Summing Up and Looking Forward

Condensed impromptu remarks of summary session by Blenda Wilson, Ph.D., former president and CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.  After the keynote presentation, attendees broke into 11 small-group discussions on the meaning of demographic change for diversity at Bates. When they came together again, Wilson facilitated questions and answers during reports from the 11 groups, and offered summary remarks.

 I have had no prior experience with Bates except through the Nellie May Education Foundation’s involvement with the Consortium on High Achievement and Success. Bates is a member of the Consortium, along with almost 30 other selective liberal arts colleges. CHAS is a consortium that addresses the kinds of questions you’ve been talking about today – how we can make sure that students of color and our institution really represent the quality and diversity we want to have for all of higher education.

[Wilson notes that, following the keynote presentation, she visited four of the 11 group discussions.]

You seemed to be having really intense conversations, which is a very good thing. It shows that you didn’t just show up for the cookies and the lunch, that you were really interested in the topic. I’m going to try to pull from those summaries some consensus. Then I want to give you some of my observations about the whole issue of diversity, particularly related to New England higher education, where I’ve been working for the past seven years, and provoke your thinking about some of the things I didn’t hear that I think you need to put into your conversations as you go forward.

[Reports by 11 group moderators, interspersed with questions and answers]

Let me start by pointing out what you already know, which is the wisdom of this symposium. It started with data – powerful, powerful data about the world that we live in, that Bates lives in: the higher education world and what it’s going to look like, the future that you are going to plan. And then of course you heard your president’s opening comments that tied this issue to your history, to your legacy, to the founding vision and mission of this institution. It is important to acknowledge that the president and the senior members of the administration and many trustees of this institution are here today, and spent an entire day with you around this exercise. That gives you a sense of how important it is to the institution, but it is also a model of shared leadership. Whether it was those who reported out or those who contributed to the conversation, the future character of Bates College will be defined by the way you all come together and address this issue.

A number of you who were reporting out said, “We had a really diverse group. We had people from the community and someone from the faculty and staff and students.”
I hope you recognize that these were rich conversations. You were also probably more polite to one another than some of the conversations will be when you get intensely engaged. But that is the meaning of diversity.

One thing in common about your conversations was that you don’t have a shared definition of diversity. And that’s okay, because this is a jumping off point for you. If we were talking about this issue in the 60s and 70s, we would have been talking about affirmative action on behalf of racial and ethnic minorities, period. So this is an issue that is evolving; higher education is learning. Some of your groups acknowledged that because of the global environment that we live in and the deep interest of the external community – our business leaders, our political leaders – the definition that is going to frame Bates’ future and every institution’s future is one that asserts that all students – to meet society’s need for educated people who can function well in a diverse, inclusive global community – all students need to be educated differently than they were when primary groups or majority groups held the power to include or exclude. That’s no longer the case. So, if you live in a world where a large percentage of the students are students who represent what we now call diversity, your best interest as an institution is to make sure you can serve the educational needs of those students and therefore the society that they will enter.

I want to suggest several perspectives and some of the issues that I think you did not raise or maybe out of politeness just didn’t report in this session. One concern is the new context for diversity, particularly for New England. The demographics of New England states, in terms of new immigrant populations versus native-born population growth, are changing more rapidly than any other part of the country. You’re going to see new populations come to these communities and not only have a responsibility to think about them as your future students, but think about the responsibility you can have to improve the education that they’ll receive as elementary and secondary school students.

The second thing is the definition issue. I don’t purport to have a definition that any institutions would accept, but I think that are several things that were not put on the table that should be. One is that you need to define, or redefine if you haven’t already, what we mean by merit. Unfortunately we live in a time when there is lots of pressure, at least from the outside in, to define merit solely in terms of the individual entitlement to a seat at an institution as a result of his or her grades or test scores. It is imperative that Bates and other institutions, particularly of this stature, convey to the public that, while you have an individual-centric view of admissions to make sure there is a quality dimension below which you will not go, there is not an individual entitlement to a seat because you are crafting a community that includes individuals of various backgrounds and talents and orientations and perspectives. So there’s no number, no SAT number, no ACT number, no whatever numbers, no grade point average, no high school from which students graduated that entitles them to be admitted to Bates. All of the students you admit are students you judged to have merit to be in this community. I would say once you’ve done that you judge them to have the ability to be successful in this community, and that’s where the partnership extends beyond admissions to all of the rest of you. The society at large wants to say, “My daughter has a 1600 on her SAT scores and therefore should have been admitted to whatever school she wanted to be.” We’ve got to help them understand that crafting a community of intelligent, engaged, inclusive students with a faculty and staff of the same commitment is not just a numbers game.

The first thing you have to do, obviously, is get together on what is the definition of diversity: What progress, success, targets do you want to achieve? Then assess it. Get rid of the things that don’t work. Do something else.

One of the concepts that didn’t, to me, seem to be expressed as strongly as I want to urge you to express it, are the benefits of diversity for all students. The Supreme Court in 2003 affirmed the legality of considering race and ethnicity as a factor of admission. The core arguments that the University of Michigan made to the court enabled the Supreme Court of the United States to conclude that there are real and substantial benefits of a racially and ethnically diverse class of students because of the benefits gained by all students. That’s the current standing of the Supreme Court of the United States. They listed the educational benefits as improving teaching and learning, the economic benefits of better preparation for this global economy, and civic benefits of preparation for citizenship in America, given the range of backgrounds that are indigenous to the American civic culture. Another benefit is national security, providing a better trained and more stable military. Those four areas the Supreme Court judged to be real and substantial benefits. We need to help people know that, be able to talk about it.

It is of great pride to me that higher education continues to be that voice of real support and commitment to this concept. There is a contrast between the focused, considered intellectual arguments that you are a part of and the kind of contentious civic culture that still surrounds this issue. So when you talk about it in here, and it seems like everybody agrees, I hope you know that is not the case, and you have an obligation still to convince others.

The last thing I wanted to raise is that when you think about how Bates is going to advance diversity, I don’t think you have to do everything at once. I think for example that you have a history to build on. You’ve got a foundation that has some values already implicit in it. People do better when they can honor where they are and where they start from and then take on another piece and reach another plateau. I don’t know whether low-income and racial and ethnic minorities clearly are a starting point. Non-traditional students? I don’t know the balance there.

If you organize yourselves across the board in refining your programs on campus as targeting one or another of those groups, you’re going to run out of leadership. You can’t take every little whine of ‘diversity’ and line up the responsible person. For one thing it removes all the rest of you of the responsibility for being a part of including those students as part of your community. So think carefully about the next target of advancement. One part of it will be maintaining the legacy and the values that you already have, and choosing something together that you want to be able to achieve. Test, achieve, examine what you’ve achieved, and then go on for more later. This is not asked-for advice, but since you all clearly care so much, I thought I would throw that in for you.