February 11, 2004
Good morning! I want to thank all of you for committing your day to this discussion.
I especially want to thank Senior Vice Provost Lester Monts for his leadership in organizing today’s event and also thank Dr. David Schoem, Director of the Michigan Community Scholars Program, for his help in the planning the various sessions. I also want to thank Dr. Monts for agreeing to lead the Diversity Council that I appointed last year. I am very grateful for all the time and effort the members of that council have devoted to this issue.
We have a lot of work to accomplish today, and I am delighted to see such a wide representation of our university included here.
We need to bring perspectives from every corner of our community together to find ways to enhance and energize our commitment to diversity on this campus. We have been the center of national attention on this issue as we defended our two admissions lawsuits, but now we must turn our focus and our energy inward.
Here are three key points that will guide my own participation today:
First, our commitment to a diverse campus community must be real. All of us have a stake in our success, and all of us must participate in realizing our ideals. We must establish a climate that welcomes and celebrates diversity in our classrooms, our services, our laboratories, and every setting, day and night.
Second, my commitment to this issue is both professional and personal. I want to make sure this becomes a principle of institutional accountability. All of you can play a crucial role in supporting this issue in our own university, which can provide a model for other universities and our society. All of us must be prepared to provide leadership. We must each take responsibility to ensure that we have an institutional commitment that extends throughout our campuses.
Finally, the excellence of this university depends on our ability to define and to advance our goals. An outstanding university that is diverse has a strength that comes from the hybrid vigor of a multitude of ideas and perspectives. I expect us to have a university that continues to provide an intellectually engaging and challenging environment that other universities will want to emulate.
Our blend of students, faculty, and staff from many backgrounds is a great resource at the University of Michigan, and I want all of us to benefit from the mix of perspectives that is enriched by the culture that each person brings to our community.
So these are three principles to consider: a real commitment to a welcoming climate; accountability both on an institutional and an individual level; and the recognition that the vigor of diversity will create a better and more intellectually rich university.
Last week, I met with an executive of a Fortune 500 company. He is knows our campus well, and serves on one of our advisory boards. His company recruits here extensively because of the excellence of our graduates, and because they reflect the diversity of our nation. When he was talking to me, he communicated some concerns that we should consider.
He told me that he was encouraged to see an office devoted to minority affairs in the academic unit where he recruits, and he has heard faculty and staff talking about their commitment to diversity. But he questioned whether that commitment was real, or whether it was artificial. He made it clear to me that he could sense when the commitment was real, and he was not completely sure it was there.
We need to make sure that our commitment is genuine, throughout the university. We must do more than set up offices and recruit staff members to deal with issues of diversity, and to assume that will solve problems of climate. Diversity is not a concept that can be walled off from other of our ongoing priorities.
Why this summit? And why now? Institutions, like people, must on occasion decide to make a leap forward. We all reach moments when we have to ask ourselves — are we doing well enough? Can we do better? I know that we can do better, and we must do better on the issue of campus climate. And that is why I have invited you here today. Our high-level and street-level concepts need to meet face-to-face, to provide a springboard for a new level of excellence.
I invite your frank dialogue and your critical analysis, but I also want to tell you what I expect our university and our leadership to do in the months and years ahead.
- We will do more to develop our institutional best practices to create a diverse academic community and a truly welcoming environment.
- We must focus on aggressive recruitment and retention efforts for diverse and exceptional faculty, students, and staff, and we need to understand better how issues of climate are affecting those who decide to join us, or to leave.
- We need to infuse our curriculum with a multicultural and interdisciplinary content so the richness of our intellectual environment is deepened.
- We need a broad strategy for an institutional commitment to diversity that is effective and long-lasting — we must ask ourselves how this pledge is manifested in our teaching, our research, and our service.
We all know that the University of Michigan has undertaken a unique role in advancing diversity and civil rights in this country.
The six years of the admissions lawsuits, and the landmark decision of the Supreme Court last June, have placed us in the center of the debate about affirmative action.
Because we have staked out such a public presence with our defense of the lawsuits, our subsequent actions are receiving intense scrutiny. We need to turn that scrutiny to our advantage.
Yesterday’s news about our current admissions process is a perfect example of living under a microscope. Our new admissions process is the subject of ongoing inquiry. Although we will not be able to provide our full data until autumn, there is considerable public interest in the early stages of this year’s admissions.
Like many other universities in 2004, we have a somewhat lower number of applicants this year. New applications arrived in large quantities at the deadline, so our data will continue to shift. What is most reassuring to us is that the quality of the applicants continues to be very high. However, we remain concerned about declines in applications from minority students, and we will be following those trends very closely as the admissions cycle proceeds.
We have received hundreds of suggestions for improvement from aspiring students, their families, and high school counselors. When this cycle is complete, we will consider changes that might make our very individualized approach better for aspiring students.
This semester, our university is focusing its attention on the anniversary of a landmark decision in civil rights — the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education. I want to thank the organizers who brought the Brown sisters to campus last month. It is compelling to hear their story firsthand, told from the center of the 1954 decision. They vividly detailed how very different, and how very unfair our educational system was 50 years ago.
To our students, 50 years ago is very old history indeed — but look around this room, and you will see many of us who remember that decision, and who lived through the implementation of integrated school systems. In some parts of our country, there were violent, divisive events that have shaped our lives.
This brings me to my second point — for me, this is a personal commitment as well as a professional one. We need to find the ways to make this commitment feel as urgent to everyone, as it does to those of us who lived through the turmoil of civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s.
