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Diversity is not optional, by Donna Shalala

Diversity is not optional

By Donna E. Shalala

October 23, 2001

Last December, a federal judge ruled that the University of Michigan was justified in considering race in undergraduate admissions because of the educational benefits of diversity. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments in December in Cincinnati as to whether to uphold or reverse the federal judge's ruling.

This case is about more than diversity in education. It is about excellence in education. It is not possible to have one without the other.

Nor is the case about overcoming the barriers of race alone. It will have broad implications -- from higher education to the workforce -- for equal opportunity for women as well.

My experience at the helm of three institutions of higher education has confirmed my belief that a rich learning environment cannot be cobbled together from a sterile amalgam of test scores and grade point averages. The world's great ideas were not formed in that environment and students will not graduate to live and work in it.

Instead, they will graduate to -- and ideas can only be fully appreciated in -- an environment in which they interact with and are challenged by perspectives completely different from their own.

If students came to great institutions like the University of Miami and the University of Michigan simply to memorize material by rote, diversity might be less important. But they do not. They come to discuss ideas, challenge them and -- if we in higher education truly succeed -- form new ones of their own. To do so, they must be steeped in a diversity of perspectives rather than simply dabbed with a veneer of homogeneity.

That makes diversity a matter of academic excellence. It is also a practical imperative, which explains why so many Fortune 500 companies have filed briefs supporting Michigan's diversity programs. They know that students who learn in diverse environments will be prepared to work in them -- and that if they are not, they will be unable to thrive in a global economy in which they must interact constantly with coworkers and customers from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

This is not to say that every woman -- or Asian or African-American -- has the same perspective. Far from it. It is to say that a community that includes students with different life experiences will maximize the understanding, ability and ultimate success of all students in the world at large.

For those reasons and more, every student -- indeed, every person -- shares a common interest in diversity on campus. But the dreams of those who must overcome especially high barriers in society -- including women -- are particularly at stake.

And those efforts are still sorely needed. Studies show that standardized tests do not fully capture the aptitude of female students. Those who are admitted to college face discrimination in financial aid and barriers in math, science and other nontraditional fields that remain largely closed to women.

And discrimination continues beyond the undergraduate years: Women receive fewer than 40 percent of doctoral degrees. Many of those who pursue careers in higher education, as I did, land lower-ranking positions and earn less pay. Women accounted for a third of faculty at U.S. colleges and universities in 1992, for example, but only 18 percent of full professors.

All this, too, has practical implications. Because women are underrepresented in technical fields and the professions, they earn less. And when women are underrepresented in the workforce, the needs of women are often overlooked in society. It is surely no coincidence that as women have advanced in medical science, there has been increased attention to women's health issues such as breast and ovarian cancer.

Efforts to make campuses diverse can help to overcome discrimination in all these areas. In addition to the practical and professional training young women and minorities receive on campus, they can also assume leadership positions and explore new challenges in an environment in which they are encouraged.

If the Court of Appeals does not embrace the landmark Bakke decision, in which the Supreme Court held that the Constitution permits certain university programs to consider minority status as one factor, and holds that the Michigan policy is unconstitutional, diversity initiatives could be derailed in several of their manifestations: as they apply to women and other minorities on campuses and in corporations.

To be sure, there would be no grounds for such a conclusion under the standard the Supreme Court has set for the consideration of race in university admissions. Michigan's policy neither grants nor denies admission on the basis of race; instead, it takes a student's whole background into account as one of many factors.

The policy serves a compelling government interest, as the Supreme Court has said it must. Helping minorities and women to overcome discrimination is one such interest.

Another, just as compelling, is that diversity of backgrounds and perspectives serves the higher purpose of higher education: providing an environment that challenges students while preparing them for adult life. And that makes diversity in education an imperative for excellence.

The author is president of the University of Miami.

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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