ARCHIVED: Convening the College
Salute to the New Year
A Salute to the New Year
Michele Tolela Myers
Hilda Harris, Music Faculty
Accompaniment: Jean Wentworth, Music Faculty
"Climb Every Mountain" Rogers and Hammerstein
"He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" Margaret Bond
Tracey Bey '99
Keynote Address "Campus Diversity in a New Key"
Edgar Beckham, Jr., Ford Foundation
Opening the College
Judith Searfini-Sauli, Italian Faculty
A Salute to the New Year
Michele Tolela Myers, President
Sarah Lawrence College
September 1, 1998
Good afternoon and welcome. I am delighted to be the official greeter on our opening day of school. For those of us whose first year at Sarah Lawrence this is, it is a special moment indeed. We have finally begun in earnest what we have long waited for. Speaking for myself, I must ell you I am happy to be here, eager to know all of you, ready to work.
First days are always exciting. They speak of new beginnings and hope. This year, we will get organized, turn in assignments on time, meet publishers' deadlines, make new friends and love our old friends better, and yes we will take advantage of everything Sarah Lawrence has to offer: concerts, plays, dance performances, the sports center, lectures, readings, art shows, field trips, long conversations with dons. We might even get some sleep and eat right or write the novel that will get the attention of the literary community! That's what I love about first days. Everything is still possible.
I am also delighted to welcome on this stage a long time friend, Ed Beckham, whose wisdom and thoughtful leadership I have come to know well and to appreciate. It is fitting that we should concern ourselves with the central issue of building community in a place that values the individual so much and has always nurtured individual differences. It is precisely because we value each person for what he or she is, that we are particularly well prepared to work on issues of diversity and differences. It is not enough simply to bring people to our campus who are different form one another. We must work, play, interact, engage ourselves with one another to appreciate the "other" fully and understand the contributions we each make to the fabric of our collective life. The challenge is enormous because it is all too easy to remain among small groups of friends who generally share our interests and are often more like than different from us.
I challenge us to make the Sarah Lawrence community true to its fundamental value of cherishing the creative spirit in all of us, because it is that creative spirit that will inspire us to create and recreate a community where decency, integrity, and respect for all truly speak of who we are.
Welcome to Sarah Lawrence.
Campus Diversity in a New Key
Edgar F. Beckham
Sarah Lawrence College
September 1, 1998
President Myers, honored guests, greetings.
It is a particular pleasure for me to share this special occasion with you, and for several reasons. First, it's the beginning of the academic year, always a propitious time, full of ambition and prospect, hope and expectation, and just enough apprehension to enhance the excitement. It was always my favorite time at Wesleyan, and I used to delight in exclaiming to the assembled parents of first year students, "Your children are in good hands, their own!" A subdued murmur would ripple through the auditorium as parents realized that I was describing a reality they both wanted and dreaded.
My second reason is that this is my second visit to Sarah Lawrence College and the anticipation of it has brought back fond, though somewhat embarrassing memories of my first, almost a half century ago, when as an entering freshman at Wesleyan I embarked with two classmates on a two-day New York adventure called a "freshman quest." Our fraternity brothers had assigned us a series of silly tasks, including releasing a live chicken from the balcony of Grand Central Station and arranging an early morning game of chug-a-lug with some Sarah Lawrence students, using orange juice of course. Both were significant intercultural experiences. My classmates, both white, had no idea how to find a live chicken in Manhattan. I suggested that we take a subway to Harlem and walk down a few side streets. Since it was Saturday night, we were certain to find live chickens. And we did.
Sarah Lawrence was much more daunting, interculturally, because it involved an encounter with girls. Had I known then that Sarah Lawrence students were women, not girls, it would have been a relief, for women reminded me of my mother, and I was much more comfortable with them than with girls. At any rate, my classmates and I survived both adventures, and I have had pleasant memories of Sarah Lawrence ever since.
The third source of my pleasure has been the opportunity to see my friend and associate Michele Myers, and to wish her well as she undertakes to lead this illustrious college into a bright future. I offer her and Sarah Lawrence my hearty congratulations on having chosen each other.
And finally, my fourth reason gets closer to my theme. For the last eight years I've been directing a grant-making initiative at the Ford Foundation called the Campus Diversity Initiative. We've made grants totaling about $20 million to advance the notion that diversity in higher education should be valued as an educational asset and employed as an educational resource. The initiative is about to close, and I am about to retire, so this convocation provides me with a welcome opportunity to reflect on what the initiative has done, and what that might mean for higher education in this country.
