E. Royster Harper, the University’s vice president for student life, and Regent Shauna Ryder Diggs (D) sat down with 20 students to discuss diversity on campus.
Held in the Trotter Multicultural Center, the event was the second in a series of talks hosted by Harper called “Keepin’ It Real with VP Harper.”
Harper said the inability to translate discussion about diversity into tangible change is a problem that goes beyond the University.
“I think lots of people feel helpless about, how do we actually create what we say we want? And I don’t know how we do that,” Harper said. “I think it’s here and it’s in our country that we talk a very different game than we live and that people are hurt because of that and feel excluded because of that.”
Harper said the University will work over the summer to develop a strategic diversity plan to create more concrete policies. Harper said the plan will be set for release at the start of the Fall 2015 semester. Schlissel announced intentions to launch such a plan during a diversity leadership breakfast he hosted in February.
“There’s some preliminary ideas that are being talked about in terms of developing a pipeline for students, thinking about how we might improve K-12 education,” she said. “We’re a long way from ‘this is specifically what we’re going to do,’ and of course we’re always doing work on the climate.”
Harper said part of the University’s inability to foster a diverse student body stems from the institution’s image of being a competitive institution with a wealthy student body, which may deter students who would help create a more diverse campus.
“We have this reputation for being arrogant and that turns some students off,” Harper said. “I think there’s other students who think, ‘It’s hard and I don’t belong there.’ We have a reputation for being highly affluent.”
To combat these perceptions, Harper said the University must appeal to a broader range of applicants, particularly applicants who may have difficulty affording University tuition.
“I think the idea is to get a greater number of students to think about Michigan as a possibility, certainly to think about affordability,” she said. “Also, to begin to develop the pipeline earlier, to really think about the public schools and what they’re offering and how we might improve the kind of experience students are having.”
Discussing minority enrollment specifically, Diggs identified three factors as central to increasing diversity: developing a more holistic admissions process, improving affordability and changing the campus culture.
“Those are all the things we have to think about — actively comparing students so that we can really identify the students we want, encouraging them to apply and telling them we really are going to help you do that, you don’t have to make your choice simply because of money and having a good culture while you’re here.”
Diggs, who graduated from the University with a bachelor’s degree in 1991 and a medical degree in 1994, said the school was much more diverse when she attended.
“When I arrived here, I felt that Michigan was fairly diverse,” Diggs said. “When I walked around I saw all different types of people. That was an incredible learning experience for me.”
She said living and learning in a diverse environment had a profound impact on her personal development.
“I lived in East Quad at a time when East Quad was extremely liberal and different,” Diggs said. “And that was probably the best educational experience I received here. There’s no doubt in my mind that living in East Quad changed my life. It made me a better person and absolutely it made me a better physician.”
Harper said though the University’s administration is working to improve diversity on campus, tangible change stems from the students.
“The people who promise diversity are not the people who create the diversity or the culture,” she said. “So the administration promises one thing, but the actual culture and the diversity and the talking among and across differences happens at an entirely different level.”
Nursing sophomore Ariel Jordan said she identified with Harper’s call for student action.
“I agree with what Vice President Harper had to say about how she was thinking about what the administration could do but then she realized that it will largely come from the student body,” Jordan said. “Of course the administration can play a part in it, but, like she said, they’re not walking around with us every day to create this climate.”