Higher Education

In Higher Education, What Actions Represent a Commitment to Diversity – Inclusion?

I am a white, blond, blue-eyed male working at a rural Nebraska private, independent, liberal arts college.  I’m comfortable here – possibly too comfortable!  Hear me out.  I tend to believe the college educational environment should be created to challenge many of our beliefs in a safe environment.  This is one reason why I love the idea that students should travel abroad or experience an urban plunge.  We need to see how others live. I believe it’s healthy to be in uncomfortable (yet safe) environments to learn and reflect on experiences that may challenge our beliefs or personal expectations based on our own experiences.  When I consider skin color and student demographics, (as well as faculty and staff) there are many others “like me” on this campus.  Skin color is the same and like me, many students, faculty, and staff come from a small Midwest community.  And, like me, many have not been – let alone spent much time in – a metropolitan area (not sure Lincoln, NE applies here).

Recently, a gentleman conducted a workshop on our campus on diversity; Finding Common Ground.  He shared many things that stick with me but one activity in particular really got me thinking.  He was working us through our mission statement and strategic plan highlighting key words in the documents and engaging us in conversation about what these words meant to us.  Not the definition via Wikipedia, but the meanings in our minds.  There were many words we discussed but two that really hit home from our mission statement; “inclusive” and “commitment”.

What really struck me was the notion that both these words can mean slightly different things to different people.  I hadn’t thought of it that way.  I say them with relative ease and believe that they mean the same thing to most everyone.  That’s simply not true.  Put us all in a room and ask for each of us to interpret the meaning of “inclusive”.  There will be similarities no doubt but the speaker pointed out vividly an example in which context and culture impact the meaning of words to each of us.

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Reflect on this through-provoking example.  Consider the word “ethical”.  I believe that my understanding of what it means to be ethical is in line with most people.  But, picture for a moment a father with three children in a poverty stricken area where there is no food readily available.  He has no money to purchase food [Forget any argument that he should have a job or that he shouldn’t have had children if he can’t support them].  This man sees a food stand which in his opinion has plenty of food.  He makes the decision to take some food – not too much, but just enough – for his children to eat.  In fact, he doesn’t give himself any food.  He simply provides for his children.  In this man’s world, could he consider it to be ethical to steal in order to provide for a family?

I’m not condoning stealing nor is this an argument on ethics.  Rather, I’m pointing out the fact that what I tend to believe is a common understanding of a word or situation can be quite different from another person, particularly when you consider context.  So, when the topic of diversity is brought up, it is important to engage in a discussion in order to best understand what people think diversity means.  I believe there is a good chance that not everyone is thinking exactly the same way. 

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Back to my two words.  I believe in being inclusive.  But, to what extent do I believe in being inclusive?  Am I inclusive to the extent that I remain comfortable?  The fact that we at Doane College have a 13% minority population doesn’t make me uncomfortable.   I’m disappointed that our population isn’t more diverse as a college, but I’m certainly not uncomfortable.  So, it’s easy for me to say I want to be more inclusive.  In fact, is there a certain percent that would justify me saying we are inclusive?  What if 50% of our student body was Black, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, or Native American?  Is that now inclusive?  It’s much more inclusive no doubt.  At that level of diversity, would I still be comfortable?  And, if I’m uncomfortable do I still believe in being inclusive?  My point is that it’s easier to believe in inclusion because the antithesis may be frowned upon.  Who is going to say, “I don’t want to be inclusive?”  But do we truly believe?  Keep in mind my example is only related to skin color or ethnicity.  I don’t believe that the idea of inclusion is limited to our skin color.

Now, “commitment”.  Again, I believe most people understand the word commitment.  I wonder, however, if the level of commitment and the word commitment itself can be easily misleading.  At Doane we have a commitment to increasing diversity on our campus for students, faculty, and staff.  My question, what actions adequately represent commitment?  This diversity training workshop included 40 staff out of at least 200 potential attendees.  Does this workshop represent commitment?  To some it may.  We are moving forward with the appointment of a cabinet level position, Vice President for Access, Equity, and Diversity.  Will the appointment of a person in this position fulfill our commitment?  Or, is commitment ongoing regardless of what has been accomplished?

I bring this point up not to question our (Doane’s) commitment but to encourage people to reflect on a personal commitment to diversity and inclusion.  I’m working to reflect on my personal commitment and what I can do in my role to increase diversity and be more inclusive.  Thinking about it for 2 hours once every couple months may be one person’s definition of commitment because it represents movement forward beyond what was before.  To another, it may still not represent a true commitment.

I believe in the Doane College mission which embraces diversity.  I don’t say this as an expert or even someone who has experienced an environment with great diversity.  I want to be a man who embraces diversity personally and learns from my fellow man regardless of skin color or background.  I’m seeking to put myself in a position which may challenge my comforts and seek a greater appreciation and learning from those who have different experiences than me.  And, I believe higher education is the perfect environment to learn both as young adults and those of us old dogs that need to be taught new tricks.

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Doane College’s mission is to provide an exceptional liberal arts education in a creative, inclusive, and collaborative community where faculty and staff work closely with undergraduate and graduate students preparing them for lives rooted in intellectual inquiry, ethical values, and a commitment to engage as leaders and responsible citizens in the world.

 

The opinions expressed in this blog are that of Joel M. Weyand alone and do not reflect the position of Doane College.

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