Saturday February 25, 2017

A Community of Welcome

By Eric F. Spina

Walking across campus, I struck up a conversation with a first-year African American student from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Without prompting, he told me he grew up in a poor, inner-city neighborhood, but the University of Dayton now feels like his home.

"I feel welcome and supported here," he said before taking a Snapchat photo of us.

My heart soared after our chance meeting, precisely because I know that our hope as an institution is that *every* member of our campus community might utter these words. While we are not there yet, I am gratified that so many Flyers have demonstrated in a variety of ways that they will do their part to ensure that our campus is diverse, inclusive and equitable.

Earlier that same day, for example, in a poignant meeting with our Muslim students, I was able to represent the care and concern of the entire campus to members of our community who are fearful and anxious about changes in immigration.  While I could not abate their anxiety, I knew that I had the support of the faculty, staff and students this week when I named a working group to explore how the fluid immigration situation affects our Muslim students, faculty and staff and what support we can provide in the wake of increased anti-immigration rhetoric and changing national policies.

As a community, we are taking the long view and building a campus infrastructure for improving diversity, equity and inclusion — from the boardroom to the classroom. For me, and I know for many of you, it's a top priority.

I sat in the second row of a nearly filled Sears Recital Hall this week to listen to Dr. Larry Burnley, our new, inaugural vice president for diversity and inclusion, talk about the University's strengths and challenges and outline an emerging vision and aspiration:

"Driven by our Catholic and Marianist traditions, UD will be internationally renowned for its resolute commitment to social justice, high degree of cultural intelligence, intercultural competency, its awareness of different identities and their significance to higher education."

If we are to achieve institutional excellence and fulfill our Catholic, Marianist mission of being a welcoming campus for all, we simply must become more diverse. The country is changing: for example, by 2050 people of color will make up 50 percent of the U.S. population, according to demographic projections. The percentage of first-year college students for whom English is their native language continues to drop, as more Asians and Latinos enroll in college. Beyond the business case, though, our mission depends on us enhancing our diversity and inclusivity. The quality of our educational environment depends on it.

Hundreds of faculty and staff attended more than two dozen focus groups that Vice President Burnley has held over the last few months, and their ideas are helping to lay the groundwork for a strategic plan for cultivating inclusive excellence. Beyond stepping up efforts to recruit and retain more diverse faculty, students and staff of difference, we need to develop our capacity to engage in what Larry calls "courageous conversations." Are we who we say we are?

We fail our students if they're not prepared to enter a world where diverse teams in the workplace are the norm. Research shows that these groups are more innovative and better problem solvers than groups that are homogenous with respect to race, country of origin, gender, sexuality, (dis)ability, living environment and the opinions that they hold. As Larry wisely noted, "Diversity makes us better."

I urge faculty, staff and students to attend the final public forum from 3-4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March, 7, in the Kennedy Union Ballroom to add your voice to the ongoing discussion about how we improve diversity, equity and inclusion on campus.

Let’s work together. Let’s strive for that day when every member of our diverse campus community will say: "I feel welcome and supported here."

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