Diversity Through Excellence

Is Not A Slogan, It’s A Solution

Justice O’Connor Told Us So …

A “warning” was the way an admirer characterized the challenge at the end of then U. S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s opinion in the historic University of Michigan affirmative action ruling in 2006: “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary” to close the gap in academic achievement and standardized test scores.

However one characterizes her words they became our new reality sooner than she predicted. Race, the Supreme Court ruled, can no longer be used exclusively in achieving educational goals, including diversity, because it is forbidden by the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection. Furthermore, these worthy goals must be accomplished with conventional standards.

Critics of the decision fear that it could write historically underserved groups, especially Blacks, out of any meaningful leadership role in America’s future. If so, intolerance of diversity and difference could become permanent fixtures of American life. That is the new context for the challenge that higher education, as well as the public schools, now face. We can only ignore this threat at the nation’s peril.

“Soft Bigotry” 

Dr. Claude M. Steele of Stanford and Dr. Douglas S. Massey of Princeton, recognized experts on the racial gap issue, believe that one of the main reasons for low college grades among Black undergraduates at “selective” universities is because they often labor under the suspicion that they are intellectually inferior -- or, at least, they think that others regard them so. One senior government official also identified “the soft bigotry of low expectations” that tolerates low performance standards. This bias seems especially damaging among African-American undergraduate students (more so among the over-performers), according to the experts in an article by Derek Bok, President Emeritus of Harvard University and a social scientist.

Despite this research, “most social scientists have chosen safer topics and hoped the problem would go away, it didn’t.” (Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips, The Black-White Test Score Gap, 1998)

Derek Bok, a university professor at, and president emeritus of, Harvard University, wrote in “Closing the Nagging Gap in Minority Achievement” (The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 24, 2003) that the academic achievement gap is nationwide, substantial and has not diminished in the last 15 years. His opinion is augmented by other recognized social research experts such as Christopher Jencks, Meredith Phillips, Claude M. Steele and Douglas S. Massey. Their common conclusion is that this predicament can be met by Black and Hispanic students when they are (1) held to a standard of high expectations, (2) are motivated to overachieve and (3) supported in their efforts.

Even if this is so, how can the noble goal of closing the academic achievement gap through conventional standards be achieved — without taking race into account?

Our Solution

Rather than an exclusive focus on racial diversity, as Dean of the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications at Hampton University we emphasized academic diversity and leadership diversity of the media establishment, as well. High expectations and academic excellence are Hampton traditions. Under my leadership as unit head of the media program, we began a systematic approach to motivating our students to overachieve in their fields by emphasizing voluntary educational purposeful activities linking advisement to learning outcomes, grammar enhancement, GPA strategy, etc., and support.

It is crucial, however, that we develop support programs for predominantly Black or Hispanic student populations, traditionally underserved groups, in public schools and colleges in order to build basic skill sets which can lead to confidence and improved academic success.

Then, and only then, will leadership diversity of the establishment be possible. This is what I mean by “Diversity Through Excellence.”