1. Leadership Breakfast: A Dialogue on Diversity

    February 16, 2015

    Note: Remarks as prepared for delivery.

    I want to thank all of you for being here, and for your ongoing dedication to the University of Michigan.

    I know that all of you – Regents, faculty, staff and students – have been integral to U-M’s work on diversity.

    As, Regent Diggs said, diversity was an issue discussed by the Regents from the beginning when I was first being considered for this job.

    Some of you have been at this for decades, and I value your experience, your ideas, your commitment and your passion for making U-M a better place.

    All of you deserve a big hand for your willingness to keep this commitment alive regardless of the obstacles our university has faced.

    Thank you. I very much appreciate the opportunity to hear from you directly, both today and moving forward.

    In fact, I consider your contributions in this arena essential to the future of the university.

    While this morning is my first large-scale conversation on the issue of diversity at U-M, I view it as just an early step in a much bigger effort.

    I hope that you will join me in having an ongoing and long-term dialogue on diversity for our campus.

    I want to build upon the work you have done, and hear your ideas for how we can be better.

    I can assure you that my commitment to engaging with you as leaders in our community is a top priority for the long haul, because I am committed to making diversity, equity and an inclusive campus environment a major focus of my presidency.

    Many of you have been part of the University of Michigan’s epic journey in this regard.

    It’s a journey that has spanned the generations, through the Civil Rights Movement, economic recessions and recoveries, Supreme Court decisions, and great, but always difficult, social change.

    We have seen victories and defeats in court cases, laws passed, policies written and then rewritten, and student protests that have resulted in actions that changed our campus.

    As a community, we have learned a great deal from this journey, but we are far from finished.

    I mention our complex history because it both helps us frame the challenges we face and also provides us with important milestones that give us hope through all of our difficulties.

    For instance, the Black Action Movements of the 70s and 80s led to improvements at the university and, decades later, also helped to inspire the recent protest by our Black Student Union and the creation of the #BBUM movement.

    I will always remember the moment last year, when students attended a regents meeting and sat in the front row with duct tape over their mouths.

    They were expressing dissatisfaction over their voices not being heard, of feeling marginalized and excluded.

    But this was Michigan. Written on the tape were the words, “Go Blue.”

    Despite their concerns and issues, they wanted others to know that they love the university and were trying to make it better, not tear it down. I was proud.

    The affirmative action lawsuits of the late 90s and early 2000s were a rallying cry for our campus that catalyzed a nationwide effort to articulate and document the value of diversity in higher education.

    The university community’s courageous stand in the Gratz and Grutter cases also attracted some of the world’s most talented and passionate educators to U-M and led to the establishment of the National Center for Institutional Diversity.

    And no discussion of our complex history, however brief, would be complete without mentioning the challenging effects of Proposal 2 of 2006.

    As we move forward, we must respect the democratic process and the constitutional amendment approved by the people of this great state.

    I am confident, however, that within the current law, we can tap the unmatched creativity and talent of the U-M community and innovate to make a difference in the diversity of our students, faculty and staff.

    Many of you have launched projects and initiatives to do precisely that.

    And some of those who were drawn to our campus during the Gratz and Grutter cases are here with us today, as are some of the BSU students I mentioned.

    All of this is in our favor.

    So while the challenges to diversity, equity, and inclusion have been decades in the making, and though they continue to persist today, I have every confidence that they will not outlast our will.

    For amongst you and many others on campus, I have seen no evidence to suggest that we lack the talent, commitment, and creativity to be better.

    But I have seen plenty of evidence that we are of one heart when it comes to the idea that talent is uniformly distributed across the populace, but opportunity most certainly is not.

    It is up to us to reach out to all types of communities across our state and nation to bring the most talented students to the U-M and let us become a vehicle of their opportunity.

    The very essence of this great university gives me confidence that we will succeed.

    Throughout our history, we have aspired to greatness, to fulfill the most noble ambitions of our public ethos, and to be the leaders and best.

    These ambitions led us to produce Ida Gray, the first African American woman to graduate in dentistry, and Aditi Hardikar, who is the LGBT liaison for the Obama White House.

    I believe that our reason for being here this morning, the reason why we need to have a serious conversation on diversity and begin to chart our way forward, is borne in those very aspirations:

    That we seek ever increasing excellence in academics…

    That as a public institution, we have the responsibility to serve ALL of humanity.

    And that we, as the Michigan community, will take on the biggest problems facing our society and bring to bear the best minds, the most-talented faculty, staff, and students, and produce the path-breaking innovations that create lasting change.

