Diversity is not optional, by Donna Shalala
Diversity is not optional
By Donna E. Shalala
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
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
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.
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
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
The author is president of the University of Miami.
Copyright © 2001, South Florida