Diversity and the University
PRESIDENT HASSELMO embraced my proposal for a project that would move the university toward a partnership with the community and culminate in a forum on diversity, scheduled to take place in the spring of 1991. He committed the university to improving and enriching relationships among groups and expressed particular interest in community activities that would address issues of racial conflict and bigotry. To continue my work, he assigned me to the Office for Multicultural and Academic Affairs to develop the project.
My first step was to conduct a qualitative study that consisted of interviews with university faculty, staff, students, and administrators with the purpose of hearing their views on issues of intolerance that persisted on campus: intolerance for religious, racial, cultural, and lifestyle differences. I sought out and was generously provided with the names of individuals at the university who were members of the African American, Jewish, Native American, Asian, and Hispanic/Latino communities. By then, the early 1990s, the university had broadened its definition of diversity to include disabled individuals and members of the gay community, so we sought out their input as well. Informal meetings with each group were held over breakfast, and attendees were encouraged to consider some of the following questions:
- • How do you think we should proceed in our efforts to deal with issues related to diversity and pluralism?
- • In your opinion, what features of the University of Minnesota’s environment are most important in contributing to the success of diversity?
- • What have been your experiences in dealing with the issue of diversity?
- • Have there been any particular individuals who have been especially helpful?
My team—students led by graduate consultant Nuri Hassumani—and I focused on these questions because we were aware of their importance to the people who participated in the study. We also knew that concerns related to diversity—racism, equal opportunity, conducive work environments, and the valuing of diverse lifestyles and cultures—are often relegated to the realm of private anxiety or brought up in the safe environment of family or close friends, who are often not in a position to do much more than listen.
Upon completion of my research, the first ever All-University Forum on Diversity was held on May 29, 1991, at the Earle Brown Continuing Education Center on the St. Paul campus. Its purpose was to begin discussing how we, as members of an institution of higher learning, could best address President Hasselmo’s vision of unity with diversity. We designed the forum in a fashion that we hoped would pull in a good number of people from the communities who participated in our study. In order to accomplish this, we decided to create an event that would be entertaining and dramatic, an event we hoped would set a stage for an environment of trust so that we could get a sense of where we were at that time and where to go from here.
We were pleased that some 450 faculty, staff, administrators, and students attended the event on the Twin Cities campus, and others attended simulcasts on the Duluth, Crookston, Morris, and Waseca campuses. It was a lovely afternoon consisting of a keynote address by President Hasselmo; stories presented by a multicultural group of faculty, staff, and students; and Native American music performed by African American singer Faye Washington and a group of Native musicians.
I then shared my findings from the study we had conducted. There were three general types of statements made by the interviewees when they discussed the commitment of the university to the issue of diversity: (a) President Hasselmo’s sincere commitment to diversity issues; (b) a general lack of commitment by the faculty and staff; and (c) statements of hope about the university instilling a sense of commitment in everyone regarding issues related to diversity. Interviews with faculty, administrators, and students illustrated the work still to be done. One faculty member said:
I could have left the university and it wouldn’t really have mattered to anybody. If the university is really supporting diversity, somehow it ought to find ways to keep people like me around. They have soft money for certain trial positions in the area of diversity. Nobody supports their research, understands it. They don’t get tenure in departments. I think it’s a farce. So when the university says it supports diversity, I say, let me see your behavior. Something needs to be done to locate the pockets of diversity and nurture them, support them. The university needs to take a hard look at itself and do some preventative work instead of always Band-Aid work.
What am I most optimistic and most pessimistic about in terms of this institution? Optimistic about the fact that it is still positioned at a point where it can do things that other institutions can’t do. We have not lost our options. Our back is not to the wall. Minnesota isn’t there yet. I’m pessimistic because I see the same patterns emerging here, and I’m fearful that we won’t recognize that our window of opportunity is very narrow. This is true in terms of the university, and the Twin Cities as a whole.
From a student:
I was attending college while still in high school. I was a National Merit Scholar. I was admitted directly to the Institute of Technology. One day I went into a departmental office in IT. A staff person said to me, “Looking for General College? It’s over there.” People assumed I was in General College. On another occasion I asked a professor for more time on an assignment. He responded, “You shouldn’t be here if you can’t keep up like everyone else.” I said, “My grades are good and I have a scholarship.” Then he said, “If you are so good, you shouldn’t need more time.” Something totally beyond my control had occurred. That professor assumed I didn’t have the ability and that I didn’t possess the drive.
One time I had a problem with a director of a dorm. I filed a complaint and the director filed a complaint. At the hearing, my complaint did not appear. But the director’s complaint did. They decided in the director’s favor.
An international student with a disability had a wheelchair and limited use of his arms. At a final for one of his courses, there were a lot of calculations. There was no table, just chairs with tables attached. There was no place for him to pull up. He took a three-hour final on his lap trying to juggle things. He didn’t finish the exam. The faculty member couldn’t understand that this student didn’t have equal access to the test.