    These are the reasons Michigan appealed to me, as well, and I want to take a few minutes to address each of these aspirations and how I believe they specifically relate to diversity.

    First, I firmly believe that we cannot achieve true academic excellence without leveraging the experiences and perspectives of the broadest possible diversity of students, faculty, and staff.

    When we engage across difference as an academic community, we expand our opportunities to learn from one another – inside and outside of our classrooms – and research demonstrates that we also achieve better learning outcomes and produce more creative and important new knowledge and levels of understanding.

    Dr. Marc Lamont Hill put this another way during his keynote address at our Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium last month.

    He said that “diversity helps us arrive at more complex ideas.”

    At the same time, we have heard from members of our community – students, staff, faculty, and alumni – who don’t always feel safe to express themselves, or to participate in campus activities, because they are different from those around them.

    Members of our community have told me this personally in numerous meetings.

    They have shared their stories, which are sometimes very painful, and they have asked for my help.

    Stepping up on their behalf is an important aspect of my commitment.

    A key part of realizing our full potential when it comes to excellence is creating a campus climate that allows diversity to flourish – in all of its forms.

    We cannot neglect any group in our work.

    Those of different races and ethnicities, sexual orientations, gender identities, faiths, income levels, political perspectives, viewpoints, and disabilities all must feel welcome.

    I hold that the second aspiration I mentioned, having to do with our role as a public university, gives us a special obligation to extend the reach of our excellence across the full breadth of our society.

    And race is undoubtedly a key factor in extending our reach.

    If we do not address the very real challenges of ensuring increased racial diversity, we will not be able to best fulfill our public mission.

    The National Center for Education Statistics reports that there are now more minority students than white students in the nation’s public K-12 schools.

    Those are the college students of tomorrow, and our success will hinge on attracting the most talented among them to Michigan.

    At the same time, we know that employers want diverse graduates, who can succeed in the multicultural environment of the modern workplace.

    The third aspiration is just as relevant to diversity.

    The Michigan community has a passion for solving problems, and we do not shrink from the biggest and most complex issues facing society.

    Over the last year, we have been tragically reminded that the deep wounds of racial discrimination in America remain unhealed.

    The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice have exposed the societal problems that far too often divide us as a people, such as racial strife, intolerance and a lack of equal justice under the law.

    There are also additional challenges in the communities we serve.

    For instance, the National Poverty Center in our own Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy has found that “racial disparities in poverty result from cumulative disadvantage over the life course, as the effects of hardship in one domain spill over into other domains.”

    Disparities in access to quality public education are an example.

    Nationwide, only 35 percent of African American students who had high math scores in fifth grade were enrolled in Algebra I in eighth grade.

    The proportion for white students was more than 60 percent.

    The percentage of high school dropouts among Hispanics and Native Americans ages 16 to 24 is more than twice the national average, according to the National Center for Education statistics.

    Clearly, these and other aspects of diversity, equity and inclusion are among the many problems that demand our attention.

    And we will need a diverse campus community if we are to be at our best when we choose which challenges to focus on and bring our considerable talents to bear on their solutions.

    We simply cannot miss the opportunity to bring the most talented and diverse individuals to our campus.

    Somewhere in a K-12 classroom there sits the next Alexa Canady, a U-M alumna who is the first African-American woman to become a neurosurgeon.

    Or the next Cecilia Munoz, a U-M alumna who received the MacArthur Award for her work on immigration and civil rights and now directs domestic policy for the Obama administration.

    Or alum and Pulitzer-winning journalist Eugene Robinson, or perhaps even the next Dr. Marc Lamont Hill.

    The Michigan community, and all of society, would benefit from their presence here.

    To achieve these aspirations, we need to take a long-term approach that both builds on the work we have done and strategically sets a course for the future.

    We have already begun the process of creating a Strategic Plan for Diversity for the university.

    As part of the broader effort, I have asked our schools and colleges to develop their own plans, and we will be developing plans for central administration as well under the leadership of our Executive Officers.

    Our Dearborn and Flint campuses and their communities are deeply committed to diversity, inclusion and a welcoming climate on their campuses and they will be important partners for Ann Arbor in these efforts as well.

    The comprehensive scope of these plans will be unprecedented for our campus.

    They are not meant to be quick fixes, however.

    We must take the time to do them right, but we must also move with purpose.

    Our planning process will be thorough and collaborative, with input that includes the dialogue we will have here today and those we are planning in the future.

    Later this semester, diversity and inclusion will the topic for a meeting of all the department chairs on our campus, convened by the Provost and me. We will also host a campus-wide Summit on Diversity in the Fall.

