On Wednesday afternoon, Julián Castro, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama from 2014 to 2017, addressed a crowd of approximately 100 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre in the Michigan League.   

The talk, titled “Leadership in a Changing Democratic Society,” was put on by the National Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good — an initiative housed at the University of Michigan’s School of Education and overseen by the Center of Higher and Postsecondary Education to encourage higher education in the public sphere and communicate knowledge of higher education issues; it is funded by foundations, such as Kellogg and Ford, and also sponsored by the American Association for Hispanics in Higher Education.

The event was also presented in partnership with the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, the School of Education and Rackham Graduate School.

The National Forum, in collaboration with the National Center for Institutional Diversity, also oversees the New Leadership Academy — a program to empower leadership development in higher education; several fellows from the New Leadership Academy were in attendance at the event. Also in attendance were the leaders of several units of the University who work in advancing and implementing the University’s five-year plan for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, which launched in October.

In an interview, John C. Burkhardt, the director of the National Forum and special assistant to the provost for University engagement, explained that the Forum strives to better the relationship between higher education and a changing democracy.

“Our role is to help to enhance the role that higher education plays in a changing, increasingly diverse democratic society,” he said. “The New Leadership Academy is a partnership we have with the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education … (The organization) partners with us in developing a fellowship for individuals who aspire to leadership in higher education.”

Prior to Castro’s keynote speech, Carol Fierke, Dean of Rackham Graduate School, welcomed the audience with some opening remarks, noting the progress of the DEI plan.  

“This effort is currently about eight months old but we’ve already made many gains because we are building on a long history and foundation of effort from our students, faculty and staff to increase access, promote awareness of our diverse backgrounds and understand the context in which we experience our society and learn by pushing the limits of our individual perspectives,” she said.

Fierke said sometimes DEI efforts are at odds with one another. She also said diversity is not always inclusive and inclusion is not always equitable inclusion.

“Our conversations must account for this emergent, dualistic framework that is often conditional to our institutional value,” she said.

University alum Evelyn Galvan introduced Castro, where she stated the event should serve as an opportunity for the University to invite conversations and support action

“The University of Michigan and its students have an amazing legacy of being at the forefront of activism and participation in national movements — being a champion of diversity and this is an opportunity for us to contribute to that tradition,” she said.

Galvan noted the recent incident in which employees, who were immigrants, were detained at Sava’s restaurant. 

“Sadly these situations are continuing in our community and they’re happening with greater frequency,” she said. “Similar to our keynote speaker, I am also from a family of immigrants. The abuses faced by members of our community impact my life but also motivate my activism.”

Castro served as the Democratic Party’s first Hispanic keynote convention speaker in 2012; the grandson of an immigrant from Mexico and raised by a single mother, he was the youngest elected city councilman in San Antonio, Texas, before becoming the city’s mayor. 

He is an advocate for urban revitalization and education for students from disadvantaged communities.

In his opening remarks, Castro reflected on his first days at Stanford University — 25 years ago this fall. He and his twin brother Joaquin Castro, now a Texas state representative, didn’t know how to use a computer. When he typed his first paper assignment, he said, he was describing his mother’s involvement in the Chicano Movement — the computer did not recognize the word ‘Chicano.’ He said he remembers thinking to himself, it would be a long four years.

He compared such feeling to the political environment today, under the new presidential administration.  


“Many of us felt as though we woke up on November 9 and the country had somehow gone backwards,” he said. “We had just gone through one of the most divisive and disparaging campaigns in modern presidential politics.”

President Donald J. Trump questioned a judge’s impartiality because he was, Castro said, “quote — a Mexican.” He vowed to enact a Muslim travel ban, hastily arranged to apologize for suggesting he assaulted women and mocked a disabled reporter.

Castro compared this to former President Barack Obama’s victory eight years ago.

“That night, it seemed as though our nation had forever changed for the better,” he said. “We felt words inclusion and equality and possibility come to life before our eyes.”

The 2016 election, he said, was a reminder that progress is never a shoe-in for many.

Nevertheless, Castro noted the working-class white population, one he described as a vulnerable population, viewed the 2016 as a victory. They voted for Trump so he could bring back the jobs they had lost, to address the opioid epidemic and to send a message to elites in Washington D.C. who they don’t believe have their interests in mind.