In entitling my talk "Campus Diversity in a New Key," I am leaning deliberately on a book I read many years ago, Suzanne Langer's Philosophy in a New Key, which was first published over fifty years ago. The book startled me, because it was so accessible, so readable, and because as I read it, I began to hear intimations of how philosophers think, how they frame questions and reflect on the relationship between the framings and the modes of thinking on which the framings rest. The book shook me loose from some pre-conceived notions about the nature of reality, and prepared me to be more receptive to newer suggestions that reality was constructed out of complex sets of historical associations and that our knowledge of it (and therefore of ourselves) was necessarily relative to the locations of those constructions in the flux of social time.
I invoke Suzanne Langer and her way of thinking about knowing, to signal my intention to talk about diversity in higher education in a way that is new to me, and may be of some interest to you. I also invoke her as a reminder that just as she presented a new way of looking at old things, I too want to suggest an alternative way of looking at a familiar social phenomenon, for our diversity has been with us for a very long time.
Perhaps the most important accomplishment of the Campus Diversity Initiative has been its influence in transforming "campus diversity" into a new field of practice in higher education. The faculty and administrators who participate in it often call themselves "diversity practitioners," and for them "campus diversity" is more than a desirable condition to be achieved, more than a mere characteristic of a campus. It is a field of action. It is what diversity practitioners do! The Campus Diversity Initiative didn't create this field of practice, but it had a catalytic influence on its growth and on the development of its self-understanding.
But, what is the field? What are its values? With what other fields of interest does it compete for attention and resources? What does it or might it contribute to productive institutional change?
In order to answer these questions, we need to be mindful that as Carol Geary Schneider and Robert Shoenberg have recently observed, "American higher education is in a period of transformative change" that sometimes feels like "a badly organized stampede."
In their discussion paper Contemporary Understandings of Liberal Education, recently published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, Schneider and Shoenberg summarize the somewhat chaotic reexamination of higher education understandings and practices, and attempt to order the chaos in the hope that the process might be made more efficient. They examine barriers to change, such as over-reliance on disciplines and departments, courses and credits, and on the image of the faculty member as the "sage on the stage." They also identify promising new understandings of learning modes and styles that encourage learning that is collaborative, multidisciplinary and integrative, experiential, and intercultural. They attach the greatest significance and the most promise to the shift from what they call an "instructional paradigm" to a "learning paradigm," from defining educational effectiveness primarily in terms of instructional inputs to defining it more in terms of learning outcomes.
The important point is that they are seeking reform in higher education that will lead to better education. They want quality. They want excellence. Their arguments represent what I have come to call the "quality forum" within the higher education community.
Most often, the quality forum views itself in competition with the diversity forum. They compete for resources, for attention, even for language. They present themselves as having different goals and intentions that may be incompatible. How often have we heard advocates of quality suggest that diversity will erode quality? Our problem is that we can easily talk about quality without talking about diversity. And of course we can focus on diversity, on who the learners are and where they come from, without attending to what and how they learn. Neither approach makes much sense, since they separate means from ends, the reality of our social situation from our abstract objectives.
Fortunately, the quality forum and the diversity forum have begun to talk to each other and to perceive overlapping interests. For example, Schneider and Shoenberg associate diversity with the achievement of specific learning goals, such as self-understanding and the ability "to move productively among diverse subjects, contexts, communities, cultures, and nations."
I want to emphasize further the similarities, indeed the mutualities of these two forums within the movement for higher education reform, and suggest that an alliance between them is long overdue.
First of all, let's be clear that advocacy for campus diversity is also advocacy for academic change, and that the promotion of campus diversity aims precisely at change that is related to educational effectiveness, to quality, to the achievement of excellence.
Second, the implications of both of these inflections of educational reform ramify into every domain of institutional life. That may explain why they sometimes make each other anxious. Keep in mind that even advocates for change fear change, especially change authored by others. If I haven't bought into your use of language completely, I may fear that the change to which you aspire may be inimical to my needs and interests. So I try to persuade you to use my language, which generates anxiety in you. Because the change we both want is comprehensive, because it affects mission, governance, financing, the distribution of resources, personnel decisions, all our systems and structures, it creates barriers to the collaboration that could help us achieve our shared goals. That's more than an irony. It has the makings of a tragedy.
A third similarity between the two forums is that there are multiple motivations and intentions associated with their advocacy. Schneider and Shoenberg list the following: public questioning of institutional priorities, the financing of education, the advent of information technology, the shift from a teaching to a learning paradigm, increasing engagement with the local and global community, competition from the for-profit sector, and reconsideration of tenure. Diversity advocates have their own set: social justice, demographics, the work force, marketing, and diversity considerations related to building and sustaining a democratic society.
One of the problems with diversity as a focus of attention in higher education is that it tends to represent these several motivations and intentions in isolation from each other. Those who are in pursuit of social justice call attention to the oppressions and exclusions of the past, to the need for redress, especially as it relates to access.
