A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
February 11, 2011 Volume 41 / Number 4

 

From the President's Desk

President Paul Zingg
Photo: Paul Zingg

The Diversity Imperative

As part of my remarks at the opening convocation for the spring semester on February 1, I drew upon Thomas Aquinas’s basic definition of a university, namely, a place of people and ideas. I did so in order to emphasize that fostering a strong sense of place (both physical setting and institutional role), embracing a world of ideas, and forming a community unified in purpose and vision are actions that underscore why diversity—social, cultural, intellectual—is at the heart of what it means to be an American public university.

This awareness compels us to acknowledge the great social mission of education in a free society, to recognize the interconnectedness of the world around us and our engagement with that world, and to accept our responsibility to be a vehicle of American democracy and an agent of the American dream. As the latter are both unfinished and continuous, so too must the University be able to interpret the times in which it lives in order to meet the developing needs of the society it serves. We do this in many ways, but none more importantly or clearly than demonstrating how diversity adds vibrancy to our campus and urgency to our mission.  

Through our new Diversity Action Plan, and the people and programs of Chico State which have set the stage for its development and enactment, we have declared our intention to articulate the case for the educational, economic, and civic benefits that flow from a diverse and inclusive learning community as a core institutional value and commitment.

Several understandings inform this decision.

As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), upholding the right of the University of Michigan to consider diversity in admissions actions, the “educational benefits that diversity is designed to produce … are substantial … important and laudable.” Among other outcomes, an institution’s social, cultural, and intellectual diversity helps students confront perspectives other than their own and thus think more vigorously and progressively; it helps students learn to relate better to persons of different backgrounds; it helps students prepare to function effectively in a multicultural workforce and other environments; it helps students become better citizens.

In summary, quoting Justice O’Connor again, “These benefits are not theoretical but real, as major American businesses have made it clear that the skills needed in today’s increasingly global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints.”

Yet, just as we recognize the benefits that flow from such diversity, we also acknowledge the responsibility to focus on the outcomes of our efforts in terms of student achievement. In other words, we must go beyond providing access and fostering inclusion, beyond ensuring a climate of respect and civility. We must focus on closing achievement gaps and attaining greater equity in educational outcomes between historically under-represented and under-served student groups in higher education and those which are not—and for groups with special needs, like veterans, older students, place-bound learners, and the physically disabled. This does not mean, of course, that everyone attains the same level of achievement as everyone else. Rather, it means that everyone has an authentic opportunity to reach their own highest level of achievement consistent with their own abilities and efforts.

This example of commitment to the consequences of our understandings will enable our story in these matters to be more than about numbers. It will be about actions that foster success for our students and forge a powerful narrative for our university. As we bring greater intentionality and strategy to our efforts, we will ensure that the whole of our diversity story is greater than the sum of its parts, and we will meet the high-placed expectations that WASC, the CSU, and so many others have for us to be an exemplary institution in these matters.

The Diversity Action Plan is ambitious. But high performance flows from high expectations. And it is hard to imagine anything informing our work more fundamentally than a recognition of the role that diversity plays in expanding our view of the world and our capacity to improve it.

This is the diversity imperative, the heart of the educational, economic, and civic rationale for a diversity agenda. It sets forth a sense of purpose that echoes Benjamin Disraeli’s notion of a university as “a place of light, of liberty, and of learning.” This is the kind of noble calling that great universities understand and choose to embrace. Our Diversity Action Plan is another signal of our intention to be counted among such institutions.

Paul J. Zingg, President