    As we discuss the larger plans, we are moving ahead on a number of initiatives that have already been in the works, thanks to many of you.

    I will briefly touch on a few of them:

    We are working to launch new partnerships with K-12 school districts in Michigan that serve students who are underrepresented in higher education.

    These types of partnerships have been successful in the past.

    The concept is to work with the schools to identify students who show promise, and then offer college preparatory programs after school, on weekends, and during the summer.

    We will also work with the students’ families, to ensure that they understand the process of sending a student to Michigan, and the financial aid resources that make that possible.

    More generally, we are working to assure that the excitement of the moment of successful admission to U-M isn’t tinged with apprehension over affordability.

    On campus, we are developing a proposal to create new services for First Generation college students at Michigan.

    These services will expand the work of our existing First Generation student group, so we can better serve the needs of such students, helping them feel more

    welcome and assisting them in navigating what can be an unfamiliar system.

    Based on a recommendation in the report from the Provost’s Committee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, we will be implementing professional development programs to help new faculty to be more effective teachers for all of our students.

    This means providing skills to address and prevent micro-aggressions in the classroom as well as strategies for effectively calling upon diverse perspectives in the classroom to achieve our learning goals.

    To help our entire community, we are significantly upgrading our Diversity web page to be a better resource for sharing our work as well as information about, and access to, our diversity-focused programs and resources.

    We have made and continue to consider changes to the Race & Ethnicity requirement in various schools and colleges.

    Human Resources has convened a staff task force on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

    They will examine the hiring, promotion, and climate for staff, in particular staff who are part of underrepresented groups at the University of Michigan, and make recommendations for change.

    I met with a large group of Voices of the Staff members recently, and I am very impressed by their work and commitment to the university.

    As this work continues, I am also pleased to announce two actions that I will be taking in the short term, as part of my commitment to making diversity a major focus of my presidency.

    First, I will be visiting high schools throughout the state of Michigan that serve underrepresented students.

    I have already been invited to Cass Tech in Detroit, and I hope to visit more places in urban, suburban, and rural communities.

    Second, I am very mindful of those who have told me that our campus climate is not where it should be.

    In response to the concerns of the Black Student Union, Student Life implemented the Change It Up program in the fall for more than 4,000 first-year students.

    The program’s centerpiece is a workshop that develops students’ skills and confidence when intervening in situations that negatively affect individuals and the campus climate.

    It’s fully interactive and uses actors to portray realistic situations that students may encounter.

    The results have been promising, in terms of both new skills acquired by participants and recognition of behaviors they previously hadn’t recognized as negative.

    Change It Up will be repeated in the fall for new
    first-year students, and some of our schools and colleges are working to implement the workshops for graduate students.

    At the request of Voices of the Staff, I have asked Student Life to create a version of the program for staff and administrators.

    When the program is ready, I will be in the first course – and I am asking the Executive Officers in my leadership team to join me.

    Friends and colleagues, we have much work to do in the months and years ahead.

    Creating a strategic plan to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion is a massive undertaking for our campus.

    My intent today is not to set specific goals for the plan – or even to define what success will look like.

    To do so seven months into this job would miss the opportunity to learn from those on campus who have done tremendous work in this regard, as well as those who may have new ideas to share.

    I want you and the many other committed individuals in our community to help us craft our goals and objectives, and suggest or improve initiatives that will allow us to achieve real change.

    What I want to do today is set forth a broad set of guidelines on how I hope to approach this work.

    Our plans should inexorably link the values of excellence and diversity.

    They should include clear expectations and measures of accountability.

    And, when appropriate, they should commit to devoting resources to great new ideas as well as areas where we are already having success.

    I will work with the Regents and Provost Pollack to identify and allocate resources as appropriate for these important purposes.

    I can assure you that every idea with merit and impact will have the full consideration of my team and me.

    Finally, I want us to be innovative and ambitious.

    Let’s examine how our plans can result in change that is impactful and sustainable, and consistent with the deeply held values that attracted all of us to Michigan.

    I am looking forward to a robust discussion today – and to the dialogue that will continue in the months ahead.

    I am hoping for a long-term effort that involves everyone.

    We are all in this together.

    On the issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, we are of many minds, and I hope we will hear many voices.

    But we are also of one heart.

    Thank you for helping us make this university a better place.

    Together, we can embrace the best parts of our past and the brightest minds of the future, and create new levels of pride and excellence for everyone in the University of Michigan community.

    Thank you very much.