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Diversity is focus of latest SUNY 'conversation'


SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher led another “conversation” about the state university system last week. The event was held at the College of Technology at Delhi and focused on diversity issues in the SUNY system and how students can prepare for a global economy.
January 19, 2010
SUNY College of Technology at Delhi hosted a statewide conversation on diversity Jan. 11, led by State University Chancellor Nancy Zimpher.

The conversation was held to discuss one of the major focuses of the university's now-in-development strategic plan — fostering diversity in the global economy.

The keynote speaker was Yolanda Moses, past president of CUNY City College, who is now a professor of anthropology and special assistant to the chancellor for excellence and diversity as well as vice provost for conflict resolution at University of California at Riverside. Moses, along with a student panel and college administrators, discussed possible solutions to ensure campuses remain, or become, more diverse.

Carl Hayden, chairman of the SUNY Board of Trustees, stressed the importance of a strategic plan, saying, "When we complete this process, we will have to plan that these statements of principle guide us for at least a decade if not longer."

Zimpher hopes the plan will give SUNY more autonomy.

"I think this plan will reset the relationship with policy makers. We will be able to harness the regulatory process with state policy makers," said Zimpher, adding that part of the strategic plan will "reset the dialogue" on funding.

Emphasizing SUNY's importance to the state economy, Zimpher said, "We are a growth industry. What would happen if SUNY moved to New Jersey?"

Pedro Caban, vice provost for diversity and educational equity at SUNY, encourages campuses to start their own diversity projects. Inspiration for diversity projects includes SUNY Cortland's Center for Gender and Intercultural Studies, which meets once a year to explore issues of the "gender climate."

Three themes will carry the most weight in SUNY's strategic plan: economic development and improvement of quality of life in New York state, a focus on research and innovation in health and medicine with science and technology lessons starting in kindergarten and a new focus on diversity and globalization.

Moses stressed the importance of going beyond what she called "body count diversity" by focusing on graduating minority students instead of simply recruiting them into SUNY schools. "Recruiting students is not good enough if we aren't aware of the needs of those students. Institutional readiness must be in place," said Moses.

Moses, who researches the origins of social inequity and explored gender and class inequalities in the United States, Jamaica and Africa, says universities need to reframe the issue of diversity in a way that creates a "culture of value and accountability" while not forgetting the 20th century social justice and legal issues that concerns of diversity grew out of. She cited examples of industries where racism is "systematic" and "embedded," such as banking and real estate, encouraging universities to "lay bare inequalities" through research.

Moses emphasized the importance of creating a broader definition of what diversity is and measuring diversity in more sophisticated ways. "We should not have assumptions. For example, we have prided ourselves on our large African American population (at UC Riverside) but a good one-third of them are recent immigrants from Africa. But they are lumped under one umbrella," said Moses. She also discussed having a better definition of the Asian population and understanding the differences between many groups of Asian Americans.

Student panelists agreed, saying they would like to have a better understanding of a variety of cultures.

Melody Mercedes, president of the SUNY Student Assembly and student at the University at Buffalo, said students take most of the responsibility for diversifying their campuses.

"I can say on behalf of students that we take it upon ourselves to redefine diversity. Even on small campuses the students have the initiative. It has to be a group effort, not just students making clubs," said Mercedes. She disagreed with the assertion that cultural clubs may make students more exclusive.

"There are times it makes people inclusive, clubs provide a support system, a sense of unity and encouragement. For example, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers was created to foster professional development among Hispanic engineers but is now for everyone," Mercedes said.

Student panelist Ernesto Novado says diversity is irrelevant if students aren't introduced to other cultures.

"If there aren't well rounded [students], it doesn't matter how diverse the campus is," said Novado.

Moses added that diversity is important for national security interests because the State Department had a lack of knowledge about Middle Eastern culture after 9/11. "The Los Angeles Police Department gets out in the streets so they get to know the people in the neighborhoods and their intelligence is real," said Moses.

She also hopes graduating classes will one day be as diverse as when the class was accepted into school.

"There has been a revolving door. Students came in and went out," Moses said.

Moses said faculty need to aim for all of their students to succeed in the classroom.

"We had faculty that thought excellence, as defined by them, meant half of the students wouldn't be there by the end of the semester. That is not focusing on student success," said Moses.

Faculty and staff who know the community of each university are very important to diversifying campuses, Moses said. She wants to diversify faculty and staff in an effort to get students ready for the workplace, as she said SUNY is doing a "dismal job" at preparing them.

"People who don't have PhD.s behind their names can teach us," Moses said.

She repeated the theme of SUNY administrators by saying diversity will look different according to each of the 64 SUNY campuses. Another SUNY statewide conversation is expected in March.

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