President Alger's speech to the Student Diversity Council

Speech to the Student Diversity Council

President Jonathan R. Alger
Speech to the Student Diversity Council
Feb. 9, 2013
Club Room, Bridgeforth Stadium

Good afternoon. It is great to see you all here. It is really a treat for me to speak on one of my favorite topics with all of you. I am delighted to see this turnout of JMU business students. All of you from the business community and from across the university, we welcome you and we are glad that you are here to talk about something that I think is really important to the university and to the future of our business community and our country.

Welcome and Greetings

What I want to focus on today is talking about diversity as a strategic advantage for our country and for our business community. Diversity and excellence go hand in hand. If you forget everything else I say today, I want you to remember this idea that diversity and excellence are not two competing concepts, but that they fit together. There is more and more research emerging that supports this statement.

Many of you may know that I have a background as a lawyer. I have worked quite a bit throughout my career on diversity issues in higher education. One phrase about diversity that you will hear me use from time to time is that we have to interrupt the usual. “Interrupt the usual.” That is a phrase that was developed by a friend of mine, Carolyn Turner, who has done a lot of work in higher education and in diversity. This phrase encompasses the idea that if we are to change how we do things or change how we operate, we cannot keep doing things in exactly the same way. Thinking about the concept of interrupting the usual is something that I hope we can reflect on today.

The Power of Our Differences

You may look at me and say, “Well, he’s a white male and he is talking about diversity.” Having spent a lot of my career on this topic, I can tell you that from time to time, people have questioned what I had to contribute to the conversation on diversity as a white male. This occurred, for example, when I was at the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education. It is an interesting question to bring up because it actually goes right to the heart of the theme that I want to share with you today. That theme is that all of us have something to contribute and something to learn from the diversity all around us. So, to the white males in the room—you are part of it; you are not off the hook. All of us have a lot to contribute and we also have a lot to learn from each other.

You will often be surprised, as you interact with other people, what they bring to the table. I, for example, grew up in upstate New York. I have lived in different parts of the country, and I have spent a lot of my career working on civil rights issues. I know everyone here has a story to tell that is different and unique. That is part of what we need to recognize. When we talk about strategic advantage, we are thinking about the power of our differences as well as our similarities. When I think about our business community and competing in the 21st century, it is really about developing our greatest strategic resource—our human capital. You will hear me talk a lot about this at the university. Our people are our greatest resource, but only if we allow them to fully develop to their true potential. That is true for everyone and that includes everybody in this room.

Let me share a few initial thoughts from my own career and life in thinking about diversity. I grew up in Rochester, New York. It was a wonderful place to grow up, especially in the summer. But in my high school, we thought we had a lot of diversity simply because we had Catholics as well as Protestants. That tells you something, right? I grew up with a lot of people who looked like me and had similar backgrounds, but I had a life-changing experience when I was in high school. I had a teacher, John Lynd, who encouraged me to study abroad in Japan for a summer through a program called Youth for Understanding. Very few of our students at the time did something of this nature in high school, but I decided that with the help of my parents, it would be a terrific learning experience to be in a completely different environment where I was not in the majority. Back when my hair was blonde instead of grey, the Japanese children I encountered would come up and tug on my hair. I was living in a neighborhood where there were no Caucasians of any sort. It was a life-changing experience to be part of a different culture and to realize how big the world truly is. Unfortunately, not everyone had that experience where I went to high school.

Diversity Within Groups

Soon, I went on to college at Swarthmore and then to law school at Harvard. I will never forget some of the debates I witnessed as I started to have more diverse classmates who came from around the country and around the world. When I was in law school, I remember in particular two of my first-year classmates who were both African Americans. In our classes we would debate topics such as affirmative action, and how to deal with our nation’s past history of discrimination and the need for diversity in our institutions. One of these two classmates had come from a middle class background. His parents were professionals and he relayed to me that he did not want anyone to think that he was there just because of his race. He wanted others to know that he was there on his own merits. The other African American student was a nontraditional student. He had been a police officer in Boston before coming to law school and said that although his grades and test scores might not have been quite as high as others, he had valuable real life experience to offer. And boy, did we learn a lot from having him as a classmate.

