ACCORDING to Webster's Dictionary, diversity is defined as "difference or variety." In a University setting, diversity sometimes is construed as difference in gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion or national origin. These are important elements, but a diverse community also includes diversity of opportunities, ideas, intellectual and professional challenges and leadership.
Sometimes diversity is identified with equal opportunity or affirmative action programs. But it is important to distinguish these two. Equal opportunity is rooted in a moral belief that while people are different -- and thank heaven they are -- each should have the freedom to develop his or her talents with opportunities and positions open to everyone. Even from the most libertarian point of view, freedom is not merely the right to be left alone, but includes the right to an equal starting place and the right to develop one's talents.
Affirmative action is not only about reparations or compensation for injustices. It is not merely about remedies, nor is its aim to create equality of outcomes. Rather, forward-thinking affirmative action programs focus on equalizing opportunities when those opportunities are skewed in some way. This has to do with getting us all up to the starting gate, and giving us each decent running shoes so that everyone has a chance. No race is fair that starts some runners two lengths back, or if some have poor equipment, or are jostled out of the lineup.
Affirmative action is not merely about admissions or hiring. It is concerned with creating equal opportunities vertically as well as horizontally: It is not simply about getting folks in the door in admissions and hiring, but about insuring fair procedures afterwards so that diverse people also can become leaders.
There is an assumption that we can create and implement objective selective processes that can rank the number-one applicant best, and the next second best, so that we could fill our universities with "the best" students and faculty, letting the diversity fall, willy nilly, where it may. But in fact, in most selection processes there is a large pool of qualified people from which one can select any number who will succeed. While the University accepts a limited number of students for each school each year, we know that there are many more who are equally qualified. Affirmative action programs help the qualified, the pool of "bests," to be equipped for the selection process; a selection process focused on diversity selects among those "bests" with the aim of diverse representation.
The goal of a diverse student body, faculty, staff, administration and leadership is worthwhile. This is not merely for equal opportunity, not merely to achieve equal rights, and not only because it is an important strategy so that we can deal with a variety of peoples and cultures in our ever shrinking globe. More importantly, diversity has value for its own sake, and we are morally, intellectually and culturally poorer when we live in a homogeneous community.
Most of us do not have many friends or colleagues who are of diverse backgrounds, religion, ethnic origin or race, and we don't know many people who are physically challenged. I ski, and often I ski with a blind person. Imagine going down a black diamond slope in Sun Valley, Idaho with a blind man. That experience alone has broadened my narrow parochial horizons. Diversity in leadership helps us to be more creative, to break out of ingrained mind sets, and to challenge each other and ourselves.
We have ever-changing laws, regulations and public policies that prescribe or question affirmative action, or that promote or discourage equal opportunity, so there is a temptation merely to comply. Of course, laws, policies and procedures are important, but only as the backdrop and not as the cure-all.
In a study described in a new book, Built to Last, James Collins and Jerry Porras showed that the best companies are driven, not by the goal of maximizing shareholder wealth, but by a core values-based ideology. They concluded that a values-orientation created distinctive and desirable outcomes that cannot be achieved by an outcomes-oriented focus on profits.
By analogy, if we think of diversity at the University as a core value that unifies our activities, we will be better able to achieve other ends without having to count numbers, or worry too much about whether we are complying with a confusing set of laws and public policies. President John T. Casteen III recently has suggested that one of the goals of the University is not to be merely the top public university, but rather, to be one of the top 10 universities in the country. If we merely are outcome-oriented we may not succeed in that mission. But if we share a core ideology that includes the espoused value of diversity as well as excellence and if that drives our admissions, curriculum, student and faculty development, the physical environment, the community and leadership, we are likely to succeed and achieve this challenging goal. This is an extraordinarily worthwhile challenge, one we can realize if we all will join together in this process.
(Patricia H. Werhane is Chair Elect of the Faculty Senate.)