Diversity efforts are key to our students’ futures

Dean Pic

By Steven R. Leigh

Recently, University of Colorado leadership, including President Bruce Benson and Boulder Chancellor Philip DiStefano, reiterated their commitments to diversity on behalf of the university and its campuses. It is important that the College of Arts and Sciences, as well as other campus units, affirm this commitment to diversity, reflecting efforts to advance the capabilities, impact and relevance of our university system. As both President Benson and Chancellor DiStefano have noted, diversity efforts are critical to our mission as a research and educational institution. In particular, President Benson has said that, “Diversity is one of our university’s core values and stated guiding principles,” and that, “Enhancing diversity at CU is critical.”

The CU-Boulder College of Arts and Sciences plays a crucial role in supporting university, campus, state and regional efforts to promote diversity. We are the most diverse college on the Boulder campus and host a variety of departments and programs that directly relate to diversity, including our Departments of Ethnic Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies. Beyond these focal points, numerous departments and programs engage in efforts to conduct research and teaching in this area, including other departments in our social sciences fields, as well as those in the arts and humanities. Our STEM departments also promote diversity, including developing associations with minority-serving institutions in the state. An example includes a plan for a BA/MS program in physics to support students from Fort Lewis College in Durango, an institution with a high proportion of Native American students.

There are many reasons that institutions of higher learning must take the lead in promoting and focusing on diversity, including economic, social and moral imperatives. The need is acute here in the western region of our country, where our population is diversifying much more rapidly than in other regions. Specifically, the 2010 census showed that 47 percent of the western region was listed as minority, substantially exceeding other regions.

It will be critical that universities, colleges and community colleges, especially in the West, offer educationally relevant and attractive training to future students from diverse groups. The need for education that is informed by considerations of what is important for a variety of populations will only increase. For example, once our pre-medical students become physicians, they will need to be aware of cultural issues that influence diverse populations. Cultural factors such as diet, exercise and occupational choices (or constraints) are expected to become increasingly complex and important elements of medical care. Students of history will need to comprehend and interpret increasingly varied social and cultural movements and trends, while students in the arts will need to engage with growing numbers of artistic modes, styles and traditions. Programmers working on application development, social-network innovations and website development will need to be sensitive to cultural traditions and preferences of many varied groups to succeed. Institutions of higher learning must prepare students for these rich new biomedical, historical, social, cultural, technological and artistic landscapes. In so doing, those institutions will serve society well into the future, conducting research and training students in absolutely critical areas.

The College of Arts and Sciences is well-positioned to create these kinds of opportunities.   Specifically, we feature important programs that enhance recruitment and retention of talented students from diverse backgrounds. For example, the Van Gerven First Generation Fund, was founded by my generous colleague in anthropology Professor Emeritus Dennis Van Gerven (and established in 2012 at the urging of Fred Anderson, professor of history and then-director of the Arts and Sciences Honors Program). Dennis, who directed the Honors Program for many years, established this scholarship to support honors students who are the first in their families to attend college. The fund has benefitted many of our best students, including those from under-represented groups, and for whom college would have been unattainable without scholarship support. Also, alumna Midge Korczak funds a program that defrays residence-hall costs for first-generation and under-represented students. These top-performing Korczak Scholars are able to afford the amenities of campus life free of both commuting and obligations related to home life. Support for our students allows us to attract the most-talented students in the state and country, offering excellent opportunities for students as well as our entire academic community. It is worth noting that Chancellor DiStefano was a first-generation student himself, and he embodies the possibilities for success that our efforts promote.

Our college, and our generous alumni and donors, will continue to advance diversity efforts in recruiting and retaining faculty, students and staff who can lead the nation in understanding the challenges, opportunities and benefits that an increasingly diverse America presents. We will continue to align with campus and university priorities and support our top-level leaders in these efforts. Our goal must be to lead the state and region in securing a vibrant and healthy future for a diverse and capable population.

Steven R. Leigh is dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Dec. 7, 2015