Diversity — the loaded term that describes variety in personal backgrounds, opinions and experiences, among seemingly countless other things. To acquire this bloated jargon is the mission of almost every reputable workplace and university.

What constitutes diversity anyway? In workplaces and academic institutions such as the University of Michigan, quantifying and qualifying diversity is salient to intentional inclusion efforts. There’s a fine line between tokenizing identities to score points in the diversity index and purposeful recruiting and building support systems for a variety of backgrounds, ultimately deepening the intellectual and social development for students and faculty.

In a study conducted by Deloitte and the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, millennials were more concerned with being surrounded by people who hold different cognitive viewpoints based upon their upbringing, rather than focusing on demographic features like gender, sexual orientation or race. These differing viewpoints are rooted in people’s demographic identities and cannot be monolithic in defining diversity. In order to experience the full value of varying viewpoints and perspectives, the University must invest more resources to recruit and retain a diverse student, staff and faculty population.

#BBUM — a hashtag that stands for Being Black at the University of Michigan — sparked, last year, a University-wide dialogue about the deficiency in demographic diversity in the student body, and the scant institutional support for students of various backgrounds. #BBUM, which continued the legacy of the Black Action Movement and other activist movements on campus, was this generation’s uprising to challenge the University to reform its approaches to diversity, specifically in terms of recruitment and and retention. In response to the campaign, the University has adopted several approaches to refine their diversity strategies.

In December 2013, Provost Martha Pollack established the Committee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to address the concerns of University students — particularly pertaining to the decline of minority students and accounts of an unwelcoming campus climate for students of color. One of the committee’s recommendations was to write a diversity report for each academic department. These reports should include data on staff hiring processes, plans to launch sustainable student recruiting initiatives, identify areas of improvement and make recommendations that create a supportive workplace climate for all. The committee is liable for holding each department accountable for their work around diversity while also providing them with tools and resources to promote diversity. Though broadening the diversity of the student body is a key priority of this initiative, efforts to increase the diversity among University faculty are just as critical to ensuring a well-rounded campus climate.  

In 2005, the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education reported that Blacks make up 5.4 percent of all tenured faculty. Throughout my four years at the University, I have not been taught by a Black professor. I have taken classes in a variety of disciplines, and the closest I’ve gotten to having a Black professor was an education class my sophomore year, in which the class was co-instructed by a Black female.

This is the first year — my senior year — that I’ve had a Black GSI. I have yet to see a Black professor at the Ford School of Public Policy. Not one. To their credit, the dean of the Public Policy School is a Black woman. While it delights my soul that the face of the Public Policy School School is a Black woman, most students don’t get frequent face time with her. She’s amenable to meeting with students through organized lunches and forums, but it’s a different experience to have continuous interaction between faculty and students.

As little as I have encountered Black female professors, I’ve encountered even fewer Black men in academia. I’ve grown so accustomed to the lack of Black and brown faces from my previous educational experiences that I failed to see it as an issue.

Since I didn’t have professors that looked like me, I sought to find resources in Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs, the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives and other institutional mechanisms that were designed to embody safe spaces for people of color. I discovered a sense of belonging and found personal connections, solace and guidance from people who could relate to my experiences through these venues, which is what I desperately sought all along. I then realized the consequences of being unable to develop meaningful and sustainable relationships with faculty in times I felt my identity was threatened. Having a diverse body of faculty is critical for student engagement and development.

Both nonwhite students and white students gain from learning from teachers of color. An article in The Atlantic about the benefits of increasing the number of teachers of color for students of color and white students pointed out, “Studies show that, academically, nonwhite teachers produce more favorable outcomes for students of similar backgrounds; emotionally and socially, these educators serve as role models who share students’ racial and ethnic identity.”

Students are often more comfortable around faces that reflect their own identity, as it empowers their achievement, and creates a safe space. Professors of color are likely to identify with and provide strategies for students on how to navigate spaces where they were “the only,” and affirm to them that being “the only” does not mean they are alone.

“What hasn’t gotten much attention, however, are the potential gains for white students.” Teachers of color are often able to introduce materials outside of the Eurocentric curricula that primarily focuses on white American characters and narratives. This assists in disrupting the one-sided portrayals of the world.  

Diversity is about more than just race. Though I have been content with the number of female professors and the amount of ethnic diversity among my professors, I’ve had little interaction with professors who are disabled, homosexual, transgender, from a low or middle socioeconomic status or non-Christian. As a student in the Public Policy School and at an institution that prides itself on a community of the “Leaders and Best,” it’s a disservice and injustice to neglect the missing voices in our dialogue.

The issue we discuss in and outside of the classroom and the way we approach problems we seek to solve as future leaders have inherent biases that impact diverse communities. Without learning from people — either educators or students — with characteristics different from our own, we’re missing out on a fundamental part of our intellectual and personal development. We cannot see or understand what we have not been exposed to.

I’m hopeful for the future efforts in increasing diversity. Many administrators and some students are proud of the proactive steps the University has taken to ensure rapid implementation of diversity efforts. Educational leaders, especially those of color, have a significant role as coaches and trainers, enlightening generations about their own history and identity and how it impacts their approaches to a given subject matter. Furthermore, educational leaders serve as mentors, role models and personal life coaches who can help direct students onto the stepping stones of success.

The University needs to increase its diversity in the student body, faculty and staff populations. We’re anticipating what changes can occur. The University’s reputation as a diverse institutional community for future generations rests on our shoulders, so we all must be keenly aware and and sensitive to the ways in which we approach facilitating a diverse academic community.

Alexis Farmer can be reached at akfarmer@umich.edu.

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