There is an abundance of opportunity when tackling the questions of equity and diversity in education. But there is a scarcity of courage and will when it comes to doing what is right and in the interest of the public good to ensure that diversity and equity are central to any mission that seeks an empowering education for students or, better still, tomorrow’s state drivers.
I continue to receive emails from Black students explaining their experiences on the campuses of the University of Michigan, Wayne State University and Michigan State University, where Black student enrollment is down. At the same time African-American parents who are seeking a better education for their children at institutions that once would frown upon their admission, underscores the need for educational administrators to articulate a vision that truly embraces diversity, and not a press release statement.
University presidents should not be afraid to do so because the judgment of history will only vindicate those who honestly and boldly stood the test of time and confronted the difficult whirlwinds of regression that always rely on the convenient excuse of “This is the way we’ve always done things,” and stand in the way of an enlightened leadership.
An enlightened leadership is effective and open-minded and is driven to make a difference in the lives of students and the community, not to please those who are around you, especially ones who have been upholding the culture of standing still or the defenders of the old order having shown themselves to have been the stumbling blocks against an educational mission that puts diversity front and center of achieving academic excellence.
A creative, insightful and focused driven university president will bring in his or her own team to show not only a real changing of the guard and a departure of the past but a readiness to define a new era for the university, making diversity and equity a top agenda.
A leader personifies the culture of an institution and the institution is only as good as the leader.
When the leader of an educational institution fails to send a clear message on the greater questions of equity, and instead opt for mix signals, hiding behind institutional excuses or delay tactics, it underscores either the weakness of the institution’s moral authority or the unpreparedness of the person who sits at the helm to lead with courage, ignoring the cries for equity and diversity that result in real social transformation.
That is why the world is, and we are watching in particular the University of Michigan which entered a new era this week, with Dr. Mark Schlissel, the former provost of Brown University, taking over the reigns of leadership as the 14th president of one of the great public universities in the nation.
Schlissel, whose official duties began on July 14, replacing Mary Sue Coleman, is arriving at a time when the University of Michigan is burdened with the challenges of creating access to a UM education for deserving low-income students and others from disadvantaged backgrounds as well as the glaring need to address the urgency of educational equity that reflects a racially diverse student campus.
Having a racially diverse campus is part of the new America, that we were alerted to in the last census report and it underscores the importance of educational institutions that seek to broaden their research based on the multiplicity of cultures that make up their student body.
Prior to his appointment by the Board of Regents, the university witnessed a series of disturbing demonstrations this year organized by the Black Student Union who were making demands for a more racially tolerant campus on the global social media platform Twitter before it caught the attention of the general public and mass media. The Black students said they felt isolated and at times the attitudes shown by some of their companion students do not speak of a racially accepting learning environment.
In fact, it was more surreal when the students seized a symbolic opportunity during the 2013 Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration on the steps of the Hill Auditorium to show their discontent at the same time the global statesman and entertainer Harry Belafonte was giving a lecture inside the auditorium on the values of peace, justice, fairness and equity.
For those who have been closely watching the aftermath of the 2006 ballot question that banned affirmative action at UM and finally affirmed by a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the campus-wide protests in response to declining Black enrollment which is at 4.4 percent, prioritizing the Trotter Multicultural Center, among other things, were signs of things to come.
It was just a matter of time before the subtle issues of race and education exploded, and it did. Some of the demands of the students were recently met when the Black Student Union reached an agreement with university officials to address some of the core issues that led to the demonstrations.
The university will spend $300,000 to upgrade the Trotter Multicultural Center and has agreed to look at different ways of increasing Black student enrollment.
Universities are great only when they can mirror America being a growing rainbow nation. The fact that our communities are changing and companies are seeking a more diverse workforce is a message to university presidents and administrators that it is time to fight for racially diverse campuses across America.
It is in the interest of any educational institution that seeks continued relevance to show that its campuses are examples of the current census demographics.
Schlissel has given me his word that he is ready to tackle the challenges of diversity head on, and I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt as he takes the helm at UM.
Exactly three months before he took over at UM, Schlissel and I exchanged correspondence about a number of issues around diversity and access to education during which he described his appointment as a “fantastic opportunity to do good in areas I care about deeply as well as an important responsibility.”
I was impressed by the seriousness with which he approached the issues we discussed in the correspondence. He didn’t wait to arrive in Ann Arbor before beginning those conversations. He wanted to let me know right away that this issue will not be on the back burner in the Schlissel administration.
I expect nothing less. Indications are that he wants to make a difference. I also believe that students and faculty at the university expect nothing else.
Writing from the Office of the Provost at Brown, Schlissel assured me that “The quality of the education and research conducted at Michigan depends greatly on the diversity of our campus community at all levels — students, faculty and staff,” adding that he hopes to discuss more the links between diversity and academic excellence once he is settled.
So I welcome the fair exchange between Schlissel and I and hope to continue the dialogue and for his administration to show that it has the metrics that will give present and future African American and Hispanic students and all students hope on the campus of the university.
The fall of affirmative action should not serve as an excuse to do nothing. Rather it should be the biggest motivator to show how innovative the incoming Schlissel administration will be in demonstrating that academic excellence can be achieved through a racially diverse campus. And the most important ambassador in making that happen is the president himself. Schlissel should be the university’s biggest proponent, protector and defender of diversity.
With diversity comes the very ideas enshrined in the Declaration of Independence that “All men (and women) are created equal,” that every institution wants to live up to.
Schlissel can make a difference in asserting the unalienable rights of students of color to secure a meaningful education in an environment that allows them to grow and find a sense of achievement without perceived systematic deprivation.
I would recommend Schlissel consider appointing a cabinet level personnel that will chiefly handle racial diversity and equity at the university, a position that will find answers to the seemingly intractable problems around increasing Black student enrollment and other issues affecting students of color, while not neglecting the needs of other students. The appointment of a cabinet position to address racial diversity will be historic and will send a strong signal across Michigan’s educational community that a new and difference-poised academic sheriff is in town.
The bottom line is that Dr. Mark Schlissel is standing on the threshold of history. Black students and other students of color who want the same as every other student on the campus of the University of Michigan are asking him what is his charge to history.