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Systemic Change in Higher Ed Needed to Achieve Truly Diverse Academy


Higher education needs systemic institutional change in order for colleges and universities to become truly diverse and multicultural.

That was the one reoccurring theme that circulated during workshops and panel sessions of the Association of American Colleges and Universities Network for Academic Renewal Conference entitled, “Diversity and Learning: A Defining Moment,” held late last week.

“We came and did our personal changing and our personal learning at this conference. But now we need to take this back and do it at the institutional level,” says Alma R. Clayton-Pederson, vice president of the office of education and institutional renewal for AAC&U.

Panelist Elizabeth Minnich, a senior fellow at AAC&U, urged those who work to improve college diversity to forge coalitions that serve as the foundation for lasting change.

“We are doing the work to which higher education in its noblest most rhetorically ringing terms is supposed to be doing. We are not the add ons. We are not the special guests. We are not only the resident troublemakers and correctors. We are the ones who understand and make part of our work that you can’t search for truth, [and] you can’t judge excellence unless [you have] equality and justice,” Minnich said.

But, “non-dominant groups [tend to] reinvent ourselves over and over and over again instead of, as they say, standing on each other’s shoulders, holding each other’s hands and building something richer and deeper. Let’s not let that happen in our slice of time and place.”

Not only should these connections be made horizontally across group lines, but also across the vertical hierarchal lines of the academy, said another panelist. Research institutions, historically Black colleges and universities as well as community colleges should all be abreast of what each other is doing to create diversity on their respective campuses, says Kathleen Wong, executive director and founder of the Women of Color Research Collective and an assistant professor in the school of communications at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo.

“We are not looking for innovation in all the right places,” Wong says. “We are not making those across-hierarchy connections that we need to make.”

Part of the building of a more diverse academy would entail moving away from the separatist college culture into a more integrated environment.

“I think the defining moment for me for this vision is seeing my campus being a more socially interactive diverse campus with people integrated in different groups instead of separated,” said Neil Hartmann, a junior in communications at The College of New Jersey. “What happens in the classroom happens when it is forced. So I think that that can only come through systemic change.”

Diversity practitioners should not be subscribing to the notion of incremental change or that change won’t occur in our lifetimes, said Jose Moreno, assistant professor in the Department of Chicano and Latino Studies at California State University, Long Beach.

“If we don’t think that we can change things in our lifetime, then I think we really set ourselves up to really, really limit what we can do,” Moreno said. “It only takes one person that can make a decision that can change the institution in the matter of weeks or a day.”

After the panelists spoke, attendees formed small groups, that deliberated and presented methods, tactics and guidance measures that everyone could take back to their respective campuses. Some of those included: being brave enough to step out of a comfort zone to insist on diversity, leadership retreats on diversity for senior college officials, reaching out to alumni to support diversity initiatives, broadening the admissions criteria and making sure that diversity is part of a university’s strategic plan.

“What we are after is the well springs of the injustices, the untruths, the exclusions that have made our work necessary in the first place,” Minnich. “The things that keep those things going — the structures, the systems, the assumptions, the beliefs — this is massive transformative work of psyches, hearts, spirits, minds, bodies of knowledge, structures of power. That’s systemic change that we are talking about.”

Reader comments on this story:

There is currently 1 reader comment on this story:

“a clearer vision”
The AAC&U Conference covered many aspects of diversity issues in higher education.  What was very eye-opening is that the participants, after attending some of the excellent workshops, could place their institution on a time-line or develop a clearer vision of what they could be doing when addressing diversity issues. The research presentations were also interesting and materials distributed could be used to assist and enhance different areas of academia: Student Affairs, Curriculum reform, Faculty recruiting and retention, and campus climate.

Gretchel Tyson, PhD.
Schenectady, NY

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