Forum Addresses Diversity in Higher Education

In December, the Law School's Center For Institutional and Social Change co-sponsored a groundbreaking three-day forum to address the opportunity gap that limits access to higher learning.

Winter 2009

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The conference, titled “The Future of Diversity and Opportunity in Higher Education: A National Forum on Innovation and Collaboration,” brought together scholars and academics from around the country and served as a valuable idea incubator for those concerned about issues of access to higher education.

“When we collaborate, we come up with our best ideas,” said Professor Susan P. Sturm, the director of the Center for Institutional and Social Change, in her opening remarks at the conference, held at Rutgers University. The forum was a collaborative effort between the Center for Institutional and Social Change, Columbia University, Rutgers University, and the College Board.

Citing Scott Page’s book, The Difference, Sturm asserted that “diverse groups are better at solving hard problems than homogenous groups of geniuses.” With that in mind, nearly a year ago, Sturm began to organize researchers, practitioners, and lawyers who could develop innovative methods for sustaining diversity.

Panelists participated in a series of plenary sessions that ranged in topic from examining merit to reforming curriculums. On the conference’s opening night, Syracuse University Chancellor Nancy Cantor inspired applause when she proclaimed, “The so-called achievement gap is not an achievement gap, it’s not an ability gap—it’s an opportunity gap.”

The president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Freeman Hrabowski III, added that colleges must also “protect junior faculty, particularly minorities and women.” Hrabowski, who is African-American, said those groups often shoulder a disproportionate burden, balancing research with informal mentoring of students of similar backgrounds who seek them out.

During another panel, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger emphasized that inclusion “was a matter of choice” at a private university such as Columbia. Bollinger’s defining role in the 2003 affirmative action cases at the University of Michigan underscored his belief in the need to defend progress at the institutional level.

Bollinger also cautioned that more than 50 years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, “many cities, major cities especially, are as segregated, [if not] more than they were in 1960 or 1955.”

Bollinger’s co-panelist, Rutgers President Richard L. McCormick, said that the current economic climate could have some impact on how much funding the state of New Jersey would allocate to its schools, but that university leaders needed to set priorities, deciding “what we value most . . . access [and] diversity.”

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