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Transforming Institutions: The Importance of Faculty Diversity

Elaine P. Maimon, provost, and Mildred García, Associate Vice Provost, Arizona State University West

Maimon: Since the word "university" comes from the Latin "universitas," meaning whole, and "diversity" means difference, diversity in the university may seem paradoxical. How do we reconcile unity and separateness; the parts and the whole? As the chief operating officer of a campus committed to diversity, I thought that the best way to explore this paradox was to engage in a dialogue with Mildred García, a campus colleague whose scholarship and experience is in the field of diversity and multiculturalism. The form of this essay, as well as its content, reflects our commitment to the value of many voices, many perspectives within the university.

García: I still remember vividly my undergraduate days. Wanting to learn everything I could because my parents had instilled in me that the way to progress economically was through education. I can still hear my father's words, "Hijita, the inheritance a poor family can leave to their children is to provide an opportunity to complete their education." My father died while I was still an adolescent, but throughout my life I wanted to show him that I had listened. Going to college was my way to affirm this familial love of learning. Even in New York City, it was rare for me to encounter faculty members who really connected with my experiences. All my professors opened up a new world for me that was alien and yet exciting. But, I wanted to connect both worlds and bring to my neighborhood, my peers, and to those who shared my background all that I was discovering. It was difficult for me to find faculty to help me do that.

Maimon: I also came from a family that valued education above all things. My mother, a widow since I was eight years old, died two weeks after my high school graduation. Financial aid from the University of Pennsylvania enabled me to fulfill my parents' dream. Like Millie, through higher education, I felt connected in one sense back to my family and neighborhood, but the university also opened up new worlds in which I sometimes felt orphaned. In the mid-sixties in the Ivy League, professors often made erroneous assumptions about the homogeneity of their students. I'll never forget the day that one English professor slammed the Henry James anthology on his desk and lamented: "How do I teach 'Daisy Miller' to a class full of Daisy Millers!" I was in that class, but I was very different from Daisy Miller. Was I invisible to this professor? Our discussion of American innocence and European sophistication would have been greatly enriched by the recognition that some of the students' foremothers had been living in the shtetls of Russia and Poland, while Daisy Miller was sightseeing in Rome.

García: For all students, colleges and universities should replicate our global society. A diverse faculty provides students an opportunity to learn from many different perspectives and voices. Negotiating differences and learning how to think critically and to function in new situations prepare our students to become productive citizens in a just, democratic society.

Maimon: The United States was founded on the paradox of unity and diversity and has always depended on difference as well as unity to keep it strong. As universities and colleges prepare for the twenty-first century, they will reflect the tremendous demographic changes that are occurring in the nation as a whole. A diverse student body is already a reality in many states. As microcosms of U.S. society, universities require a diverse faculty teaching and learning with a diverse student body.

García: In the classroom and in the curriculum, new ways of creating knowledge are enhanced by new and different perspectives. Anyone looking at the academic disciplines in the last thirty years can see the influence of different scholarly backgrounds on the creation of knowledge.

Maimon: When I was an undergraduate, I remember being told that the fact that boys played the female roles in Shakespeare's plays should have no bearing on my analysis. At the time I could not suppress the idea that the multiple gender reversals in the plays needed further discussion. Today, we understand As You Like It better because feminist scholarship and teaching has helped us to think seriously about the meaning of boys playing girls dressed as boys.

García: The scholarly perspectives and life experiences of faculty of color and women faculty have transformed many disciplines and many classrooms. Even the sciences have been influenced. For example, when women and people of color were included in the populations studied, new knowledge was discovered about the symptoms and causes of diseases. A better understanding of other cultures has also helped us to improve our teaching. We are now aware that there may be "different ways of knowing" among different groups of students. From this awareness, scholars are bringing new insights to the investigation of different learning styles and different ways of imparting knowledge.

Maimon: A diverse faculty enriches the experiences of all students. Not only do a variety of perspectives have scholarly importance, they also prepare students to live in a global society.

García: A diverse university speaks to the core of vitality and viability of an institution for the twenty-first century. The successful university is educating future leaders and it needs to continue to develop new knowledge. It is preparing the work force for rapid and unexpected changes, and it needs to connect with its surrounding communities. The business community has already realized that a diverse workforce will lead to a successful enterprise. In fact, the strategy of diversifying a company's personnel is analogous to diversifying a company's portfolio. Diversification makes use of strengths from a variety of sources and enables different perspectives to enter into dialogue to find solutions. In order to prepare all students for the new global reality, our universities must provide an environment that values the differences that make every individual unique and inspires all students and faculty to reach their full potential.

García and Maimon: We both work at Arizona State University West, one of the three anchor campuses of Arizona State University. These three campuses together have envisioned what we call "The University for the Next Century." That university is one in which the paradox of diversity in the university is resolved through a common commitment to respect for the individual and to the value of dialogue.

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