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The Diversity Mandate

The Diversity Mandate

Emory University Provost Earl Lewis offers insight on the national climate for campus diversity.  

Before becoming the first African-American provost at Emory University, Dr. Earl Lewis had been on the front lines of the University of Michigan’s defense of affirmative action in higher education. At the time of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2003 decision upholding the use of race in academic admissions, Lewis was serving as dean of Michigan’s Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies and was vice provost for academic affairs/graduate studies.

Lewis, who went to UM in 1989 as an associate professor of history, arrived on the campus two years after then-president Dr. James J. Duderstadt implemented the Michigan Mandate, reportedly the most ambitious diversity initiative undertaken by a predominantly White research university. By the time Duderstadt stepped down
as president in 1996, minority enrollment at UM had increased from 11 percent in 1986 to 25.4 percent.

By 1997, Lewis had ascended to the dean’s office, where he played a lead role in the affirmative action cases. He would remain in the dean’s office until moving on to Emory in 2004.

In early August, Lewis spoke to Diverse and shared his insights on the national climate for campus diversity.  

Dr. Earl Lewis

POSITION: Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, Emory University

EDUCATION: B.A., History and Psychology, Concordia College; M.A., American History, University of Minnesota; Ph.D., History, University of Minnesota

SELECTED BOOKS: In Their Own Interests: Race, Class and Power in 20th Century, Norfolk (University of California Press, 1993), author; Defending Diversity: Affirmative Action at the University of Michigan,
(University of Michigan Press, 2004), co-author; To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans (Oxford University Press, 2000), co-editor.

DI: With the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions on affirmative action in higher education in 2003 marking a new era for diversity, do you believe American colleges and universities have committed themselves to diversity as strongly as they did prior to the decisions?

EL: It’s clear to me that in the days and weeks after the Supreme Court decision, universities heralded it as a positive step. However, after the decision, university attorneys, under pressure from external sources, began to try and figure out how to comply without creating more risk exposure for their institutions.

So, my sense of this is multi-fold. One, I think higher education and many institutions hailed the fact that the University of Michigan fought for the decision and that the Supreme Court said that one could still take race into consideration. At the same time, while they were hailing the Supreme Court decision, they were also responding to the threats of legal challenge. And it was clear that making programs inclusive became the way out. So the great balancing act is how do you achieve diversity with those groups that have historically been discriminated against.

There’s still a palpable political pressure to change the way in which we deal with access to higher education in the United States. There’s no university president who can ignore this.

DI: The Michigan Mandate might be considered a high mark for higher education’s commitment to diversity. Is there any institution that can be said to be currently pursuing a diversity push as aggressively as the University of Michigan did in
the 1990s?

EL: I think, in all honesty, no one is crafting it in the way that the University of Michigan did in the 1990s. It was a different legal landscape, so in the 1990s you could sponsor certain programs, you could take money off the top of your budget and you could designate special recruitment efforts. That’s not to say that people still aren’t doing that, but they haven’t come up with new practices to aggressively recruit students of color, particularly African-American and Latino students.

What Jim Duderstadt did when he was president of Michigan and when he created the Michigan Mandate was to say, ‘I’m going to take a certain amount from my budget and basically do two things — increase the number of students of color at this institution and increase the number of faculty of color.’

With regard to faculty, Michigan was more successful than most places I knew. There were as many Black faculty at Michigan as there were in the University of California system when I left in 1989. So you had nine campuses compared to one campus. What Michigan discovered in the late 1980s through the 1990s was that you are most successful when you hire in clusters. You are most successful when you assume that the people you hire may not stay forever. There were some real successes, particularly in the arts and sciences at Michigan.

DI: How would you assess Emory’s commitment to diversity? How might the university be improved, given the wealth of minority institutions in Atlanta and the South’s cultural resources?

EL: Emory University President Jim Wagner always tries to distinguish between a diverse collection of individuals and a diverse community. I think what we can say is that when you look at the numbers here, we look pretty good compared to our peers in terms of African-American and Asian American students. 

For us, with Spelman, Morehouse, Clark Atlanta [comprising the Atlanta University complex] AU Center nearby, we’re reminded all the time that young folks have choices. African-American students have choices, Asian American, Latina, White Americans, all of them, have choices. So, our goal is to go out there and compete hard, and to explain why entrance into Emory College is an option for young people coming into their freshmen year.

I think where we have the greatest opportunity to forge new alliances with the AU complex is at the graduate level. The numbers suggest that we don’t get our fair share of Spelman, Morehouse and Clark Atlanta graduates pursuing graduate education or professional education at Emory. I think the onus is on Emory to forge stronger alliances with the HBCUs and other institutions whose students can bring diversity to us.

DI: Is there a wrong way to go about strengthening diversity?

EL: Yes. I think one wrong way is to say that you hire a senior diversity officer and it’s his or her responsibility to make it work. It’s not going to work. As I keep telling people around here, we’re not going to find Moses, who’s going to come here and perform a series of miracles. No one’s going to be able to part the waters alone. Diversity and the development of a community will work if that person is working in concert with others in the community.

DI: How does a university president or provost get faculty
buy-in on major diversity initiatives? What are the most effective strategies?

EL: Let me recount a story, and I’ll get to the answer. This past spring, we were hiring a senior vice provost for diversity, and we were having a series of open forums. I went to one, and a senior faculty member in one of our departments raised his hand and said, “Well, Earl, you’re the provost. You’re going to make this happen. You’re going to give all the money that’s necessary and people will respond.”

And I remember saying to that person, “I alone can’t do it. I can create a position.” So, one way you deal with it and one way you can make it work, is to create incentives for people to want to invest. What I always say to people is that I don’t want to hire a woman or person of color just to hire a female faculty member or person of color. I want to hire someone who’s going to be excellent.

I want you to hire someone you believe has the potential to be a member of the National Academy of Sciences, et cetera. And I know they exist. Someone had to take a risk on Bill Wilson when he was a junior faculty member, before he became the president of the American Sociological Association and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Someone had to take a risk on a Claude Steele before he became a leading social psychologist, experimental psychologist and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

If you believe you’re hiring people who can succeed in this environment, then you provide them with the support that’s necessary to be successful.

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