Tuesday, July 23, 2013

20,000 Voices and Fisher v. Texas

Once again, all higher education institutions, especially selective public universities, have been confronted by the continuing issues surrounding the role of diversity on our campuses.  It is certainly an American set of issues, but not uniquely so.  One of the outcomes of globalization and global mobility is that increasing diversity – religious, ethnic, racial, economic – is raising a host of questions, problems, and issues at colleges and universities across the world.  American higher education has been grappling with the questions, problems, and issues for decades, but with mixed success, as is evident from the recent Supreme Court decision.
I think one of the difficulties is that our focus on creating and accommodating diversity has generated suspicion among many Americans about our motives, and whether there is any underlying and principled rationale for building diversity, or even attending to it at all.  Most American colleges and universities believe that diversity is central and important. Judging by the briefs filed in this and other cases, many sectors of our society also believe that diversity is important, even critical.  The decision in Fisher v. Texas, and much of the accompanying commentary, suggests that we have not yet provided a compelling rationale for our convictions about the importance of diversity, at least to a sizable fraction of our fellow citizens and several members of the Supreme Court.  I think it is possible to do so.
At the University of Rhode Island, and at many other universities, two relatively recent forces influence our commitment to diversity: the burgeoning diversity of our own country, and the impact of the global economy and an increasingly globalized society.  It is an educational imperative that we prepare our students to thrive in contexts where they have to work effectively with people who do not look like they do, who do not share the same world view, assumptions, politics, economic status, religion, sexual orientation, or fundamental beliefs.  Our graduates must be able to find common ground and develop shared goals with an enormous variety of others.  The massive global challenges they will face cannot be solved or overcome by a single nation or group.  Truly, the security, prosperity, and health of our students will depend upon their success in living and working productively in a world and country where they are, in effect, a minority. 
Frequently, fractious and divisive forces in our society hinder our efforts to provide our students with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed.  To mitigate these influences, I think it is critical to foster a community on campus where every member is valued, respected, welcomed, and affirmed.  We do not need to agree with one another, or even to have much in common, in order to create such a community. We have this in common – we all wish to be valued, respected, welcomed, and affirmed as a person.  One of the finest attributes of a residential campus is the possibility of creating such a community – a community that encompasses the students, faculty, and staff and extends throughout the dorms, dining facilities, libraries, gyms, classrooms, and offices of the university.  Creating such a community is part of the foundation for equity and justice, not just on the campus, but also in the societies in which we live and work.
As a step towards that goal, the University of Rhode Island, through the Office of Community, Equity, and Diversity (and co-sponsored by the Division of Student Affairs, the Office of the Provost, and the Office of the President) put together a continuing event termed “20,000 Voices”, to reflect the fact that URI is striving to build a community where all 20,000 members have a voice.  The exciting work begun in the daylong initial event continues through the work of discussion groups, committees, and organizations.  I have no doubt that these efforts will substantially assist URI in becoming the kind of community of which all 20,000 of us will feel proud.  (See uri.edu/diversity/voices and the recent edition of Quadangles uri.edu/quadangles for more information.)  Thanks very much to everyone who is participating. If you haven’t been involved so far, there are still many opportunities to make a difference.