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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Diversity and the CLA Roadmap

One of the concerns I heard from many of you prior to arriving on campus was that the college had made some progress, but not enough, on diversity. While there has been some positive news on student success (for example, retention and graduation rates), in other areas, such as retaining faculty, there was great concern.

To truly engage with the community, CLA must be a reflection of the community. To make better decisions and to be first rate in identifying emerging research questions, we need diverse perspectives. And to maintain the gains we achieve, we must establish a supportive, welcoming, and encouraging climate that attracts diverse faculty, students, and staff and enables them to thrive. Diversity at all levels is a critical challenge and priority and diversity is, accordingly, one of the five major goals on the CLA Roadmap as we pursue our vision of becoming a destination college. Our Diversity Goal Team has begun meeting to map out recommendations on how we make meaningful advancement toward achieving our diversity goals.

It is trite, though true, to observe that the academy has routinely pursued faculty diversity in the interest of building a vibrant intellectual, instructional, and research and creative environment. We hire in multiple disciplines, not one, and we include scholars who have a varying mix of interdisciplinary interests. Within a discipline, hiring typically occurs in a range of subfields. We seek scholars who are newly minted degree recipients as well as those who have achieved tenure at other institutions. With some exceptions, we generally seek to hire as professors those who have received their training from other instructors and institutions, rather than hiring our own. In all these ways, our hiring practices are designed to leverage the institutional and intellectual advantages created by building a diverse professorate. These advantages, we believe, are also beneficial beyond the edge of campus, for society.

Diversity defined by social identity similarly creates institutional and intellectual advantages. As with the kinds of diversity traditionally sought in academia and outlined above, social diversity helps bring new research perspectives and lines of inquiry to the university. It is a critical component in our collective quest for advancing discovery, knowledge, and expression.

In all these ways, diversity is a close relation to intellectual pluralism. A great college welcomes and values pluralism. But intellectual pluralism isn’t always easy. It requires receptivity to ideas and perspectives with which you may disagree, in the belief that inquiry and student learning is best advanced when ideas compete with ideas. It means you are alert to whether you default to the easy and comfortable hire who intellectually “fits right in” as opposed to offering a new intellectual approach that challenges prevailing departmental, disciplinary, or academic wisdom. Pluralism requires an honest self-appraisal of whether we are being truly open to a range of ways of defining which questions matter and being truly open-minded about how one might answer those questions.

Diversity also crucially speaks directly to the changing demographics in our communities and strengthening the connection between the university and these communities. Aspiring to and achieving the respect, belonging, opportunity, and place provided by a visible presence in our major public institutions has been a part of the story of many groups across American history. Universities and other public institutions over time became more diverse with formerly excluded or marginalized ethnic, religious, or racial groups now inside. Today’s aspirations are similar to those in decades past. These aspirations to overcome discriminatory treatment leave a powerful legacy. There is wonderful and inspirational healing, but alongside the healing there can remain lasting scars.

A diverse faculty, staff, and student body is reciprocally reinforcing. Doing better in one area strengthens our efforts in the other areas. All three help better prepare our students when they graduate for deep engagement and participation in an increasingly diverse society. We have an obligation and responsibility to serve the communities to which we are linked, and as a public land grant institution we are collectively accountable to them. Research and instruction that reflects the diversity beyond campus helps fulfill that obligation, responsibility, and accountability.

Diversity has been a long-stated goal of CLA and we must work ever harder and take concrete steps to achieve it. Top students, staff, and faculty are difficult to attract and retain, and this is doubly true of students, staff, and faculty of color.

We will need to have a mindset of piloting and experimentation to determine effective strategies. For this year’s graduate student recruitment, for example, we have increased the number of summers funded through DOVE fellowships and we will be able to track whether this change affects acceptance rates on our offers of admission. Some other possibilities are symposia or mini-conferences that bring faculty of color to campus to share their research and learn what we have to offer; graduate recruitment weekends to introduce prospective students to our departments, university, and cities; faculty cluster hires in thematic research areas; and additional funding to bring more candidates to campus for interviews. These are but a few ideas we could consider.

In the College in the months and years ahead, we will need to provide support, mentoring, engagement, and outreach at all levels to become and sustain ourselves as a more diverse CLA community.

As always, feedback is welcome at the Dean’s Suggestion Box or at clasuggest@umn.edu. You can review the progress of our CLA Roadmap here.