Demographers tell us that the composition and complexion of the workforce is changing and that we need to reflect the changes in our patterns of education and training in order to keep our workforce globally competitive. They also tell us that the market in which we purvey our educational services is changing, and that our institutions need to make themselves attractive to new constituencies if they are to thrive. High school students today want diversity in their prospective colleges because they sense that engagement of diversity, learning to deal with it more effectively, is good for them. So even the most selective institutions need to pay attention to diversity in order to keep their competitive edge.
As for the connection between diversity and democracy, I would suggest that they have always gone hand in hand, albeit sometimes uneasily, and that a hallmark of American higher education's evolution has been its response to the growing diversity of the country.
According to historian Jürgen Herbst, it all started with a "culture war" among Protestants in the seventeenth century over which denomination would control Harvard College. The Congregationalists wanted to protect their cultural hegemony against incursions by other Protestant groups, and opposed receiving a charter for Harvard from the King of England because it might permit Anglicans and Baptists to gain ex officio seats on the governing board.
Higher education's engagement of diversity has had many manifestations since then, including the proliferation of sectarian institutions, the education of women both in single-sex and coeducational settings, the development of a dual system of education for blacks and whites in the South, and the establishment of tribal colleges. The engagement of diversity has also included the creation of land-grant colleges and universities, which, according to the original legislation in the nineteenth century, were established to provide educational opportunity not merely for meritorious individuals, but for "the industrial classes."
Certainly it included the founding of the City College of New York in 1847 for the purpose of educating "the children of the whole people." The whole people was of course being redefined at that time to include the waves of immigrants from Europe. It also included the founding of Antioch College 145 years ago, the first college to admit women on an equal footing with men, and one of the first historically white institutions to admit African Americans. And we should not forget the GI Bill and the development of community colleges after the Second World War, which opened educational opportunity to students from much more diverse backgrounds.
It is clear that these manifestations of diversity in our colleges and universities have involved mixed motivations, some honorable, some based on ignoble prejudice. But in every case, the developments have given Americans greater access to higher education.
I would maintain that when the story of this engagement is fully told, it will be seen as a success story, and that it will show us how profoundly the engagement of diversity has influenced educational reform.
The importance of the linkage between diversity and democracy was brought home to me most powerfully at the first in a series of international seminars on campus diversity sponsored by the Ford Foundation in India early in 1997. There were participants from India, South Africa, and the United States. What became clear during three days of intensive discussion of diversity issues in higher education in the respective countries was that the notion of diversity was transformed when it was embedded in a democratic context. Outside the context, it seemed to mean merely difference. But located in the context of democracy, diversity aspired to the twin realizations of difference and unity. The whole point was to use diversity to achieve unity.
These multiple strands of diversity concerns - social justice, democracy, the future workforce, and the marketing of higher education - are an obvious challenge.
The adherents to each of these strands critiques the academy for its shortcomings, its failure to redress the wrongful exclusions of both people and subject matter, its failure to prepare a workforce adequate to the needs of the global economy, its failure to prepare students for effective participation in a pluralist democracy, and indeed its failure to perceive its own vested interest in understanding the diverse markets in which it must sell its own services. But fortunately, the campus diversity movement has begun to make some progress in bringing these strands together. First, there is growing consensus regarding the list of motivations and intentions associated with the work of diversity, and a determination to avoid the trap of making binary choices among them or arraying them hierarchically. They are all included and they are all important. Second, the movement has endorsed the linkage between diversity and democracy, seeing in it a way to persuade potential allies that the pursuit of diversity empowers everyone, that it is not a zero-sum game.
Third, the diversity movement has discovered its external public, the members of the non-academic community that have an interest in higher education and a need to understand how colleges and universities are serving the interests of the larger society. This discovery has enormous potential, primarily because it is motivating the proponents of campus diversity to find a common language that the public is prepared to understand.
But perhaps the most promising achievement of these diversity practitioners has been their discovery of the educational value of diversity. If I had to attempt a definition of campus diversity as a movement within American higher education at this juncture, I would use the words I've already spoken, emphasizing the utilization of diversity as an educational resource. Campus diversity as a practice promotes education by giving us new learners, new things to learn, and new ways of knowing. It also enhances the learning environment for the learners who have traditionally been there, enriches our understanding of traditional subject matter, and extends the range of our traditional modes of inquiry. Shakespeare is not abandoned in favor of Toni Morrison. Indeed, the advent of Toni Morrison creates a new pathway to Shakespeare. Diversity practitioners are discovering that the educational value of diversity provides the common link to all its other intentions.
Does this suggest a commonality between the two fragmented forums under discussion, the one in pursuit of quality, the other in pursuit of diversity? I think it does. First, in the formulations with which I'm comfortable, diversity doesn't just produce quality, it means quality. And quality without diversity has no social meaning.
