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Powering Excellence Through Diversity

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Achieving Excellence through Diversity
Academic Symposium and Inaugural Event
University of California Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz, California

Thursday, November 3, 2005

In mid-town Manhattan, in New York City, the PaceWildenstein Art Gallery opened an exhibit last month — "African Zion: the Sacred Art of Ethiopia." The show features 50 artworks — covering eight centuries of Africa's oldest Christian culture — a dazzling display of blazingly colored icons and glinting metal crosses.

The art is the glowing consequence of an amalgam of cultures and influences. It is a legacy of aesthetic excellence bequeathed to the world by a confluence of peoples and cultures:

  • Semitic peoples who crossed the Red Sea from the Saudi Arabian peninsula into Africa,
  • Christianity, brought from Europe by Jesuit missionaries,
  • Islamic culture, law, and religious practice,
  • Sub-Saharan African traditions and customs,
  • And, even the influences of itinerant Italian artists.

The centuries of converging, blending, melding diversity in east Africa spawned a distinctive, brilliant art, with a cultural depth, breadth, and warmth which make it both unique and very welcome. Ethiopian art, it seems, is little studied, because it requires scholars who are conversant in European, Islamic, and African art — which the New York Times termed "a tall, multicultural order" — not to mention the spiritual and religious aspects of the art works. You begin to get the picture.

Ethiopian Africa and New York City are a long way from Santa Cruz, and a physicist reviewing works of art might be thought something of a stretch, as well — but, perhaps not . . . because it makes a point: Diversity is a kind of energy — a power which generates the new, the unique, the innovative, the excellent.

This is not a new concept, however. Ethiopian art is but a single example of many throughout human history. Historians, anthropologists, sociologists, scientists, engineers easily might identify other examples, throughout the world and over millennia, of converging cultures, peoples, disciplines, which brought on discoveries, advances, innovations, to the extraordinary benefit of humankind.

Indeed, the American Experience, itself, is an example. For hundreds of years, people, groups, individuals, arrived on this continent from all over the world — though some were not always willing participants — bringing the widest variety of languages, cultures, ethnicities, thought, perceptions, concepts. This experience, or experiment, as it is often called, gave us what we have today.

Of course, it was not always so, as we are reminded, in the passing of Rosa Parks, of the history of the struggle for civil rights in this country. Nevertheless, it also is a measure of our progress that she lay in honor in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, the first woman accorded such a tribute, and just the 31st person since 1852 — a list which includes Abraham Lincoln and nine other presidents. At a service on Sunday in Montgomery, Alabama, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said, ". . . without Mrs. Parks, I probably would not be standing here today as secretary of state." I would not be standing here.

And what do we have today?

  • The most sophisticated higher educational system in the world;
  • A well-developed, supportive infrastructure for enterprise;
  • A financial system providing ready access to venture capital and a long tradition of investment in entrepreneurial projects;
  • Government structures designed to support and invest in a variety of enterprises, and government policies which encourage investment and entrepreneurship;
  • A history and tradition of collaboration between the public and the private sector;
  • A thriving, diverse culture of risk takers — a culture tailor-made for innovation, where ideas are welcomed and viewpoints sought;
  • A long history of taking great risks for great rewards.

Sam Palmisano, the Chairman and CEO of IBM, has termed this "the innovation ecosystem." These are the sustaining essentials of new ideas, of scientific discovery, of technological innovation, of global leadership, of pre-eminence — and ultimately, of a thriving economy, and national and global security.

I could stop here — except that there are questions which are useful to explore:

  • What world are we preparing students for?
  • What must we teach?
  • Whom are we teaching?
  • Who is teaching?

Let us first examine the world for which we are preparing students.

Centuries ago, one could expect that the world would not change significantly from generation to generation. Of course, the changes you have seen in your own lifetimes make clear that this is no longer true. Consider the cell phone in your pocket: No matter how new it is, it is already out of date. Things are changing that fast. The mere speed and magnitude of change, regardless of its precise characteristics, will be a defining feature of the decades to come.

The world which greets college and university graduates is a thriving, though turbulent, global environment — and, growing more so all the time — in which nations — and corporations — are on a quest for resources, for energy, for markets, for talented human capital, for financial capital, for opportunity, for advantage.