President Hasselmo then led a discussion on the question “Where do we go from here?” In addressing that question, I made the audience aware that this forum was only the beginning. Plans were underway to expand the discussion to individuals and groups outside of the university community, some who were in attendance that day. We wanted to take an even larger look at the views of the external community in order to find out if we were fulfilling our obligations to address issues in the surrounding community and how we were doing in terms of the town/gown relationships. Attendees were left with the knowledge that the forum would continue in May 1992 with a formal presentation of the findings of our study and the research we would continue over the following year.
I left the Earle Brown Center that day with a sense that the strong attendance and positive reception to all that was presented were powerful indicators of the conviction President Hasselmo and I shared—that the responsibility for carrying forward our diversity initiatives rested on the shoulders of each member of the university community.
I was eager to begin planning the second forum. I was intent on keeping the promises I had made to the individuals who attended the first year: to present a formal report on the study my team and I had conducted, and to expand the study by capturing the thoughts and feelings of individuals outside the university community. As a fellow in the Humphrey Institute of Public Policy and Affairs, I had crossed paths with many people in various sectors of the community: legislators, local officials, educators, the media, people from the various communities of color, the arts, and other segments of society. I hosted a number of breakfast conversations with individuals from those sectors. It was my belief that those meetings would present an opportunity to make specific and clear recommendations to the university administration and then to translate them into policy through the regents. Indeed, I got quite an earful from individuals who attended these meetings. One thing I learned was that there was quite a disparity in the way that whites and minorities viewed the issue of diversity and pluralism at the university.
The 1992 forum also included Faye Washington’s lovely music and addresses by President Hasselmo; Ettore “Jim” Infante, senior vice president for Academic Affairs and Provost; John Taborn; and several staff members and students. Representatives of the town/gown dialogue sessions also spoke, as well as members of the Minnesota Department of Civil Rights, the Minneapolis City Council, a state representative, and a representative of the media and educators. We continued to offer lectures, forums, seminars, and other events in the fall quarter of 1992, and in May 1993, we held a third forum. This final installment of the All-University Forum on Diversity was held on the Duluth campus and focused entirely on students. Mahmoud El-Kati was the keynote speaker.
I presented my Report on the Self-Reflective Study: Attending to Human Details in May 1992 at the Earle Brown Center to an attentive audience and a positive representation of the university and the community. Leading up to the event, I had developed a series of more than a hundred spring quarter events in response to the university community’s desire for increased information on diversity issues. Lectures, forums, seminars, and other events developed by professors, artists, musicians, and others from minority communities, both local and national, were presented at all of our campuses. Noam Chomsky lectured on the “The Columbian Era: The Next Phase.” The poet Sonia Sanchez gave a reading, and Debbie Stumblingbear gave a talk on Native American culture. Diversity roundtables were conducted and a weekly colloquium for professors and teaching assistants was held to teach them alternative teaching approaches for enhancing diversity in the university classroom.
My report was an in-depth reflection of the views of the one hundred students, staff, faculty, administrators, and community members interviewed by graduate students; it revealed how we at the University of Minnesota felt about how we were doing in terms of diversity. As pointed out in the examples above, many respondents indicated that making diversity and pluralism a reality would require making the institution more inclusive of minorities with regard to diversifying its student profile, having a greater number of minorities in the composition of its faculty and staff, and establishing a curriculum representative of the pluralistic nature of American society. They emphasized how important it was for President Hasselmo to provide the leadership necessary to bring about such fundamental changes in the values, goals, and objectives of the university.
Respondents also suggested strategies for making these changes and pointed out that, first and foremost, the quest for diversity and pluralism must be understood, supported, and catalyzed by those who are in key administrative positions—provosts, vice presidents, deans, department heads, and directors. In addition, they felt that while societal values and norms have a considerable influence on the manner in which the university’s culture is shaped, administrators cannot wait for future social or political forces to alter the values and culture of the university. Many interviewees believed that the administration and the regents were sincere in their commitment to diversity as a needed component of excellence but were skeptical that the university could or would deliver, as similar goals had been stated in past years. The issuing of memorandums and letters of intent for the promotion of diversity and pluralism was no longer considered adequate. To achieve the necessary changes, respondents believed that administrators would have to provide bold and visionary leadership.
Interestingly, the participants believed that efforts to achieve greater diversity and pluralism would be resisted by those whose support would be necessary. They believed, therefore, that the changes would come too slowly for some and perhaps too quickly for others. They cited the various complexities and contradictions inherent in the culture of the university, such as the pattern of intolerant behavior that I cited earlier, along with sincere efforts to address those behaviors as major issues in need of consideration and attention.