Academic leaders to assess diversity in American higher education July 30 at Cornell

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ITHACA, N.Y. -- Five current and former university presidents and a Stanford scholar will meet to assess the nature and value of diversity on American campuses at a July 30 symposium at Cornell University organized by the Future of Minority Studies Research Project (FMS), an academic think tank and research team composed of minority scholars and others from more than 25 campuses in the United States and abroad.

Participating in the symposium, which will be held in Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium in Goldwin Smith Hall beginning at 1 p.m., will be:

  • Nancy Cantor, chancellor and president of Syracuse University;
  • Jeffrey S. Lehman, president of Cornell University;
  • Daniel Little, chancellor of the University of Michigan-Dearborn;
  • Michael McPherson, former president of Macalester College, now president of the Spencer Foundation;
  • Claude Steele, the Lucy Stern Professor in the Social Sciences at Stanford University and director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences; and
  • Eugene Tobin, former president of Hamilton College, now program officer for the Liberal Arts Colleges Program with The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

"We may be at a turning point in our national discussion of the value of social diversity for our campuses," said Satya P. Mohanty, Cornell professor of English and director of the FMS Summer Institute. "People often misunderstand the meaning of genuine diversity because they cannot see that diversity is at its core an egalitarian and democratic value. It is an attempt to deal with the pernicious effects of deep social inequality. A recent book, 'Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education' by William Bowen, Martin Kurzweil and Eugene Tobin, makes the important point that genuine diversity will not be achieved at our colleges and universities without diversity of socio-economic class."

Little, who with Mohanty conceived and organized the symposium, said, "I regard the challenges associated with human diversity -- the cultural and ethnic diversity of the American population, the persistent evidence of inequality of access, opportunity and outcome across race and income, the multiple cultures and value systems of the globalizing world our students will live in -- as being critical to America's future. If we do not solve these problems, America will not be as successful as we hope to be in the 21st century -- economically, culturally or as a just civic union."

The symposium is part of a two-week FMS summer institute at Cornell funded through a three-year grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Founded in 2000, FMS brings together scholars to examine questions about the role of higher education in a multicultural democracy and the need for an adequate conception of minority identities as the basis for progressive social change. FMS's long-term goal is to make the humanities departments of American colleges and universities more diverse, both culturally and intellectually, Mohanty said.

"The symposium participants, who are all prominent thinkers, scholars and academic leaders, will outline their vision of intellectual and cultural diversity as a democratic social ideal, responding in part to the recent critiques by some that our campuses are politically homogeneous," he added. "The speakers will focus on the nature of the ideally diverse educational institution and examine the challenges that lie ahead in the 21st century."

An area of concern to be addressed at the symposium is what Little terms "one of the most troubling sides of 21st-century life: hate crime, intolerance, prejudice and discrimination, and the forms of social difference that sometimes lead to hatred, violence and mistreatment in our society." He said, "Universities cannot solve these problems. But they can help to reduce the mistrust and intolerance that are the breeding grounds of inter-group hatred. Universities can model successful multicultural communities and provide real opportunities for disadvantaged people to improve their prospects in life. And universities can act as a solvent that breaks down some of the social and economic barriers that lead to persistent inequalities of life outcome in our society."