But where's the hook? How can we bring these two vital interests of higher education together? I think it's through students, that is, through our careful identification of who our students are.
In most cases, diversity practitioners, whether their ultimate aim is to right past wrongs or prepare for a projected future, begin with students, just as do those who advocate academic change in pursuit of academic excellence.
But there's a difference. Educational reformers tend to define students in terms of function, that is, as learners; whereas diversity practitioners are more likely to define them in historical terms, that is, in terms of the dimensions of their personal identity, those characteristics of person, character, and culture that simultaneously distinguish them from others and that they share with others. These characteristics include all the dimensions of diversity that we usually talk about: gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, and the like.
The advocates of excellence may suggest that whoever our students are, they are all learners, so we can begin with that common identity and define them all in terms of it. Diversity practitioners, on the other hand, are likely to suggest that whoever our students are, who they are makes a difference to what they learn, how they learn it, and also to the learning environment in which they are immersed. So we cannot begin with the commonality of function, for if we do, we are likely to construct it in terms that are not responsive to the reality of our students, but rather to imported and imposed norms that probably fit some of our students much better than others. Isn't it ironic that the diversity advocates learned this from the quality forum?
Let me say at this point that while I think there is a real difference in starting points between the two forums, I also think that the gap is eminently bridgeable, and that we need to bridge it for two reasons. First, we'll end up thinking smarter about education and its goals. Second, we'll create a stronger collaboration, better equipped intellectually and politically, to influence academic change.
Let me conclude with a final reminder that campus diversity is what diversity practitioners do. It is action, action designed to achieve better educational outcomes for all students. It operates in recruitment of students from groups previously disadvantaged. It pays attention to retention and campus climate. It is concerned about the curriculum and pedagogy and who the teachers are, and it wants to integrate all these concerns into a new understanding of institutional mission.
Diversity practitioners in higher education seek to deploy and manage diversity as a resource that will enhance teaching and learning for all. That makes all of you here –students, faculty, administrators and staff– potential diversity practitioners. You are, after all, your diversity. Welcome to the practice.
Opening of the College
Sarah Lawrence College
September 1, 1998
At convocation we "call together" our community to begin a new year, so convocation is about beginnings. As it turns out, at Sarah Lawrence we have only beginnings, because in May we end the year with a ceremony called Commencement.
To begin this year, I wanted to share with you an old text I found about beginnings - the mother of beginnings, you might say.
In the beginning God created the heaven and earth. And the earth was without form, and void - so she created Sarah Lawrence, which was also without form... but certainly not void. And God said, let there be light: and there was light... and even some heat, but irregularly - and virtually no air conditioning.
And God called the light Day, and the darkness she called Night. Alternatively, they could have been called A week and B week, but that would just confuse matters and create order out of Chaos. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters - and conferences every other week...or maybe every week, or once a month, or...what exactly is a conference anyway? And let them be for 45 minutes, or 30 minutes, or a quick phone call, or a lifeline for all your days. And the evening and the morning were the second day.
And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And on the dry land appeared a Sports Center, with water in it; and a new Pub, a science building, and flowers, and gardens, and occasional works of art that were often inscrutable. And the evening and the morning were the third day.
And God said, Let the lights of the firmament be for signs, and for seasons and for days, and years. And while they're at it, let them mark Titsworth from Dudley Lawrence, with arrows and images - and let them be called signage, so we can finally figure out where we are going around here!
And God also said, said she, Let there be registration. And let it be an incomprehensible process, with all the creatures of the earth scampering around trying to have serious conversations and make deep impressions, creating such a stir that it will take the invention of a computer to straighten it all out. And God saw that it was good. And the evening and the morning were the fourth day...followed by alternate registration.
And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life... and she raised the tuition to meet expenses. And the evening and the morning were the fifth day.
And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind; and it was so; and God saw that it was good, except there wasn't enough housing for everybody, so they rented apartments.
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness... all the while respecting a certain unique individuality. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And then created gender studies, and saw that it was good.
And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply - using the proper precautions - and replenish the earth, and subdue it - without being oppressive imperialists - and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth... but honor vegetarians and animal rights movements. And God saw every thing that she had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.
Thus the heavens and the earth and Sarah Lawrence were finished, and all the host of them. And God said, Behold, I have given you a special place to grow and flourish, and you should follow my example... be creative!
And on the seventh day God ended his work which she had made, and in a state of total exhaustion gave the job to someone with more energy - Michele Myers. So welcome to Michele Tolela Myers, the 9th president of Sarah Lawrence College. And welcome to all who are joining our special place for the first time, and all who are returning. Let us begin a new set of miracles and a new year.