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Interlink Alliance Faculty Development Conference

March 7, 2014
Virginia State University, Petersburg, Va.

Thank you, President Miller. You’re a great partner in Central Virginia. I’m delighted to work with you and proud to join you in the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Logistics Systems and in supporting Fort Lee in many ways. Our region is stronger because of your leadership at VSU and in the commonwealth.

I also want to recognize my longtime friend, President McDavis. We worked together for many years at institutions in the Mid-American Conference and at the University of Florida, beginning in 1988. He’s a tremendous leader and human being. I should also mention that he was a great provost at VCU in the years before I arrived there. We are engaged in a national search for a provost right now and are attracting really premier candidates because of the standard that Rod and his successors set at VCU.

Thank you for your generous comments about VCU. I’m very pleased that we will become the 10th member of Interlink Alliance. It is a formal acknowledgment on the national stage of our commitment to diversity, and a great statement about the partnerships that we can form to help the people who really need us.

Some of you may know that DiverseEducation.com recently named VCU as one of the top 20 best universities, excluding HBCUs, for minority students. And Education Trust praised our graduation rates among African-American and Latino students. INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine gave VCU its Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award, and we are one of only 27 universities nationally to win a Minority Access Role Models Award for recruiting, retaining and advancing diverse students and employees.

Diversity, in all forms, is absolutely a part of our fabric at VCU. Because diversity matters so much to us, and to me personally, I’m honored to be here to talk about how we, in higher education, need to promote and advance diversity in all its forms.

Diversity is a very important topic nationally, and that’s because of all of you. You have made a significant and important difference. But let’s recognize that we still have progress to make. As we consider what we still need to achieve together, let me pose three questions today:

  1. Why is it important for higher education to embrace diversity as a core value?
  2. What do our students gain from living and learning in a diverse environment?
  3. Are we as authentic as we can be in our commitment to diversity — and how can we help others become more authentic in theirs?

Again, I’m talking about diversity in all of the ways that people are diverse.

First, why is it important that we embrace diversity as a core value?

Higher education is about uplifting the human experience. It’s about building a better future for all human beings and creating opportunities for people from all backgrounds. It’s about helping communities become better places to live and learn — for all people. This requires us to engage people from all backgrounds and perspectives.

Higher education is really positioned to be a model for society in thinking about what we value, what every human being can contribute, and in doing more than just accepting differences but learning with and from one another as real peers.

Higher education is unique. No other sector of our society can do all of this. That’s why we have to lead the national conversation about making the academy more inclusive and promoting access, diversity and success everywhere.

To really do this, we need to make sure that we are a diverse community of thinkers and doers, that we have diverse people who bring new ideas to solving problems. So let me to give you an example.

In the United States, diversity in the health professions has not kept pace with national demographics. Ethnic minorities are about one-third of the U.S. population, but less than 10 percent of its medical students. This absolutely worsens health disparities in our nation, which are already severe in many places.

So at VCU — where we have Virginia’s largest safety net hospital — we began pipeline programs that are leading a more diverse population of young people into the health professions. Last year, 500 students from elementary schools to post-baccalaureate — from Virginia and beyond — enrolled in programs that showcase the opportunities available in the health professions. Many of these students tell us that they had never considered becoming a doctor, nurse, therapist, dentist or pharmacist before. In fact, some of them had never considered even attending college before — but they’re now focused on improving their lives and helping others better theirs. They’re thinking differently about the rest of their lives.

The pipeline programs can help solve a real problem in the community and open doors for all students. Students who, by the way, tell us that they want to be part of a university community that will empower them to learn with and from people who might look, think and live differently than they do.

Which brings us to our second question: What do students gain from living and learning in a diverse environment?

Many experts have looked at this, and many benefits have been widely publicized. We know, for example, that students in a diverse academic setting are more socially developed, creative and self-aware. They’re more able to think critically, to challenge preconceptions and to innovate. They have more confidence and diplomacy, and they’re better able to communicate and build effective partnerships. These benefits are true no matter a student’s ethnicity.

When our campuses are a medley of ethnicities, religions and lifestyles, our students learn to find their voices, to think broadly about current issues and to bring vibrancy to the dialogue in our classrooms.

But what about beyond the classroom?

It’s important to picture diversity on campus as more than a community composed of individual co-existing groups. We are global citizens, connected in ways that bridge intercultural gaps. So our campuses provide unique opportunities to engage with groups and cultures that help advance our understandings by challenging our assumptions.