The point of that experience is that when you interact with enough students from different backgrounds, you see that we are not all alike. Not every African American student comes from the same background, and neither does every white or Hispanic or Asian American student. Seeing those differences within groups and discovering similarities across racial, gender or religious lines is how you break down stereotypes and learn to work with other people. That type of face-to-face interaction was really important to my learning about diversity.

I think that has become more important than ever in an age with so much technology. I watch my 14-year-old daughter text her friends constantly. Mind you, the friend might be sitting right next to her, but nevertheless, they are texting frequently. In this age when online or distance education is available to us, we certainly take advantage of the technology. But it is also more important than ever that we focus on those opportunities to learn from each other face to face. When you are out in the working world, you will be working with other people. It is very rare that you are off by yourself without interacting with people for long stretches of time. We need to develop our interpersonal skills, and that is something we talk a lot about here at JMU.

Legal Context and Questions

Let me share with you some legal context that I think might be helpful to you as we think about these issues. About 10 years ago, I worked on two cases that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. Have any of you ever read the Grutter and Gratz v. Bollinger cases from the University of Michigan? These were very important cases where the Supreme Court dealt with two challenges to admission policies—one at the University of Michigan’s law school and a second aimed at the undergraduate admission policy, where they were trying to bring more diversity to the student body. Race was one of many factors considered, along with other diversity-related variables. The questions were: Are you allowed to consider race as one of many factors [in admission] and does diversity have educational benefits? Is diversity what they call a “compelling interest” that allows you to take race and other factors into account under certain circumstances? And really the key question, in many respects, was centered on how we define the concept of merit in education, and thus in the business world.

It was fascinating. Both sides in this argument loved to quote Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, where he talked about the fact that people should be judged on the basis of the content of their character, not the color of their skin. King’s speech was titled, “I Have a Dream”—not “This is the current reality.” If you read the rest of the speech along with other Martin Luther King works, you realize that what he was saying is that the vision he outlined in his “I Have a Dream” speech is still but a dream—we have made progress since the 1960s, but we have a long way to go as a society and still have a lot of work to do. Interestingly, Martin Luther King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, filed a brief supporting the University of Michigan because she felt it was important for people to understand the spirit behind her late husband’s words and to analyze what they really meant.

There was a lot of discussion about how to define merit. The groups who sued the University of Michigan did not agree that diversity was a compelling interest in education, and in particular disagreed with the need to consider race. In defining merit, they also focused heavily on grades and test scores, which are easy to measure. Those numbers are easy to understand, they are numerical, and they fit nicely on a graph or a grid. As Americans, we know we love to rank things. We love Top 10 and Top 25 lists. U.S. News and World Report, for example, loves to have these very precise rankings of colleges. Numbers are things we love as Americans and they can create a false sense of precision, yet do they really capture everything that we are trying to accomplish in higher education or in business? Can you really say that how you define somebody is just by grades and test scores alone?

One of the things that we learned at the University of Michigan is that a lot of those statistics that appeared to be “neutral” factors actually corresponded very heavily to socioeconomic status. If you want to predict somebody’s SAT scores, a very good way to do so was by looking at the wealth of their family and the wealth of their school district. It is no surprise that wealthier school districts have more Advanced Placement courses. The parents there are also generally more well educated than elsewhere. So the students have quite a head start compared to other students. What we hear when we talk to employers, both at Michigan and at JMU, is that they do not want students with just high GPAs and test scores. We hear that they value resilience, teamwork, leadership, interpersonal skills, knowing how to work with other people on tough challenges, being willing to roll up your sleeves, and not feeling entitled to something just because graduates have a certain diploma hanging on the wall. These are the things that employers tell us are important to them and that they see, by the way, in our JMU graduates.

