Three days after the historic victory of Barack Obama, the biennial “Race, Ethnicity and Place Conference” closed with a discussion on diversity in America’s universities, emphasizing the importance of a multicultural campus to broaden understanding and prepare students to compete in a globalized world.
Starting Nov. 5, 300 experts from 120 universities and 12 countries gathered at the James L. Knight International center in downtown Miami to explore the barriers that still exist for minorities in America.
The topics of the discussions ranged from “Second Language Fluency” to “Geography and the Jewish vote,” but the election and what it could mean for race relations was on everyone’s lips.
“Barack Obama is going to take a very different approach and the fact that he is an African American will help [America’s image] in a number of ways,” said Ira Sheskin, a professor of geography at the University of Miami and a local coordinator of the conference.
Sheskin is admittedly nervous about Obama’s lack of experience but sees potential in the president-elect – the same talent the conference argues only broadening opportunities can expose.
“We want to promote ethnic understanding and combat the idea that the world is made up of Americans who have not learned to speak English yet, that people do think differently in different places and that we need to learn to get along,” Sheskin said. “The hope is that through neutral research and studies we can promote that understanding.”
President Donna E. Shalala was joined by Lois B. DeFleur, the president of Binghamton University, and Denise M. Trauth, the president of Texas State University, on the Presidents Panel at the closing dinner. The three women discussed what measures they have taken to increase diversity at their schools and why they believed these actions were important.
“People have their most intense experiences with different races and ethnicities during their college years,” DeFleur said. “Those experiences and the nature of them are critical.”
Trauth cited Richard Florida’s book The Creative Class, arguing that America relies on the ingenuity of its workers and that the creative people that drive our economy flock to more diverse environments.
“Cities that are successful will be those that can attract the creative class,” Trauth said. “Students and faculties make up this class and want to go to open and stimulating environments that are deliberately diverse.”
Companies, she noted, are participating in the equality indexes that measure diversity because it makes them more attractive to talented workers.
“Affirmative action has become economic survival,” Trauth said.
Shalala agreed with her colleagues on the importance of creating a diverse environment for students and said it was one of the reasons she chose to work in Miami, a city where over half of the residents are foreign born. One of her greatest opportunities, Shalala said, was to make sure class does not dictate educational opportunity.
“We use diversity as an advantage when we talk to potential students. We will tell them, if you want to work with kids that look like you, don’t come here,” she said.
Though we have come a long way as a country, Shalala believes the lack of flexibility in higher education and the tunnel vision of educators will deter students who want to overcome these divides.
“Teachers need to find a way to work together so students can cut across disciplines,” Shalala said. “Many will not be following us into academia and we need to prepare them to work in the real world.”