It’s not surprising, then, that we see diversity increasing in higher education everywhere. More minority students are in college right now that at any point in our nation’s history. From 2009 to 2011, minority enrollment considerably outpaced majority enrollment at four-year institutions.

This is very likely a new pattern. By the end of this decade, it’s expected that half of the nation’s college applicants will be from minority populations. That number was 38 percent at the start of the decade.

Why do we see this?

Well, for one, our applicant pool is changing. In the last several years, there has been a sharp decline in the total number of high school graduates nationally. Even still, there has been a sharp increase in diversity among those graduates. We expect that a decade from now, most high school graduates in America are going to be ethnic minorities — enriching the landscape of this nation.

There’s a wonderful example of this just up I-95 in Annandale, Va. A public high school there has 2,200 students whose families represent 72 different nations. When our high schools look like that, of course our college campuses are becoming more diverse!

It’s a beautiful trend. And it means we have to rethink how we do everything, from recruiting students to the living/learning environment they have once they’re here. We have to operate differently, but also have think differently about diversity.

For example, how do our students self-identify based on ethnicity, nationality, religion and other factors? And how does that affect their social and academic success on our campuses?

Do we have enough access and aid available for students from diverse socio-economic backgrounds? More and more students are now — and will continue to be — from low-income families and the first in their families to actually go to college. It’s likely that these students will continue to transfer between institutions and to gather credits from multiple sources, in traditional, hybrid or online courses. It’s going to happen more and more.

Rather than a challenge, this really brings incredible opportunities for us to tap into these students’ potential, to realize the assets and talents that this new majority brings, and to address and reduce the historical disparities that are quite frankly still prevalent in higher education.

Let me give you another example.

Less than one-third of college students say their university’s administration does a good job addressing LGBTQ issues on campus. That’s a sobering statistic, but it’s not surprising. We remember the tragic story of Tyler Clementi, a freshman in college who took his own life after being bullied by his roommate because he was gay. Sadly, there are many more stories like his. We are all learning together that our LGBTQ students sometimes present unique needs that we have to be able to serve better.

We have to ensure that every single one of our students — no matter their background — has every resource they need to succeed.

Our campuses must be safe and welcoming places where every human being is treated with respect, dignity and professionalism at all times. That includes one another, by the way, and we often forget that.

The same goes for our communities. Which brings us to our final point: Are we as authentic as we can be in our commitment to diversity — and how can we help others become more authentic in theirs?

We all have publications and websites that we use as admissions materials. They’re designed to attract students by representing what life is like on our campuses. Well, about 15 years ago, one Big 10 university released its admissions booklet, and there was something unusual about it.

The picture on the cover was a group of students cheering at a football game. Every one of them was white, except for one African-American student visible on the margin. His name, it turned out, was Diallo Shabazz. There was only one problem with this. Diallo Shabazz had never actually attended a football game at this university. He was Photoshopped into the picture to represent diversity that, at least in that particular image, did not exist.

Sadly, this isn’t all that uncommon. A researcher looked at more than 10,000 photos used in admission materials from universities across the nation. He found that, in general, the less diversity a university had, the more likely it would be to use staged or altered photos like I just described. The universities in his study had enrolled about 5 percent African-American students but used those students in marketing materials about 15 percent of the time.

As institutions focused on building the future and the American Dream, our commitment to diversity has to be authentic in every way — including with new-generation college students and new-generation faculty members.

It’s not enough to pay attention to changing demographics so that we can try to market to and engage with emerging populations. We’ve got to have a sincere effort that’s not based on tokenism, or on giving people titles that just don’t matter. Authentic commitments to diversity — as engrained in our culture and modeled by our leadership — can produce a range of original and engaging ideas.

And that’s what we are called upon to do in higher education, isn’t it?

That’s what we can do together in the Interlink Alliance. I know I can count on all of you to think about how you can use your podia as national thought leaders on diversity to move our commitments beyond the Alliance. Let’s think about how we can open doors not just on our campuses and among our partners, but in our communities and among our leading employers and research collaborators. Let’s ensure that our nation is stronger because the contributions of all of its people matter, not just a select few. Let’s help society find good leaders from every demographic, and help our students succeed in every way possible.

Thank you for this engaging conversation today. And thank you for welcoming VCU so warmly into the Interlink Alliance. We are proud to join with you in helping advance diversity in our nation. We’re doing important work together — for our students, for our universities and for our society.

Thank you. Enjoy the conference.