Why Madison Presidential Listening Tour: Diversity Council

Members of JMU's Diversity Council speak with President Alger

"Why Madison?"
President's Journal

Diversity Council
Moody Hall
Feb. 20, 2013

Diversity is one of the passions of my career
Today we met with the JMU Diversity Council and had a chance to focus very specifically on issues of diversity, access and inclusion and how they relate to our core educational mission. This has been a passion of mine throughout my career—at the Office for Civil Rights and the Department of Education when I was at the American Association of University Professors, and at the University of Michigan and Rutgers. What I have learned over the years is just how important it is for us to recognize how diversity and excellence go hand in hand, how they fit together and reinforce one another. In fact, faculty, students and staff will learn more when they're in a richly diverse environment. By diversity, we're not just talking about race and gender, but also socioeconomic differences, students who are in their family's first generation to go to college, individuals with disabilities, returning veterans, people who have come from different geographic and cultural backgrounds, etc. There is a whole variety of factors that come into play when we talk about that rich diversity of a community. I see harnessing that tremendous diversity to its full potential as our greatest strategic advantage as an institution and as a country. We can only do that by providing access and inclusion for people of all backgrounds, bringing them together so that they can learn from each other about their similarities across racial and gender and other lines, as well as differences within groups. It's face-to-face interaction that provides those rich educational opportunities. That's what we talked about today.

Number of students of diverse backgrounds has doubled
Members of the council spent some time discussing the progress we have made in making our campus more diverse over the last six years or so and how important it is to build on those accomplishments as we go forward. In the student body, for example, we have seen our students from historically underrepresented backgrounds double since 2004. We know there's still much more work to do. We're at about 16.6 percent. I think there's a lot to celebrate at JMU, but also a lot for us to do going forward. The same is true for faculty and staff. Our numbers have increased, certainly, as a percentage and as well as overall numbers, here at the university. We want to make sure that we provide a welcoming environment so that people of all backgrounds feel that they can come here, be successful, and have a great career, whether it's as a student, faculty or staff member. That's our goal.

If they are coordinated, pipeline programs can have a great impact
I brought up the subject of pipeline programs—intentional efforts to reach out to underrepresented middle school students and high school students to get them to start thinking seriously about college and about JMU in particular. We heard some great examples of outreach efforts all across the campus. A lot of different units on campus have strong and successful programs. But one of the things we learned today is that we could do a better job of coordinating these efforts and looking at the synergies that might be created by having greater coordination across the university. We talked about the need, first of all, for all of us to be more aware of all of the JMU efforts going on—whether it be Cyber City over here, or STEM outreach over there—and how they might enrich each other if they were aware of each other and found ways to work together. We're going to try to focus on how to coordinate these many different wonderful activities, each of which is doing great things in its own right. What would be the increased impact if we brought them together and thought about how they might coordinate with each other? We heard, for example, about an effort in which our middle school program, our Outreach and Engagement personnel, and our STEM programs working on a grant from NASA. This is a great example of where we can look at external resources that might fund some of these types of efforts, but you can only get those external resources when you start to look internally at everything you have available so that you can make the case that we can make a real impact here with our programs at JMU.

College of Education is one of our diversity outreach leaders
I think our College of Education is certainly one of our leaders in terms of outreach in creative ways to reach a community of diverse learners. One of the programs we heard about today involves our teacher candidates working with adult learners where English is their second language. This interaction turns out to be great preparation for those candidates when they go out to get teaching jobs. What we've heard is that school districts, particularly in areas where there are diverse populations, snap up those teachers because they've had this experience at JMU. One of the ways that we can make a real difference in the community, around the state and indeed around the country is by producing teachers, guidance counselors, principals and others who know how to work with diverse populations—i.e., with diverse parents and students. These communication skills and the ability to understand and interact with people of all different backgrounds turn out to be really important skill sets for educators. I'm delighted to hear we're providing that kind of opportunity at the College of Education.

Retaining faculty is as important as recruiting them
It is one thing to attract and recruit faculty and staff member of diverse backgrounds. It is another thing to retain them, so we had a pretty wide-ranging conversation today about some of the challenges we face regarding diversity and inclusion at JMU. One of the issues discussed, for example, was the criteria for hiring, tenure and promotion of faculty and for the hiring of staff, and how to ensure that those criteria reflect our values and the skills that we really need in the 21st century. For example, we need and value faculty who know how to work with diverse students and to bring out the rich educational benefits of diversity in the classroom. Do our criteria really reflect that? That's a conversation that we need to have across the academic units. We talked about how the sentiments of the surrounding community can have an impact on faculty retention, and how we must do a better job of highlighting the tremendous amount of faculty, staff and student involvement in our local schools, community agencies and more.

Helping students feel comfortable and welcome across campus
Members of the council also talked about the strong pockets of diverse representation we have on campus. Students from groups that are historically underrepresented no doubt find it difficult to walk into an environment like JMU and feel like like they fit in with everybody else. So clearly we need to work on making all of our students feel welcome and part of all the activities across campus. We can be very intentional about how we bring people together across different racial, ethnic, gender, socioeconomic, and other lines to interact with each other in meaningful ways. That's a responsibility we have if we're going to be a truly inclusive community. I think we're up to that challenge, and we need to be intentional about those efforts.

Changing mindsets one person at a time
We heard some real success stories today—stories that represented the success of changing the awareness and perception of one person at a time. One person today said it takes time to change how people think. The apprenticeship program in Facilities Management is seeing some significant success—qualifying employees of diverse backgrounds and moving them into responsible full-time positions. It's working. This effort goes to show that even as we develop big programs and initiatives, we can't forget about the importance of these personal interactions that change people's lives. That has to occur within units all across the campus. The question for us is, "Can we look at some of the success stories, like the apprentice program in facilities, or like some of the things they're doing in dining services, and can we replicate or adapt those models in other parts of the university?" That's a question that we need to ask ourselves as we go forward.

Success begets success
It is unequivocal that success begets success. As people have more exposure to individuals of diverse backgrounds, as they see the benefits of working together and learning from each other and working in teams with one another and how they can be so much more effective and creative when they're interacting with people from other backgrounds who bring other perspectives and experiences, that success will lead to more success. People will be more opened in their careers going forward to working with other people, to interacting with other people, and that's what we want to see happen across the university.

Published: Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Last Updated: Wednesday, May 24, 2017

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