Multicultural Affairs in the Age of ‘Valuing Diversity’The U.S. Supreme Court’s support of the University of Michigan’s “valuing educational diversity” rationale has ushered in a new age as multicultural and minority affairs units must evolve not only to meet this legal standard, but in many cases to justify their existence and do even more. Indeed, recent activities by conservative organizations like the Center for Individual Rights and the Center for Equal Opportunity suggest that they may target campus cultural centers and diversity programs in the next wave of attacks on higher education. At the same time, budget cuts across the country are forcing diversity units to scramble and justify events that reach a very small percentage of the population and are not easily understood as value added for those students that do attend.
The social justice rationale may not be enough to fuel the mission of these units under current judicial interpretations of the law and emerging economic imperatives. As higher education institutions move from a social justice to a valuing diversity rationale, it is important that diversity units evolve as well. New standards and priorities are emerging in the current era, and we must assume a new leadership role at the front of our institutions. Rather than retreating or resisting these challenges, I suggest that we approach them as an opportunity to consider whom we serve and how we serve them. It is time that diversity units move from the margins and become more holistically integrated into the academic fabric of their institutions.
Student unrest during the 1960s and ’70s led to the development of diversity units to support the cultural, academic, political and social interests of African Americans and later other historically underrepresented ethnic and racial minority groups. In the years ahead, diversity units can play a prominent role by optimizing their programs to support all students. This does not mean that diversity units should forget their historic role as advocates for students of color. Rather, it suggests a need for these areas to expand their activities by developing new programs focused toward leadership in a world that is global, interconnected and based upon teamwork and intergroup cooperation. Soul food dinners and even “diversity” speakers can no longer form the core of our practice. Moreover, when these events do occur, we should assess their impact to understand and explain how they add academic, social and/or cultural value to the students and community members that participate.
We can no longer be content with hoping that “majority” students hear our speakers and attend our events and somehow become culturally competent citizens. To the contrary, diversity units must lead our institutions in establishing courses and leadership programs that teach students new skills to manage conflict and negotiate social differences necessary to participate in a pluralistic democracy. Along with leveraging technology, the ability to lead and follow in diverse groups will become the critical leadership skill of the 21st century, and diversity units must be aware of the most innovative approaches to insuring that our students are prepared in this way.
Diversity units must take this opportunity to improve and update their approach to achieving and measuring the impact of diversity in this turbulent and critical time. By analyzing their current mission, aligning existing programs to better meet current legal and educational standards, establishing new initiatives to enhance the cultural competencies of all students, building research capabilities and fostering new alliances at their institutions, diversity units can entrench themselves for success.
— Dr. Damon A. Williams is the assistant vice provost for
multicultural and international affairs at the University of Connecticut.
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