A variety of converging forces create this new environment — population growth, energy demand, resource consumption. The world's population rose from 2.5 billion in 1950 to 6.1 billion in 2000, and is expected to reach toward 9 billion at mid-century. Water use has tripled. Fossil fuel use has quadrupled. In the past 35 to 40 years, worldwide energy consumption has nearly doubled, driven by population growth, rising living standards, energy-dependent technologies, growing market-based economies. Global energy consumption is projected to increase by 57 percent between 2002 and 2025, and to double by mid-century.

Nations, of course, globalized themselves in the 500 years between the 15th and 20th centuries. Perhaps 50 years ago, corporations followed suit, going global for competitive advantage; spurred, also, by the tectonic shifts as the Cold War ended. Merck Research Labs, for one, has major research and development facilities in 11 nations. The flow around the globe of information, technology, capital, goods and services, and people is increasing. By 2020, the world economy is projected to be about 80 percent larger than it was five years ago, and average per capita income to be roughly 50 percent higher. The world economy is projected to take on a new character, as well, with more and more diverse nations, and corporations — based in such countries as India, China, or Brazil — becoming involved as major players.

Since about 2000, falling costs and rising distribution of communications and data management technologies — telecommunications, computers, satellite transmission, global fiber-optic networks, the Internet — have "leveled the global playing field" and created a growing, entrenched, global inter-connectedness. With new "flatness" enabling all to participate in the global marketplace, the economies of developing nations are taking off — unevenly, to be sure. Nations are now able to invest in their own human capital, and to create their own jobs and wealth. China's economy, for one, has tripled in size since 1980, and continues to grow at 8-9 percent per year. It could equal ours in 15 years.

I speak frequently about innovation and discovery, especially because I lead a technological research university. Innovation to meet global challenges is advanced by diversity — in all of its multiple meanings — multidisciplinarity, diversity of thought, culture, language, experience, and approach. Innovation is advanced by chance, challenge, choice, and by informed coincidence — and, indeed, is nourished — is powered — by the full breadth of these diversities and by the quest for excellence.

This brings me to the next question: What must we teach?

The overarching global mix of opportunities and challenges requires that universities educate new kinds of graduates. These graduates must have knowledge and skills which plumb disciplines deeply and broadly, and they must be educated experientially with minds-on, hands-on understanding. They must be familiar with, or appreciate interdisciplinary, and cross-disciplinary work, beyond their own fields of study. They must be critical consumers and analyzers of information.

They need to know how to create opportunity. They must have the entrepreneurial skills to take risks, and seize opportunities — to take discovery and innovation out of the classroom or laboratory and into the marketplace and into the larger world to create real change.

Graduates must have broad vision, and long-term vision, to see the context within which they will work, and to see beyond it. They must be able to provide effective teamwork in a global arena, and to work, orthogonally and horizontally. They must be able to lead globally, in new situations, in other cultures, and to understand and to appreciate differences, and how to take advantage of them to reach new levels of achievement. In other words, students must have, or develop, strong analytical skills; the ability to lead or work in multidisciplinary environments; must have multicultural sophistication; and intellectual agility.

They must be good global citizens.

As I describe the new global environment, and what the new student needs to lead effectively within that environment, one can begin to see the value of diversity to achieving these goals.

Whom are we teaching?

Three demographic shifts are changing the U.S. labor force — the beginning and growing retirement of today's cohort of professionals, especially scientists and engineers; a diminishing flow of talent from abroad; and the increase in the American minority population.

The baby-boom generation and the number of working women increased the U.S. workforce by nearly 50 percent over the past two decades. But, retirements will increase from 2008 through 2029. In addition, labor force growth is expected to slow through 2025, with the addition of 3 million workers through 2020.

Demographic shifts in our nation have created what I term the "new majority" — comprising women and ethnic minority groups who, traditionally, have been underrepresented in higher education, and, especially, in science and engineering. At 57 percent of the undergraduate population, women now surpass men in colleges and universities, and in professional studies such as law and medicine. Statistics released by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education showed that for the first time, women earned more than half the degrees granted statewide in every category — associate, bachelors, masters, doctoral, or professional. Educators are beginning to ask if special efforts are needed to lure men to campus.