The Role of Diversity in Effective Teamwork

You should all know that JMU students and alumni have this reputation among employers—you are individuals who have those interpersonal skills, who know how to work in teams, who know how to get to work, be resilient, overcome obstacles, and have persistence, drive, and an innovative spirit. When admissions staff members bring students into the university, they are essentially creating the same type of group as a football team or an orchestra. We do not just want All-State quarterbacks, right? We need running backs, we need linemen, and we need kickers to have a good football team. We need variety and diversity. In an orchestra, you cannot just bring in violinists—it would not be a very exciting orchestra with only one instrument. You need people who play the tuba, the bassoon and the drums. When you start to think of creating a student body in that way, you realize that you want different skills, talents, life experiences, and attributes. That is what the admission officers talked with us a lot about. They agreed that solely using grades and test scores would make their jobs a lot easier, but that they are not the only factors that contribute to success.

There has been a lot of research recently about teamwork in higher education and in business. There is a researcher named Scott Page from the University of Michigan who is an economist. He has done work on solving complex problems. If you could hire just one person, in the absence of a particular technical skill or specialized knowledge, you might pick the person with the highest IQ if that’s all you had to go on. But, of course, in business that is not what we do, is it? We work with other people; we work in teams. So how do you put together the best possible teams of people who will solve complex problems? Page’s research shows that it is helpful to have people with very different life experiences, skills and talents. But this only works if people get to know each other, communicate with each other, listen to one another, and acknowledge what each individual has to bring to the table.

One of my favorite examples of this is from a Chevy car called the Nova. Chevy began to market the Nova abroad and to different populations across the world. But, what does “no va” mean in Spanish? “No go.” Now, is that the best name for a car, do you suppose? You can imagine that if they had hired someone on the team who understood this subtle detail, Chevy might have noticed the problem in its marketing sooner. There are many examples like that in different industries where people just were not fully aware of how things would be conveyed across contexts and diverse populations. I hope and expect that communicating across nations and different groups of people is one of our strengths here at JMU with how we teach.

How many of you have already taken CoB300 or are in the midst of it? Working in teams like that, I know, is hard work. I hear from a lot of people that students going through the course wonder if they are going to make it. But the reality is that this business course is a tremendous experience that will set you up for the rest of your lives and careers. I think it is important—even in a time of resource constraints—that we think about those opportunities to work in teams as students and as faculty. It takes more work for faculty when they have to work in teams with each other, but it also is a very enriching experience that benefits all of you.

Overcoming Unconscious Bias

What we often do not recognize is that human nature is such that when we think about merit, we start by looking in the mirror. Employers may think, “If we are going to hire somebody new, we want to hire someone like us, because we’re good, right?” Sometimes we refer to this as the unconscious bias that people might have, whether it is in higher education or out in the working world. There has been a lot of research done on this topic. In fact, there was a study done not too long ago in higher education. It said that the best way to predict the outcome of a faculty search is to look at who is on the committee. I experienced this first-hand when I was in law school. I had a wonderful professor who took me under his wing. He was very good to me and mentored me. He was the only professor who, I believe, even knew my name at law school. (Things are different here at JMU, thankfully.) I asked his wife once why her husband had been so good to me. “It’s great,” I said, “and I appreciate it so much, but why?” She told me, “You remind him of himself at an earlier age. In fact, you even look a lot like he did when he was younger. It was just natural for him to want to take you under his wing.” That was a really interesting example for me. Would that have happened with, say, a female? An Asian American or an African American? That is the kind of thing of which we all need to be conscious as we go forward. We need to be intentional in our outreach and mentoring.

In those Michigan cases I mentioned a moment ago, the Supreme Court said that there was sufficient research that showed that diversity does have real educational benefits for everyone and that we can learn more effectively in a diverse environment. But they also said that if you are going to be serious about diversity, there are several other things to which you have to pay attention. One is that individuals have to be evaluated in holistic and individualized ways. Diversity cannot consist of checking off a box and getting a specific number of points, for example. When we think about what everyone can bring to the table, it is important that we think about diversity in terms of individual backgrounds and experiences—not generalizing a certain race, religion or gender. The court also said, by the way, that diversity encompasses many different factors besides race and gender.

