“Now Is The Time”
AASCU President Constantine “Deno” Curris and NASULGC President Emeritus C. Peter Magrath weigh in on the two associations’ diversity report and the impact they hope it will have on higher education leadership.
In the months leading up to the U.S. Supreme Court’s review of the University of Michigan’s landmark affirmative action cases, civil rights organizations vehemently proclaimed their support of diversity. Many members of the business community also voiced their support, filing amicus briefs on behalf of the university. But on the issues of affirmative action and diversity, the higher education community has since responded as if it is unsure how to proceed down this road. With the Court upholding Grutter v. Bollinger, but striking down Gratz v. Bollinger, it’s somewhat understandable why that confusion would exist.
So it was with guarded relief that most educators welcomed “Now Is The Time: Meeting the Challenge for a Diverse Academy,” the comprehensive report published last fall by the National Association of Land-Grant Colleges and Universities and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. The two organizations represent the vast majority of higher education institutions, giving them the audience necessary to prevent this report from being locked away in a file cabinet like so many others. Dr. Constantine W. “Deno” Curris, president of AASCU and Dr. C. Peter Magrath, president emeritus of NASULGC, recently spoke to Diverse about the background and context of the report and why they believe that the expected results will not be just business as usual.
DI: What prompted NASULGC and AASCU to produce a diversity report?
DC: The whole concept of diversity had become part of the political process as opposed to being viewed from an educational context. That’s not to diminish the significance of the court cases (Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger) decided by the Supreme Court. They, for the most part, reaffirmed what higher education was doing in terms of affirmative action and the achievement of diversity. The public mindset, and often the mindset on our campuses, was that, “Hey, the battle is won.” And the context was seen in terms of a political achievement, or a legal achievement, as opposed to an educational component that’s important for all our students. Based on that, I chatted with Peter Magrath and he readily concurred that we needed to elevate the significance of this study and that it ought to be a joint effort on the part of the two associations.
PM: I decided, let’s go with it. Maybe we can come up with something that really would not just rhetorically inspire the choir, but would provide some practical guidelines about what you could do at the University of California, Los Angeles or the University of Iowa or Wichita State University.
DC: We wanted to make sure we had some presidential leadership on the commission. [We wanted someone] who could take the concept of operationalizing and institutionalizing diversity as part of the educational process, and who could come up with a report that would be helpful to presidents who wanted to do something but really needed some guidance on how to approach it and make it work.
DI: In the absence of a legal affirmative action program, is this report the best guide higher education has to find ways to improve diversity?
PM: That’s a very good question. Things don’t happen in universities unless the president or the chancellor really wants it to happen and pushes for it. It’s not good enough that a president or a chancellor pushes for, let’s say, diversity or better international programs. But if they don’t do it, I guarantee you it will not happen. Presidential leadership sets the tone. This is one of the three or four things that are really important to my colleges and my universities.
DI: Is there a financial component to the report? Often the criticism is that presidents say they are for diversity, but then don’t financially support such efforts.
PM: I don’t think it’s a money problem. I think it’s an attitude problem, and an energy problem and a commitment problem. Let’s say we have an academic department, a 12-person department — nine White males, a female from India and two White females. No African-Americans, no Hispanics. “Oh, this is terrible,” the provost or the president concludes. “So, we’re going to set aside X amount of dollars for two or three positions and you all go out and really recruit or try to recruit individuals qualified but who are different, more like you than me,” and so on. I’m not sure that’s legal or illegal, but that’s kind of easy, isn’t it? You find you have the extra money and say you can have a few more positions and now go find yourself some good people. It takes a lot of effort to look for good people. I don’t care what their skin color or gender is. I’ve been in the recruiting business and watched this for years. I want the best people. If I’m hiring, I want to hire somebody good. I don’t care if they come in White or Black or Hispanic or Native American. I want to hire them because they’re the best people. But if I really want to have some of the best people, I’m going to look every place, in all communities.
DI: How do you gauge or ensure member buy-in to this report?
DC: You can’t ensure member buy-in. But what has been really encouraging has been the response that we have seen in two national meetings to this report. It resonates with presidents who have limited time and unlimited challenges, because presidents and provosts can look at this report, can see the questions that need to be asked, can take the time to ask those questions and then can ask the various parts of the institution, “Have you done this? Have you done that? Have you thought about this?” And just the asking of the question communicates a great deal within a university setting.
