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The New Era of Diversity

Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, weighs in on the prospects for diversity in the Obama years.

Early next month, Molly Corbett Broad for the first time in her tenure as the American Council on Education’s president will preside over the organization’s annual national meeting in Washington, D.C. ACE is the largest nonprofit association to represent college and university presidents and chancellors, with a membership drawn from more than 1,800 accredited, degree-granting institutions in the United States. Broad is known widely in American higher education circles for her tenure as president of the University of North Carolina system from 1997 to 2006. In North Carolina, she presided over the 16-school university system that saw significant enrollment growth as well as $2.5 billion in capital construction projects and renovations. Broad’s tenure at ACE has coincided with the presidential election of Barack Obama, providing an opportunity for the organization to lobby anew for its vision of an inclusive and productive American higher education system. Broad recently spoke to Diverse and the following is what she had to say:

DI: What priorities and initiatives should the Obama administration pursue to strengthen U.S. higher education?

MB: President-elect Obama has indicated during the campaign his great interest in expanding access to higher education and the importance of that not only for individuals but for the nation as a whole. At a time when we are in a highly competitive, global economy the level of educational attainment of our citizens and of our work force is very important — more important than it has been in the past. And we see the president-elect as a person who is deeply committed to access, who himself was the great beneficiary of opportunities notwithstanding financial circumstance.

I also think that because he himself has been in higher education (as a law professor) he understands in a deep way that diversity is a core value of American higher education. I think he believes sincerely and authentically that every citizen should have the fulfillment of knowing that every opportunity is open to them, that their achievements and aspirations are recognized, and that they will have every opportunity to fully participate in the society and in the economy. It is more than symbolic for Barack Obama; it is a deeply held value. And I think it holds enormous promise to transfer the important symbolism in new and very real ways. So, I think it’s a great time for the issue of diversity to be understood and to be expanded in ways that perhaps we haven’t seen in the past.

DI: What is ACE doing to help its members cope with the current economic crisis?

MB: Our initiative for the economic stimulus package is very much built upon belief that not only is higher education a great asset of this nation — it enjoys the reputation of being the finest university system anywhere in the world — but it can be a very important instrument for the nation to help us get out of this recession. So, the proposal for the stimulus package with Pell Grants and other forms of student aid would have an immediate impact on our economy because those funds would be spent, and people would be hired. But it will also help raise the level of education and make a more competitive work force 10, 20 and 30 years from now.

And the other part of our stimulus package was for capital construction for renovations of laboratory facilities, for new classrooms to expand capacity in investment for “shovel ready” projects, which would also provide an immediate stimulus by hiring people who do the construction and providing income to their families. So that is probably the most immediate and significant way we help colleges and universities struggling with the costs of higher education and the financial crisis.

The impact on their endowment returns is not something ACE is in a position to do anything more than to serve as a clearinghouse providing information.

DI: How would you assess the work of the Spellings Commission as well as the overall Bush administration record on higher education?

MB:Well, the Spellings Commission, in many ways, was a wake-up call for America and higher education (in) raising issues about accountability and the importance of learning outcomes and assessing what those outcomes have been. I think that we are the beneficiaries of that wake-up call because (we are) resisting the specific proposals coming from Secretary Spellings and Charles Miller, the (commission’s) chairman, and arguing a one-size-fitsall strategy is a very ineffective way of improving and assessing the quality of higher education.

But it has been a very powerful incentive for us to engage in efforts to do more thorough, more complex, and a more nuanced set of strategies. And we are working much harder today than we were before the Spellings Commission existed in making thorough assessments and thinking seriously about what high impact practices may be and if there is a way of approaching those high learning impact practices in a cost-effective way.

In general, I think the Bush administration’s focus in education has been heavily on K-12 elementary and secondary education and the legislation of No Child Left Behind.

DI: Do you think there may be more focus on higher education taken by the Obama administration?

MB: It is very hard to gauge. [U.S. Secretary of Education-designate] Arne Duncan enjoys a very strong reputation for the work he’s done in Chicago in the public schools, but higher education has not been an area where he has had any particular focus, and so I think it’s a matter of waiting to see where higher education will fit into the equation and what choices he makes for staffing the Department of Education in the areas of postsecondary education and student financial aid.