Back at the Supreme Court

Now, just 10 years later, we are back in the U.S. Supreme Court for higher education. How many of you have heard of the Fisher case coming out of the University of Texas right now? This is one case to watch very closely, in part because the Supreme Court has changed considerably since the time when I was working on these cases with the University of Michigan. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was the key swing vote in 2003. She had life experience as the first woman on the Supreme Court, for example, and she had broken a lot of barriers in her own career. We now have, as I said, a different Supreme Court. Sandra Day O’Connor was replaced by Justice Alito. Justice Kagan, by the way, is recused from voting, leaving only eight justices to vote on this case. The case involves the University of Texas and something called a “percent plan.” This plan involved taking the top 10 percent from all of the public high schools in Texas, and essentially giving them automatic admission into the University of Texas system. It sounds great, right? It is very mechanical and easy to apply. It actually did produce some diversity in Texas, ironically, because the schools were so highly segregated. There were some schools that were almost entirely percent white, so the top 10 percent of students from that school were presumably white. And you had other schools in some of the inner cities that were almost entirely African American, so the top students at those schools were presumably African American. The same was true for Hispanic/Latino students. But what they had was a system that was built on segregation, which is kind of an interesting public policy question in and of itself. What they started to discover was that while the system may have been producing some racial diversity, they also wanted to make sure they had a competitive football team, a good orchestra, and a photography club, for example. So, they brought back some other factors, including race, after the Michigan cases. That is what they are being sued for now—this question of whether or not race should be allowed to be a factor on top of the “percent plan” that did produce some diversity. The question the court is going to have to wrestle with is, “How much diversity is enough?” And when do you say to a school, “Sorry, but you can’t make special efforts any further.”

One of the topics that Texas has talked about is looking at the different places on campus where students actually interact with one another. Because it is a huge, spread-out university, looking at just the raw numbers across campus cannot ensure diverse interactions. This is something we have to pay some attention to, and that is another question the Supreme Court will be wrestling with, along with the concept we call “critical mass.” It is not a precise number, but it is an educational concept that outlines how much diversity we need and what kinds of efforts we should make to ensure that diverse groups of students have that face-to-face interaction both in the classroom and outside of it. That is what is at stake in front of the Supreme Court.

The other thing the court will be wrestling with is deciding what to do about so-called “race-neutral alternatives.” The law says that if there might be other ways of achieving diversity without considering race, you have to seriously consider them. It will be an interesting question for the court to wrestle with because while the percent plan model might have worked in Texas because of their specific demographics, it will not suffice in other parts of the country. If you try to apply that model in a state like Michigan or Maine, you are not going to get the same results—there are not necessarily school districts in those states that are predominantly Hispanic and Latino, for example. In Michigan, you have just one or two pockets that are predominantly African American, like downtown Detroit. But the entire northern half of the state is very different. Looking at alternative ways to create diversity is going to be another question the court is going to deal with. The decision is likely to come out by the end of June of this year and could have a significant impact on our efforts in these areas going forward.

The Role of the Business Community

I also want to say a couple of words about the role of the business community in all of this. First of all, the business community played a very significant role in the University of Michigan cases; Fortune 500 companies actually came out of the woodwork and supported the University of Michigan, led first by General Motors. Because General Motors existed in our own backyard in the Detroit area, they realized that as a company, they relied heavily on the University of Michigan for a lot of their graduates. And in hiring them, they wanted their employees to be able to compete in a global economy, to know how to work on diverse teams, and to work with different markets. They counted on the University of Michigan to provide those types of students for them. General Motors was not the only company; there were dozens of corporations with whom I had the privilege of working that came out and essentially said, “We understand that to compete in a global economy, we need students who are prepared to deal with diversity and have skill sets that enable them to work with many different types of people.”

This, by the way, was a complete role reversal for the American business community. Back in 1978, the Bakke case was one of the first significant cases in the Supreme Court to deal with these issues in higher education. At that time, the University of California medical school at Davis had what they called a “set-aside” program, where a certain number of slots were specifically reserved for students from historically underrepresented groups. The court defined this as fulfilling a quota, which we all know is against the law today. But, what was interesting back then was that corporate America said, “We don’t support this—we don’t think it’s necessary, and we’re just about business.” It is interesting that 25 years later, the business community now recognizes that they are competing in a global economy—they are coming to recognize that they need a broader set of skills and experiences in their employees and that they rely on higher education to help them achieve that. As we can see, issues in higher education directly affect issues in business because we produce the future employees that all of you will be working with and hiring.

