In Support of the SIUE Diversity Plan

by John E. Farley

When a newspaper editorial and a letter to the editor were critical of the SIUE Diversity Plan and the funding to carry it out, I wrote the following letter to the Edwardsville Intelligencer:

The SIUE Diversity Plan has recently been the subject of commentary on your editorial page, both in the form of an "I" editorial and a letter to the editor. I am a member of the SIUE Human Relations Advisory Committee, which recommended the Diversity Plan to Chancellor Nancy Belck. While I can speak only for myself and not for the committee, I would like to share with your readers the reasons why I enthusiastically support the Diversity Plan, as well as the funding to make it reality.

Today's society is becoming increasingly diverse. In another 50 years, according to Census Bureau projections, half the U.S. population will be composed of people of color. Fewer than 25 percent will be white males. We all have a crucial economic interest in making the United States a society where all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, religion, or disability, have the opportunity to achieve and produce to their highest potential. If we exclude anyone from such opportunity on the basis of these irrelevant personal attributes, we will all suffer: our society will be less productive and we will be left in the dust by our many international competitors in today's global economy.

Unfortunately, neither America as a whole nor SIUE has yet reached the stage where irrelevant personal attributes don't influence people's opportunities. In the state of Illinois and at SIUE, African American students remain about a third as likely to gradauate as white students. Numerous studies show that the main reasons for this are not academic: Rather, black students do not experience predominantly white campuses as places where they are welcomed and valued. SIUE, unfortunately, is no different. In the spring of 1994, Chancellor Belck and the SIUE Office of Human Relations had the wisdom and courage to hold a diversity forum, at which student after student spoke about their experiences at SIUE. African American students, women, gay and lesbian students, and students with disabilities all spoke about specific instances in which they had experienced unwelcoming and even sometimes hostile behaviors on the part of students, faculty, and staff at SIUE. Many, too, said they felt devalued because their culture or ethnic group was often left out of the history, literature, and human achievement they had learned about in their classes at SIUE. It was an upsetting event - some left in tears. But to me, at least, it was not surprising. In a project funded by previous SIUE President Earl Lazerson, I had conducted videotaped interviews with SIUE students two years earlier - and repeatedly heard virtually identical stories to those told at the diversity forum.

The diversity forum was a major impetus for the development of the Diversity Plan. No longer was it possible to deny that SIUE, like virtually every public university in the United States, had some serious problems of intergroup relations and unequal opportunity. Unfortunately, the Edwardsville Intelligencer editorial seems to have missed the key reality that solving these problems requires a commitment of resources. People must be trained on how to work and teach effectively in a diverse environment. Major corporations such as Monsanto have recognized this long ago, and have found that a commitment of resources to training pays for itself in improved productivity. The training, however, will cost money - there's no way around that. Training always does. But if done right, it will move us toward a campus where everyone feels accepted and valued, and is encouraged to achieve to his or her maximum potential - without being put down by intentional or, more often, unconscious and unintentional slights.

The curriculum also will need to be modified and updated. No longer is it acceptable to teach our students only about the art, literature, and accomplishments of European males, nor is it acceptable to whitewash the destructive actions Europeans have sometimes taken against indigenous peoples in the Americas and around the world. Unfortunately, at SIUE as well as most other colleges and universities, both of these things still often happen. To change this, there must be an advocate with influence and status in the University. That is what I see as the purpose of the new Assistant Provost position that the "I" editorial criticized. Having an administrator in charge of addressing a key need is nothing unusual at SIUE or anywhere else - we have people in charge of everything from assessment to student recruitment to campus recreation. Surely equal opportunity and a curriculum that reflects the diversity of our society are just as important as any of these.

Finally, I would like to respond to the letter-writer who attacked the diversity plan as representing some kind of "homosexual agenda." The only "homosexual agenda" I am aware of is a desire to have the same opportunities as anyone else, without being harassed, ridiculed, excluded, or discriminated against. If that is what the agenda is, I support it and think that any fair-minded person would. It is simply wrong to discriminate against anyone because of some personal characteristic that has absolutely nothing to do with that they can learn, achieve, or do for themselves and others. This is all the more true in the context of growing scientific evidence that sexual orientation, like race, gender, height, and eye color, is a product of genectic characteristics over which none of us have any control.

For all of the above reasons, I vigorously support the SIUE Diversity Plan and the funding necessary to put it into effect. And I continue to share Dr. Martin Luther King's dream of a society in which everyone enjoys acceptance and equal opportunity, and in which all of us learn from one another and from the rich human diversity with which our country and its universities have been blessed.

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