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Using Power to Solve the Diversity Dilemma

Using Power to Solve the Diversity Dilemma

I n Dorothy Winbush Riley’s 1995 edition of My Soul Looks Back, ‘Less I forget: A Collection of Quotations by People of Color, the Iroquois are credited with having this to say about power:
“Power means authority, the authority of law and custom, backed by such force as necessary to make justice prevail.”
The cover story in this edition (see pg. 22) addresses the scant, yet significant presence of people of color at the National Academies, which include the National Academy of Science, the National Research Council, The National Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Engineering. Together, these powerful institutions are responsible for generating hundreds of policy studies every year on subjects such as technology, education, health and the environment; studies that can have a significant influence on shaping national policy.
It is unclear exactly how many people of color are members of the National Academies because the Academies do not maintain this type of statistical information. We do know, however, that there aren’t many and some members worry that the pace of racial diversity at the Academies has flat-lined.
Election into the National Academies is based primarily on a person’s scientific accomplishments as well as one’s peer network. “A very good minority in an isolated location will clearly fall through the cracks,” says Dr. Richard Tapia, a member of the National Academy of Engineering.
The important question here is not how or why this happens? We already know those answers. But rather, are we doing enough to correct the problem?
Despite considerable progress that has been made to diversify this nation’s seats of power in recent decades, we remain a nation whose most powerful institutions are overwhelmingly dominated by White men. By the time you read this letter, our 224-year-old nation of roughly 276 million people — one in five of whom is a person of color, and more than half of whom are female — will have elected its 43rd White male president. The senior posts of corporate America continue to be largely White and male. And people of color occupy fewer than 200 of the nation’s more than 3,000 college and university presidencies. Nearly two-thirds of these presidents of color head minority-serving institutions.
Like it or not, White men continue to play a dominant role in all of our lives and, therefore, must continue to play a leading role in providing people of color with access to seats of power.
This year, as I suppose is appropriate at the turn of a century, several of our most prestigious postsecondary institutions are experiencing a change in leadership. As the guard changes, we are losing a group of White men who have been leading players in making diversity an imperative on our nation’s campuses.
People like Stanford University’s Gerhard Casper, who retired this past spring; Princeton University president Harold T. Shapiro, who retires next summer;
Harvard’s Neil L. Rudenstine, who resigns at the end of this academic year; and the American Council of Education’s Dr.
Stanley Ikenberry, who will retire in June.
These men may not have done all that we hoped they’d do to advance the diversity agenda. But each has led his institution — and others — to make significant strides in support of diversity. They will most likely be replaced by a new generation of White men, people who must recognize that the nation needs them to play a principal role in pushing the diversity agenda forward, not just to maintain the status quo.
Most Americans agree that diversity should be a priority for our postsecondary institutions. There is, however, no consensus about how to achieve that goal. Solving this diversity dilemma must be a priority for our new higher education leaders, especially those at our most prestigious institutions. They must show leadership in the struggle. Because if higher education fails, the nation fails.
After all, if we don’t increase diversity at our postsecondary institutions, how can we produce the leaders we need to diversify our other institutions, such as the National Academies? Diversity is not only the best way to insure that justice will prevail, it is essential to our nation’s future as a global leader. 

Cheryl D. Fields

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