A Broad and Inclusive Definition of Diversity

I will finish here with some lessons I have learned and some things for us to think about as we go forward. First, the definition of diversity itself needs to be broad and inclusive. It is not an “us versus them” argument; it is all about “us,” and everyone has a role to play. There are also some emerging issues to which we have to pay attention in higher education as well as in business. In higher education, for example, we have a lot of students who are still first-generation college students, who have not had parents who have gone to college. We have to think about what kind of support we can provide to students from these backgrounds in order for them to succeed. I have a daughter who has grown up on college campuses. People have asked her since she was old enough to talk where she wants to go to college. Of course, she has just assumed that she will go to college. But there are a lot of other students that have not had those types of opportunities, but who have tremendous potential. I think that we have a special obligation to first-generation students as a university to think about how we can open those doors of access and opportunity.

Religious diversity is something that we are learning more about in our country as well, and it is something that we have struggled with from time to time in higher education. When we think about religion, we have to think not only about holidays that we observe, but also certain accommodations, like footbaths, prayer rooms, or privacy considerations in gyms for male and female students of different religious backgrounds. There are issues that we have not thought about in the past to which we now need to pay attention when we think about being inclusive.

Another area that we are now learning more about in higher education is sexual orientation and gender identity. When I was at Rutgers we dealt with a terrible tragedy that made international headlines. How many of you have heard of the Tyler Clementi suicide? Tyler Clementi was a student in his freshman year at Rutgers. Three weeks into his first semester at Rutgers, he jumped off the George Washington Bridge and committed suicide. No one can know for sure why this happened, but what got a lot of publicity is that his roommate had been cyber-bullying him. When Tyler brought another man into the room, his roommate spied on him with a secret camera and shared the footage. This is something that we are taking very seriously now. Particularly when you marginalize groups of individuals, they do not feel included; they do not feel empowered to participate. That is something that we all need to look at within ourselves and evaluate how we behave and engage with others.

We also have other groups like veterans who come back to the United States and have very different needs when they come into our midst as students. There are also other non-traditional learners—people who have perhaps raised children and are now going back to school. We have to pay attention to what models work and will succeed for them. There are so many different facets to diversity that we must address. As I mentioned a moment earlier when I was talking about Tyler Clementi, we really have to look at our own behavior and think about how we treat other people. The little things really do matter.

For example, I have worked in places where every Monday morning, the conversation was about football. Because of this, the conversation was very comfortable for some people, but not for others. In other places, people talk a lot about golf. Yet there may be some people who have never played golf, or who are not interested in golf. While these examples may seem trivial in the grand scheme of things, we need to welcome people who have different interests and backgrounds. There are little ways in which we may marginalize people or make them feel excluded if we do not think about including them. Do we make comments or jokes about appearances or about different religions? Is that sort of thing tolerated in the workplace? Even more importantly, do we acknowledge and celebrate diversity within our midst? One of the reasons I have appointed a diversity task force here at James Madison University is to help us explore how we can acknowledge and celebrate the diversity that we have and encourage more of it. It is something that is important in the workplace as well as in the university context.

Are we listening to each other? Are we taking the time to allow people to share their stories, their backgrounds and their perspectives? I have, as many of you know, engaged in a listening tour my first year at JMU, both on and off campus, with students, faculty, staff, and alumni. One of the reasons that doing this tour was important to me is I wanted to make sure I took the time as a leader to hear all of the different voices around us. It has been important for our community to be engaged in that exercise as well. Listening is such an important part of diversity. I was once asked to talk at a national research laboratory. They did really interesting nuclear research among other things, and wanted me to talk about diversity in a scientific research environment. I wondered what I could say to a bunch of scientists about this issue. It turned out that they had tremendous diversity in the workplace. In fact, they were bringing in people from all over the world who were experts in these fields. The problem was they were finding it difficult to work together. Because they had not learned how to listen to each other fully or how to draw out the different skill sets and experiences each individual had, teamwork was suboptimal. Although these scientists had brilliant minds, they were simply not familiar with diverse collaboration. So we talked a lot about the importance of listening, thinking about diversity and cultivating diverse perspectives in that workplace. Again, this is something we can all learn from—the importance of listening and getting to know those around you.

