As part of the University’s ongoing initiative to build campus diversity and inclusion, University President Mark Schlissel hosted a public panel discussion with various leaders in higher education Thursday. The talk, titled “Facing the Challenge: the continued commitment to diversity in higher education,” took place at the Rackham Graduate School.

The University’s National Center for Institutional Diversity partnered with the American Council on Education to bring together higher education leaders and leading faculty members the University. For the event, representatives from Rutgers University, the University of Maryland, the University of New Mexico and EducationCounsel, an education consulting firm, were present at the discussion.

Schlissel kicked off the conversation with comments on the role of public institutions in today’s society and the responsibility they have to encourage diversity.

“Ensuring the diversity of its academic community is perhaps the biggest challenge facing institutes of higher education,” Schlissel said. “Racial strife has exposed wounds and inspired students to protest. All must feel welcome. Those of us at public institutions have a special role to serve all of humanity. Race and ethnicity are undoubtedly key factors in expanding our reach.”

Robert Sellers, vice provost for Equity, Inclusion, and Academic Affairs, said he thought the panel brought in leaders to address the changes happening in our world in regard to diversity.

“This special panel is part of a larger ongoing two-day conference … The panel today is particularly timely given a lot of the activism going on in our campus today,” Sellers said. “Most importantly, the panel today is timely because of what is going on in our society. If higher education is going to meet the needs of this more diverse society, we need to open access to communities that have never had access before.”

The night’s discussion also came at a significant time judicially, as a landmark case is being heard this term by the U.S. Supreme Court against the University of Texas-Austin for using race in their admissions, Fisher v. University of Texas. The Fisher case echoes a suit that was brought against the University over its use of race in admissions to the Supreme Court in 2003, Gratz v. Bollinger. Though the court utimately ruled that parts of the University’s affirmative action were legal, in a subsequent 2006 ballot proposal banned the use of race, gender and other demographic elements in public college admissions in the state.

During the panel, Kedra Ishop, associate vice president for enrollment management at the University, said she understands the precarious situation of admissions and the role race plays in it. Ishop told the panel that for every applicant to the University, the admissions office must consider what lead the prospective student to apply and who they are as students in order to identify possible advantages and disadvantages in the admissions process.

“How do we know, think about and communicate with our student body about who we are; and with the way we represent test scores; and how we represent our student body?” Ishop said. “Certain populations don’t apply to us because they think they can’t get in. Low-income students don’t apply as much and we have to change how we represent ourselves to them.”

Overall, the panel agreed that at this point in history following the Civil Rights Movement, more progress should have been made.

Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Rutgers University, said all universities should strive for inclusion to give all students a pathway to opportunity.

“We need to think of our place in the world. It’s about what is happening and what has happened,” Cantor said. “We are in a paradoxical moment where we are dramatically changing. How are we going to be the engines of opportunity that universities supposedly have always been?”

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