward in a multicultural, diverse, and global environment. Our colleagues need help.

A Tale of Two Commencements

Commencements make spring memorable. During the past three weeks I have attended two commencements. I am humbled to have received an honorary degree at both. The commencements were similar to most in the order of the exercises and the joys of the moment. What was most different about them was the students.

One commencement I attended was for students from the eight different locations of Berkeley College throughout New York and New Jersey. Berkeley College is fully accredited by the Middle States Association and is family-owned. The other commencement was at Mitchell College, a small private institution in Connecticut on the Thames River.

I’m certain that like me, many of you who had the opportunity to sit up close as students received their diplomas were entertained by the choice of footwear among the graduates. At Berkeley College, there were no flip flops or sandals. The women, for the most part, had on high fashion platform, stiletto, or wedge heels, of which the glossy beige pump made famous by Princess Kate Middleton was a favorite. The men had on black dress shoes. Wearing one’s best shoes was important because this was a very special occasion for these students, their families, and their friends.

I think that the demographics of the graduates at these two commencements tell us something, but I’m not clear about the message. In sharing what I saw, I hope you will help me think about what the demographics might mean.

I spoke with a number of students at Mitchell College in order to prepare to give the commencement address. What I learned from these conversations is that the students felt that there was nowhere else they could have received the kind of academic and personal support they needed to complete the requirements for their degree. They said that regardless of their unique needs, the phenomenal faculty and staff always found a way to meet their needs.

I learned that the college has a renowned Learning Resource Center for students with documented learning disabilities, and/or ADHD. It also has a special program called the Thames Academy where students who have completed high school and are not quite ready for college because of a lack of general knowledge or particular learning difficulties or disabilities may experience a residential college where they can receive additional support through workshops and personalized learning plans. Approximately one-third of the students at Mitchell College need additional support.

When the graduates who had to work extra hard to overcome challenges to learning walked across the stage to get their diplomas, the joy was palpable. In one instance, a student who had a mobility disability not only walked across the stage with considerable difficulty to receive her own diploma, but came back across the stage to hold the hand and guide a fellow graduate who had a visual disability.

These graduates were proud of their accomplishments and the faculty, staff, administrators, families and friends were proud of them and, hopefully, felt some well-earned pride in what they had done to support this diverse group of students.

At Berkeley College, the racial diversity was not as apparent, and there were not any visible disabilities among the graduates who walked to receive their diplomas. As I sat on the stage and looked out at approximately 1,200 graduates, what struck me about the racial mix of students was that there seemed to be very few white students. They were definitely in the minority. Most of the faces of the students were brown and black and the last names most often called were traditionally Hispanic or Latino names. The commencement ceremony was held in the Meadowlands Sports Complex in the Izod Center, where even the high bleachers were filled with families and friends, most of which were black and brown.

I don’t know if my observations are the same as the observations you would make, and I’m sure that the conclusions I draw will be different than yours, but I think the demographics of these two commencements mean something. They may be telling us that those most in need of a good public education are choosing to go to private colleges where the costs will naturally exceed the costs of tax-supported public education. I might be wrong, but it seems that there is something fundamentally unfair about this situation. On the one hand, I wish the black and brown students whose families may not be able to afford a private institution would choose a more affordable public institution. On the other hand, I’m happy that there is a private institution that will meet their needs. I do not think that these students and families would choose a more expensive private institution if their local public institutions met their needs.

On the one hand, I am so glad that Mitchell College fills a unique and important niche for students who otherwise might not have the opportunity to achieve up to their potential. On the other hand, I regret that there are so many other students who could benefit from such an environment as that at Mitchell College but they and their families cannot afford to attend. It would seem that a priority of public colleges and universities would be to provide education to all students in their community. The two commencements uplift and encourage me, and they also make me want to do something to make public education more responsive and amenable to the needs of those students who need it most.