Programs for Reaching Out

Another lesson I have learned is recognizing the value in working across institutional lines. This is another way of interrupting the usual. When I was at Rutgers, we realized that while we were a very diverse campus, we were not getting many students from our own backyards. We had campuses in Newark, Camden, New Brunswick and Piscataway. Very few students from the public school districts in which our campuses were located were coming to Rutgers, despite their proximity to the school. We knew we had to change that. So we developed a program called the Future Scholars Program where we went to these targeted school districts and asked them to identify students with academic potential at the end of seventh grade. We would have started even earlier if we had more resources. We wanted teachers to identify students who were disadvantaged, yet had academic potential. After identifying those students, we worked with them starting at the end of seventh grade; we mentored them, tutored them, brought them to campus, and gave them research opportunities to work with the faculty. We went into their schools and talked to their guidance counselors, parents and teachers about what they needed to do to be academically prepared. The next step was that after applying under the regular process, if these students were admitted to Rutgers, they received full tuition scholarships. This knowledge at the end of seventh grade served as tremendous motivation for these students to reach their academic potential.

This is an expensive program, since there are about 200 new students per year with whom the university worked. It takes a lot of resources. But what we found is that the corporations in the area jumped in and supported this program because as global businesses, they wanted more diverse workforces. As I mentioned before, these employees were going to come from Rutgers, and therefore the high schools that feed into Rutgers. So companies wanted to financially support our Future Scholars Program. It was a tremendous partnership across institutional lines. So often, we say, “It’s not our problem if students come and they’re not academically prepared; it’s up to them. And if the high schools get better, then great! We’ll welcome those students.” But this was an example where we rolled up our sleeves and said, “How can we work together?” The high schools, the universities and the corporations all joined efforts, and that is something I would like to see more of here at JMU. In fact, we have a team that will be visiting Rutgers in a couple of months to study this model further and to think about how we might do something like that here at JMU.

Forums for Further Discussion

It is important when we think about leadership to have regular mechanisms to ensure that our leaders and our institutions are talking about these issues. The fact that you are all here today is a great start. I hope that this is something that will continue. In fact, I would love to see this become an annual event. One of the things we have learned in business and in higher education is that when you hold people accountable and make certain issues part of daily conversation, more people pay attention. But I would also like to remind us of the importance of courage and leadership on these issues. I cannot tell you how many times I have faced some very serious backlashes for working on these issues in higher education. When I was at Michigan working on Supreme Court cases that were very high profile, we received all sorts of hate mail. Sometimes the police had to be involved to make sure that there were no threats to the people working at the university on these issues.

When I worked at Rutgers, we also had an incident involving the women’s basketball team and Don Imus. Imus, who is sort of a shock-jock in radio, made comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team using very racist and sexist language. It became a big national issue and he was eventually fired because his advertisers started to pull out from his show. Interestingly enough, the students he had targeted never called for him to be fired, but they received a lot of the blame for what was happening to him. They received threats, if you can imagine that, yet they were the victims. The women asked for a meeting with Don Imus. They wanted him to get to know them as people and as human beings who had different skills and talents of which he was not aware. It was interesting to see the way they stood up as people and as individuals with tremendous grace under pressure. It took a lot of courage, and they had a lot people pushing them in other directions. “You should just file lawsuits or try to go after him and destroy his career,” many people suggested. But that was not their aim. Here is an example of a moment that provided an opportunity to teach and to learn for all of us. These are issues that require a lifetime of learning. All of us continue to have a lot to learn about one another and our colleagues all around us.

It is a strategic advantage for us as a nation and for our business community to embrace diversity, but only if we recognize it as such and only if we help develop our people to their full potential. That, I believe, is the key to our future as a nation and certainly our future economic competitiveness. I would like to emphasize that all of you in this room have an opportunity to Be the Change, to make a difference, to provide leadership, and to listen and learn from the people all around you. Thank you very much for being here. I really appreciate your dedication to these issues.

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Published: Saturday, February 9, 2013

Last Updated: Tuesday, June 7, 2016

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