DI: As a former president of a university system that has several public historically Black institutions, how can ACE and other higher education associations help minority-serving schools better serve their populations, which include disproportionately high numbers of socioeconomically disadvantaged minority students?

MB: We have five historically Black (public) universities that are part of the University of North Carolina. The health, strength and quality of those five campuses is stronger today than it ever has been throughout history, and it’s a source of great pride for the university and for me personally.

There’s a history in which historically Black universities have been underresourced. What we did was infuse resources, expand academic programs, [and] enhance the quality of laboratories and other buildings. And given the historical importance of HBCUs, especially in North Carolina, it is a wonderful part not only of the history but the future of that state.

If you were to examine them today you would find them strong and healthy and substantially larger and financially healthier than they ever have been.

ACE has throughout its history been deeply committed to minority-serving institutions and, particularly, expanding need-based financial aid, which is the best way at the federal level to assist minority-serving institutions.

DI: As they go forward do you think HBCUs will have to make adjustments, perhaps modify their missions to justify public support?

MB: I don’t think you ever have to modify your historical mission. But the understanding of diversity that exists in HBCUs can logically be extended to other students of color, to the rapidly growing Hispanic population, to Asians. There is an understanding and a sensitivity at HBCUs that you might not see at other institutions and the richness of the experience in the classroom when you have students from many different races and backgrounds is what helps to enhance the learning.

DI: How will ACE push higher education institutions to strengthen their commitment to diversity?

MB: Diversity and opportunity are core values in American higher education. They are among the characteristics that distinguish American colleges and universities from those around the rest of the world. And evidence about the value of diversity in the classroom is very persuasive. So, bringing stories and showing best practices, and trying to leverage the advantages to the campus that come from a commitment to diversity is a very important part of the role of ACE.

We are looking at a dramatic transformation of the leadership in American higher education over the course of the next decade where half of all the sitting presidents and chancellors in the United States are 61 years of age or older.

So, we’re going to see a dramatic change in the leadership and one of the major roles of ACE is to help fill the pipeline with individuals who reflect the full pluralism of our society. And, in particular, persons of color and women. This is a strategically important priority for ACE; our programs on advancing to the presidency are among the most effective programs anywhere. The track record of the movement of individuals who participate in programs like Advancing to the Presidency and then moving into a presidency is very impressive. So, we are working not only to fill that pipeline in ways that reflect the full diversity of American higher education. We’re also working on ways boards of trustees and search committees are more conscious and more deeply committed to recruiting individuals in those leadership pools that come from diverse backgrounds.

One of the programs that ACE has launched is the program to support the position of chief diversity officer and increasingly that diversity is an enriching experience for students and for the campuses in ways in which that diversity can be leveraged in international connections and in building the curriculum. There are ways that what we think of traditional affirmative action can be integrated with the curriculum, globalizing that curriculum, and reaching out in international initiatives.

And so the chief diversity officer is one that ACE is working to enhance the breadth of that office and its significance across the campus beyond simply overseeing certain processes.

DI: What role can ACE have in expanding Hispanic access to higher education, given that we may see federal action on the plight of undocumented students as well as a continued focus on Hispanic-serving institutions?

MB: One of the most important ways that ACE can be supportive is actually through our work with K-12 because one of the great challenges that we face, especially with persons of color, is they never graduate from high school and therefore a postsecondary opportunity is not feasible if they drop out of high school. And as we look at the young adult population, we are seeing significant numbers of young adults of color whose level of education is not going to succeed in giving them prosperity.

Our concern about achieving the American dream that every generation will be better off than the previous generation is a very important priority for us. We are at a tipping point as a result of the historical differences in educational attainment between Whites and persons of color. And this is particularly true for Hispanics, whose levels of high school graduation, postsecondary attendance, postsecondary graduation are all lower than African-Americans, dramatically lower than Whites and Asians. It’s a very significant priority for our nation.

I do believe the issues around immigration must be addressed at the federal level if we are to have a comprehensive and strategic policy for accommodating this very substantial demographic transformation in our population.

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