PM: The only way we can judge progress is over a period of time. It’s a matter of commitment, but the point we want to make is that it does depend on whether President X or President Y, rhetoric aside, says, “You know, this is a pretty good document and I’m going to implement it
here.” It is also supposed to improve the way things are being done under the existing circumstances, particularly for minority students and staff, in addition to the recruiting and attraction of students and faculty.
DI: What kind of country will we have in 2020? We know the statistical and demographic picture, but what kind of college and university environment will we have if we don’t take diversity seriously?
PM: Let’s put it on the level of practicality. I want to live in a country that is prosperous, and where we don’t have a quarter of the population that can’t contribute economically because they’ve not had reasonable opportunities. That means I want 95 percent or more of the population working productively, doing stuff and contributing. And do you know why?
Because I think that’s good for me and that’s good for the country. So if you look at the underclass, economically and socially, it is not exclusively minority by any stretch of the imagination, but it is certainly disproportionately minority. There are a lot of White folks that are in that category. We are talking about a quarter of the population of this huge country that, for all kinds of reasons, cannot contribute and doesn’t have the opportunity to contribute. And so, if come 2020, our colleges and universities aren’t doing better and are not well representative, we are going to become a failed country.
I say that because it’s clear that higher education is the passport to success. That’s why, in spite of all the financial problems, there are a lot of schools that still have extraordinarily high enrollments. In spite of the high tuition, people know — whether they are going to a good vocational or technical institute, a good community college or a four-year college or university — that if they don’t have some marketable skills, they’re not going to hack it.
DC: Diversity is there whether we want to acknowledge it or not. And the question is, “Will it be something that divides our nation, our society, in the years ahead, or is it something that helps to unite it?” And the fulcrum on that decision doesn’t fall solely on higher education, but without question, higher education is one of the keys that will determine the direction in which we go.
DI: How does globalization factor into diversity efforts? For example, let’s take a small state university in the Midwest. It has some very localized issues, and the policymakers and legislators are deeply concerned. And then there are the larger global issues. I read that one out of 10 new technology jobs will be initiated in India and that trend is going to continue to grow. How does a college president reconcile the localized needs versus the international needs for diversity?
DC: I think most presidents recognize that the world in which our graduates will function will be remarkably different from the world in which we have functioned. The whole issue of globalization is changing the economic patterns of the world and there is no sign that it’s going to be reversed. Consequently, our responsibility is to prepare our students to the best of our ability to function in that new world. For the majority in this country, they clearly need to recognize that across the globe Whites are a minority, not a majority. The ethnic, religious and color issues can either lead to world conflagration or you overcome those, and you can have a world in which prosperity can be extended into all corners.
DI: How is the diversity paradigm affected when you can get a kid with an engineering degree in the Philippines and pay him or her a $12,000 salary when the Stanford engineering student wants $60,000 to do the exact same work? Business people will say it comes down to getting work done, and it really doesn’t matter whether the workers are Hispanic, African-American or poor White kids from Appalachia. They just have to get the job done.
DC: You have described well what’s happening. They call it value engineering, but it’s really cheaper input costs. The challenge to us in higher education is to make sure that the graduates in engineering, or any other field from our university, have a superior education to those there. In other words, value added in the educational process to produce a better product than we will find elsewhere. What constitutes that extra? That’s the challenge to us. We have the freest society. We have the most technologically advanced society. We have, purportedly, the most well-educated people at higher levels. We can figure this out. But we know one thing, and that is they have to function in a globalized economy. They have to know and appreciate diversity. They have to be able to relate to people different from who they are.
DI: Are you optimistic that this report will make a difference?
PM: I’m a half-full guy, and I’m moderately optimistic that it will make a difference. I am totally convinced that whether or not it does, it’s a useful guideline and it can be used to benchmark whether things have changed somewhat. We have to be realistic. Universities don’t control the whole world. But unless we have a policy system at the federal and state level that really facilitates the opportunity for poorer students to go to a community college or university, it doesn’t matter what reports we have. If reasonable financial support isn’t there for these young people, the statistics are absolutely clear that lower-income people and particularly, but not exclusively, minorities are pretty reluctant to borrow and borrow and borrow. If you are upper-income or middle-class, that’s part of your lifestyle, and you are used to it, and you know you are going to make it. So, unless we have more need-based aid, and I’m passionate on this, as opposed to so-called merit aid, we’re going to be stymied in getting these doors open, regardless of what the college president wants.
The NASULGC/AASCU Task Force on Diversity report “Now Is The Time” is available for purchase. Please contact Carrie Composto at firstname.lastname@example.org, call (202) 478-6057 or visit <www.nasulgc.org/ initiatives.htm> for the order form.
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