Twenty-five years ago when I was an undergraduate at the University, a big reason to be here and not someplace else, was the library. (By the way, it still is.) At that time, knowledge was trapped inside books. It had yet to be digitized and set free. If you wanted access to the knowledge, you needed to crawl in between the floors of the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library and pour through books and journals. The University had and still does have an incredible collection, far better than most of its competitors.
The world has now changed. Even as I type, Google’s minions scan the University’s collections round the clock. Eventually (almost) all of that information will be a few well thought-out keystrokes away. Espresso Royale has become Hatcher.
Despite that fact, being at the University remains as relevant as ever. The books and documents have always only been part of the story. The Michigan difference – not the endowment-raising capital “D” Michigan Difference, but the University’s intellectual edge – primarily resides inside the heads of its students, researchers and faculty.
That difference is being put to use. Look out in the world and you will see endless challenges. Energy. Poverty. Health. Environmental sustainability. Obesity. International stability. Epidemics. The Spears family. Will the University of Michigan meet these challenges alone? No. But read the newspapers: It’s a player. And like most players, the University has a strategy. Ours rests on diversity. Over the past decade, the University has made huge commitments to interdisciplinary scholarship and building a diverse community.
These initiatives both leverage the same core idea: difficult problems require diverse ways of thinking. Breakthroughs in science and the arts come about from people bringing new perspectives and tools and from people thinking about problems in new ways.
To facilitate new ways of thinking, the University has created 125 new faculty lines for interdisciplinary research. By encouraging physicists to bump into chemists and psychologists to bump into political scientists, the University hopes to catalyze new ways of thinking to produce insights, breakthroughs, cures and the occasional dance piece.
That same logic applies to the effort to build a diverse faculty and student body. People with different life experiences and people from different cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds see problems differently. They tell different stories. They draw from diverse analogies. That diversity can be an engine of progress.
Most people and institutions mistakenly separate the concepts of ability and diversity. The University’s leaders haven’t. They realize that our collective ability depends on encouraging and leveraging our different ways of thinking. To that end, they want to create a campus climate where we not only get along, but we engage in a meaningful way.
Confronting difference takes effort. Interacting with someone who looks different, thinks differently and brings passion and energy to strange topics and issues can cause us to shrink rather than expand. It can cause us to question whether that person deserves to be here. But if all we do is ask “what’s your SAT score?” or “how many publications did you have last year?” we may never get to the most important question: “Got any cool ideas?”
Scott Page is a University professor of political science, complex systems and economics. He is the author of “The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies.”