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Diversity initiatives underway

Maddie Hanna | Wednesday, February 1, 2006

During his inaugural and faculty addresses, University President Father John Jenkins stressed the importance of increasing diversity at Notre Dame in broad terms – but stopped short of pinpointing specific ways to do so.

But the theme has been taken seriously, as the University will pursue several “concrete, achievable activities” this semester in order to prioritize Jenkins’ goal, said Jean Ann Linney, vice president and associate provost.

Those steps will be a student-created project, a faculty-written paper, increased focus on diversity issues in admissions and better communication of the University’s successes, Linney said.

“We feel like we’ve sort of gotten in the simplistic activity of just counting people, [saying] we have diversity in this category and this category,” Linney said. “We really want to focus on a diverse community, who we are, the way we think about things.”

Linney is the chair of the University Committee on Cultural Diversity, a group that reconvened this year after several years of inactivity.

The committee, composed of administrators, alumni, faculty, staff and students, created a list of possible ways to build a more diverse climate at Notre Dame. Linney said she presented that list to Jenkins, who then selected the four specific activities he wanted to target.

Linney said she believes several past efforts did not achieve full success because people “thought too big” and underestimated the importance of smaller steps. These four goals, on the other hand, can be achieved this year, Linney said.

She said the committee would “network” to find students and faculty interested in proposing and directing projects examining topics of diversity at Notre Dame.

Graduate and undergraduate admissions are the third main focus, Linney said, but it’s not about percentage quotas or straight number crunching.

“It’s how [faculty and administrators] assist … [there are] so many steps in the process,” she said. “You can’t admit a diverse student body without diverse applicants.”

More emphasis needs to be placed on attracting a greater number of applicants with diverse backgrounds and getting a greater percentage of those applicants to accept admission, Linney said.

The communications aspect is to ensure the University publicizes the progress it makes toward developing the climate, something Linney believes is currently lacking.

“I think that Notre Dame, either we think of ourselves as a non-diverse community, or we present ourselves that way,” she said. “There are lots of things happening here. We’re not doing a good job communicating. Whatever’s happening, we’re not getting credit.”

Frances Shavers, executive assistant to the president, agreed that Notre Dame’s image can sometimes differ greatly from its reality.

“I think it depends on who you talk to and where you go. Because you can talk to 10 different people here, five of them will say it’s diverse, and it’s related to where they came from,” Shavers said. “Image is powerful, and I think we are trying to find ways of telling the story of the successes we’ve had with diversity. [University President Emeritus] Father [Edward] Malloy … made amazing strides for the University in the mission to increase diversity, and again not just in numbers, but also in sort of the quality of life and the community.”

But for students who see Notre Dame as not as diverse as it could be, the situation is frustrating.

Senior Rhea Boyd – who heads the Senate Minority Affairs committee and sits on the Committee on Cultural Diversity and the Student Advisory Group – is one of those students.

“It is definitely frustrating,” Boyd said. “You feel if [increasing diversity] was completely a University priority, it wouldn’t take so much student initiative to get the ball rolling … You only want to hear that change comes slow for so long.”

Boyd has been pushing for a cultural competency requirement in the curriculum, potentially requiring students to take a currently existing class on some issue of culture or diversity that would crosslist with another department. The resolution, which passed in Senate last semester, will face the Faculty Senate for the second time tonight.

While Boyd recognizes the University’s hard work in pushing for diversity, she said she thinks its current system, a seemingly tangled web of different diversity-focused committees, is a hindrance to achieving tangible results.

Her committee created a list of benchmarking ideas for the University after a student asked if the University currently had benchmarks during a Student Advisory Group meeting – with the reply being, “We don’t have a plan. That’s why we have groups like this.”

“I feel like [the effort] needs to be housed under one body – they kind of need to scrap these ad hoc committees,” Boyd said. “I’ve seen probably four final reports from similar committees. You don’t see any continuity.”

While she attested to the system’s complexity, Shavers said it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“It’s complex. It’s decentralized. The good thing is people within their areas take responsibility for the goals of the institution broadly,” she said.

“Within the departments, they can say we want to focus on a number of issues, one of them being diversity, and they’ll create a committee … to focus on that. And we encourage those things to happen because that’s where a lot of the work happens and that’s where a lot of expertise and knowledge resides,” she said.

“I can’t say that it’s either positive or negative. Anything can be good one day and challenging the next day. So I think for us the key is communicating it as a priority … setting it up to the entire University community.”

And the mentality seems to be changing. Boyd said the attitude was all business when she sat down at her first Committee on Cultural Diversity meeting.

“Everyone was saying, ‘Let’s not just have another committee,'” Boyd said. “We don’t need committees – we need change. We need things to happen now.”

Shavers acknowledged the path ahead on the road to “create a community.”

“I think we’ve made strides, and I think we have work to do,” she said. “It’s difficult to rate it because it’s a work in progress, and it’s developing, and I think once we have the work of the committee moving more in place toward some of those goals that [Linney] talked about, then we’ll have a better idea of assessing.”