Dr. Monts and I had very different experiences, he in Arkansas, and I in Georgia, but we stand here today and bring the visceral memories of those days into our experience here.
I was a schoolchild in Georgia when the Brown decision was handed down. But even though that decision clearly stated that the concept of “separate but equal” schools was no longer to be a principle in American education, the Court was ambiguous about the timeline for implementation of integrated schools. My family sat in the middle of the turmoil that resulted.
In some parts of the country, including Georgia, officials were so opposed to carrying out the mandate of the Court that the funding of entire school districts was put into jeopardy. In examples of extremely regressive logic, it was argued that is would be better to provide no funding to any schools than to fund integrated schools. There were threats, inconceivable as it seems, to close down public education. My parents, both of whom were teachers, were alarmed enough to seek new jobs and to find us a new home in a state where the educational system was not a pawn in political battles. In a way, the Brown decision set me on a different course than I would have pursued had our family stayed in Georgia — and that path has brought me here today.
Dr. Monts could tell you a very different story from his vantage point as a student in Arkansas, and he can provide vivid testimony of being on the front lines of school integration.
Diversity is not an abstract ideological commitment to me — it is part of what I observed and lived as my career unfolded. When I was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in the 1960s, very few minority students or women were enrolled. I am convinced that the absence of these voices affected the questions that were asked and debated, and prevented some questions from being posed.
When I returned to Chapel Hill as an administrator twenty years later, I saw living proof of the positive intellectual impact of the intervening civil rights laws and of affirmative action. Both the student body and the faculty contained different voices and backgrounds, drawn from a far more diverse universe.
But the impact of this diversity was not limited to the classroom.
Many of us here can remember the dogma of much medical research
before the 1980s. White males were considered to be ideal research
subjects, and it was thought that whatever was learned in that
group would be applicable to females and in all other races.
Although researchers learned a great deal from studying this
is now very clear that clinical trials must include racial and
gender diversity, because medical discoveries about any one group
are not universally applicable.
Here is a perfect example of the impact of diversity on research: this is National Heart Month, and almost every day, we receive press releases about increasing awareness regarding the difference in symptoms and treatment of heart disease in minorities and women as compared to white men. We have learned that when women and minority scientists are included in teams posing research questions, we gain a richer understanding of the health of our entire population.
So my own experiences and background have taught me that a mosaic of voices strengthens all of us. At the University of Michigan, we have adhered to the highest academic standards and have shown the world that diversity and excellence do indeed co-exist here.
This brings us to my third principle: a diverse university is a better university because of the vitality that many perspectives bring. We must continue to improve the intellectual life of this campus, and that can only happen if we incorporate the multitude of ideas that emerge from faculty, staff, and students from many cultural backgrounds.
But my job, and your job today, is to find the ways we will be able to identify the best applicants for enrollment or for jobs, and to communicate to people of all backgrounds that we are truly seeking to build a diverse and welcoming climate. The competition for the best students, the best faculty members, and the best staff, is intense.
We need to find measures that will let us track our success, just as we are tracking our efforts in attracting students from varied backgrounds to our campus.
We have an excellent example of a program that has examined a problem and has looked for solutions. It is our ADVANCE program in the sciences and engineering, directed by Professor Abby Stewart, which has identified the hurdles facing the advancement of women in the sciences. This project is federally funded, and has allowed us to see where we have real and perceived impediments, and to find solutions for addressing them.
We need to identify a comparable approach for achieving other forms of diversity. If we cannot get our arms around the problems we face, we will not know if we are reaching resolutions. We all have anecdotal stories about diversity, but we need to move toward deeper conversations.
We must be able to discuss difficult issues and consider hard truths. We must be frank with each other today, but I want us all to take care that our different points of view do not devalue people making other arguments. It takes friction to create heat and fire. I want us to generate a fire that will provide us with light, not burn us — and this is a noble ideal, but it does require concentration.
I want us to find a way to have this friction become a source of inspiration throughout our campus. If we never learn how to face our different points of view, we will bury some of our most productive conversations. Our students, our faculty, and our staff need to be able to advance their views in an atmosphere of free expression.
I want us to start to see not only what we might fear, but what those around us may also fear. And frankly, I think most of us have a fear of changing our comfort zones, of our status quo. But what is the status quo? I have my own view of the status quo, Dr. Monts has his own view, and every student who arrives here brings a comfort zone. We all need to become more permeable to new experience — diversity is not a matter of letting someone else into our world, but rather of us opening our doors so that we take some risks by encountering the new and different. If we try to hold on to our current patterns and expectations, we will limit our possibilities.
Using diversity creatively may involve daring to move beyond the comfortable, the known, the entirely predictable.
In this room, there is endless possibility, and I want us to learn how to tap into that reservoir of potential.
There is one more issue of concern that I would like to address. Many programs across the state that open doors for women and minorities are at risk. They are threatened because of an initiative that seeks to limit the ability of public institutions to consider race and gender as factors in determining participation.
The language of the initiative would change state law in a way that would prohibit us from using the fair and balanced tools that the Supreme Court provided. This initiative wants to eviscerate the language affirmed by the Court.
We have seen the negative impact of similar initiatives in the states of California and Washington, and I am determined to do everything possible to make sure that the citizens of Michigan understand what is at stake, and that they comprehend the unintended consequences of that initiative.
We have challenges to face on many fronts — externally,
and internally. Today, our attention is on our own house, and
we can improve our climate.
We are building virtual communities everywhere on our campus and throughout the world. On this issue, we must make sure that we have an actual community of inclusiveness.
Thank you — now, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work!