However, Castro explained, the working-class 25-year-old white man does not see his prospects improving.

“People first and foremost judge their own standing against themselves — where they are now versus where they were yesterday, and what they think about their own prospects in the years to come,” he said. “Everybody wants to feel recognized, they want to feel included, like they’re getting a fair shot.”

Castro said after the election, the push for equity and inclusion has been derided as identity politics; it has been cited as the reason for electoral loss. Some, he said, have suggested people focus on what they have in common — not on their differences.

Castro said he traveled to 100 disadvantaged communities in several different states and learned an important lesson.

“You can find folks struggling in our nation anywhere you go — no matter the color of their skin, how long they’ve been in this country or how they identify themselves,” he said. “But I also saw that folks do have very different and particular experiences.”

He referenced children worried about the futures of their parents who are undocumented and LGBTQ youth who were thrown out of their houses by their families.

“I do believe there are common challenges, but I’m also convinced it would be a colossal mistake to ignore our differences,” he said. “We need to do both of those things. At this moment, when we can connect the pain and the despair in different communities with the promise of a new vision for success — one that is inclusive — it presents our nation with a golden opportunity to come together.”

Castro called on a new generation of leaders to rise and solve such discrepancies.

“What we need are leaders in the public sector, in the private sector, in the nonprofit sector — committed to understanding and appreciating those diverse experiences, and then forging a vision for progress,” he said. “It’s based on a enough common ground to attract a broad coalition but also nuanced enough to speak to the particular experiences faced by different groups of folks.”


He said as leaders in higher education, the audience has an important role to play in enhancing understanding. He then added leaders must do three things to ensure “everybody has a seat at the table.”

First, Castro said leaders must work to invoke in institutions a culture of respect and understanding — that sees differences and diversity as a source of opportunity. Second, he said leaders must take positive steps to achieve equity. Third, he said they can help build a public policy agenda rooted in expanding opportunity to everyone in the nation — inclusive so that it benefits everyone but nuanced enough to recognize the needs of various communities.

“Today we don’t have nearly the time to talk about everything in that vision, but we’re in a place of education and the best place to start is education,” he said. “In this 21st century, improving our nation’s educational achievement is an economic imperative like it never has been before.”

He said in San Antonio, residents voted to pay more in taxes in order to provide of expanding high-quality full-day pre-kindergarten in the city.

“It was the first time we were asking voters to increase the sales tax to invest in people, instead of things,” he said. “We’ve always been good about investing in things — roads and bridges, in stadiums and air force — but not always in people.”

He said it is important to start investing in the people.

“(Recently), it seems as though diversity, inclusion and equity have become four-letter words,” he said. “It seems like we’re talking past one another, operating under different sects of assumptions. It seems as though we’re more polarized than we have been in a very long time.”

Reflecting on his own brief time as a substitute teacher, Castro again emphasized the importance of good teachers.

“We need you and your work today more than we ever have,” he said.

Burkhardt mentioned the roles of diversity, equity and inclusion and asked where society stands with regard to the mission of these initiatives.

“There is tension on those terms,” he said. “Creating a strong sense of inclusion and identity makes diversity seem more challenging in some respects. They’re not really paradoxical but they’re intentional. Most recently we’ve been talking about equity. They’re, all three, important values. To lump them all together and say E-D-I leaves way too much out. Each of them needs to be considered separately.”

Burkhardt said Castro did a good job of bringing this issue to light in the public discourse, while addressing the role of public service.

“We’re very proud to have him — he brings a unique voice, an individual who has deep personal experience with the role of families and immigration in our society, but also somebody who has been in federal cabinet… We were delighted he could come and offer his thoughts.”

Ashleigh Bell, a Rackham student studying higher education, has taken a class taught by Burkhardt, in which she has learned about different styles of leadership.

“I think one of my biggest take-aways is the emphasis on higher education as a space to develop new leaders,” she said. “I really appreciated his comment about public service as a chance to provide opportunities for others. That is why I believe in higher education and why I think leadership is so important, and leadership looks very different in different contexts. It’s not always the person on the stage, it’s people who are giving back to their community.”


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