In the months leading up to the U.S. Supreme Court's review of the University of Michigan's landmark affirmative action cases, civil rights organizations vehemently proclaimed their support of diversity. Many members of the business community also voiced their support, filling amicus briefs on behalf of the university. But on the issues of affirmative action and diversity, the higher education community has since responded as if it is unsure how to proceed down this road. With the Court upholding Grutter v. Bollinger, but striking down Gratz v. Bollinger, it's somewhat understandable why that confusion would exist.
So it was with guarded relief that most educators welcomed "Now Is The Time: Meeting the Challenge for a Diverse Academy," the comprehensive report published last fall by the National Association of Land-Grant Colleges and Universities and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. The two organizations represent the vast majority of higher education institutions, giving them the audience necessary to prevent this report from being locked away in a file cabinet like so many others. Dr. Constantine W. "Deno" Curris, president of AASCU and Dr. C. Peter Magrath, president emeritus of NASULGC, recently spoke to Diverse about the background and context of the report and why they believe that the expected results will not be just business as usual.
DI: What prompted NASULGC and AASCU to produce a diversity report?
DC: The whole concept of diversity had become part of the political process as opposed to being viewed from an educational context. That's not to diminish the significance of the court cases (Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger) decided by the Supreme Court. They, for the most part, reaffirmed what higher education was doing in terms of affirmative action and the achievement of diversity. The public mindset, and often the mindset on our campuses, was that, "Hey, the battle is won." And the context was seen in terms of a political achievement, or a legal achievement, as opposed to an educational component that's important for all our students. Based on that, I chatted with Peter Magrath and he readily concurred that we needed to elevate the significance of this study and that it ought to be a joint effort on the part of the two associations.
PM: I decided, let's go with it. Maybe we can come up with something that really would not just rhetorically inspire the choir, but would provide some practical guidelines about what you could do at the University of California, Los Angeles or the University of Iowa or Wichita State University.
DC: We wanted to make sure we had some presidential leadership on the commission. [We wanted someone] who could take the concept of operationalizing and institutionalizing diversity as part of the educational process, and who could come up with a report that would be helpful to presidents who wanted to do something but really needed some guidance on how to approach it and make it work.
DI: In the absence of a legal affirmative action program, is this report the best guide higher education has to find ways to improve diversity?
PM: That's a very good question. Things don't happen in universities unless the president or the chancellor really wants it to happen and pushes for it. It's not good enough that a president or a chancellor pushes for, let's say, diversity or better international programs. But if they don't do it, I guarantee you it will not happen. Presidential leadership sets the tone. This is one of the three or four things that are really important to my colleges and my universities.
DI: Is there a financial component to the report? Often the criticism is that presidents say they are for diversity, but then don't financially support such efforts.
PM: I don't think it's a money problem. I think it's an attitude problem, and an energy problem and a commitment problem. …