With ethnic minority groups projected to account for the largest increases in the population in coming decades, and the growing under-representation of men in our colleges and universities, our paramount mission will be to educate all students through high school, and into and through the university to graduation, and on to doctoral or professional study. However, for every 100 ninth grade students, only 67 graduate from high school. Of those 67, only 38 enter college, and only 18 earn a bachelor's degree. And, we know that even of those who graduate from high school, many lag significantly behind their counterparts in other nations. U.S. 12th graders performed below the international average for 21 countries in mathematics and science.

While the college educated labor force more than doubled between 1980 and 2000 — increasing by 107 percent, — without increases in the rate of educational attainment, the college-educated labor force will likely grow by less than one third over the next 20 years. This will bring a slowdown in the skilled U.S. labor force, just as other nations are investing in the advanced education of their own student populations. This together with recent changes to visa policies, has diminished the flow of international talent, as more international students are able to find advanced education and employment in their home countries and in other nations around the world. I have called these converging trends "The Quiet Crisis" because they threaten our global leadership, and economic and national security.

The Quiet Crisis makes a difference throughout our economy and our civil society, but it is especially critical in science and engineering — which drive innovation, and create jobs and wealth. In 2000, 17 percent of university bachelor degrees in the United States were in science and engineering, compared with a world average of 27 percent, and 52 percent in China.

If the U.S. is to remain a preeminent global leader, we must mine the talent pool — globally and domestically to create the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Clearly, we have a lot of work to do to inspire, excite, encourage and demand that our young people achieve and contribute to the future.

Women and ethnic minority groups continue to be underrepresented as tenured and tenure-track faculty. At 18,500, Hispanic professors, as one example, represented less than 3 percent of full-time faculty members in 2001-2002. This, of course, reflects the fact that only 1,116 Hispanic scholars earned Ph.D.s in 2001. Similar under-representation holds for African-American tenured and tenure-track professors — at about 32,700 African-American professors.

Exact statistics are less important than the fact that to encourage and mentor students from diverse backgrounds, universities must engage a diverse faculty. This is a challenge, nationwide — the result of a kind of academic "Catch-22."

Some institutions of higher education are working to break out of the circular "Catch-22." Some are stopping the tenure clock, instituting gender-bias training, implementing policies to make academic careers more family-friendly for women and men, and examining the full career spectrum to find out where and how the academic system might be made more welcoming of diversity. Columbia University announced in August that it would spend $15 million to recruit more female and minority professors, using the funds to hire a "critical cluster" of diverse faculty, and to change the process and culture surrounding faculty searches, recruitment, hiring, retention and promotion. Harvard is putting $50 million over the next ten years toward expanding diversity among its faculty.

Whether these efforts will succeed, depends, as we know, on the degree to which the highest levels of the university are committed to implementing meritocratic practices which support diverse faculty and students institution-wide.

A variety of groups and organizations are working to support and encourage graduate students and faculty from under-represented groups to finish their doctoral degrees, to engage effectively with the process, and to achieve the tenured positions they seek.

The bottom line is that in a global innovation ecosystem, diversity is a cardinal value, and one, which increasingly is being recognized. Corporations, in large part, do not need convincing. Many multi-national companies have developed policies to assure the hiring of people whose gender, race, and intellectual diversity reflect the communities they serve.

These policies are driven by the precept that there is value in diversity — that bringing divergent points-of-view to the table helps to broaden the perspectives of corporate leadership, thus creating a clear-eyed view of the world and the competitive marketplace. Simply put, corporations are embracing diversity because it is essential to maintaining their market share, their competitive edge, and possibly even their long-term survival.

Consider what the corporate sector said in its support of the University of Michigan admissions policies in two United States Supreme Court decisions — Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger. In an amicus brief filed with the court, 65 leading American corporations argued the importance of a diverse workforce — coming out of a diverse educational environment-for their "continued success in the global marketplace."

These 65 leading American corporations — Alcoa, American Express, Boeing, Coca Cola, DaimlerChrysler, Deloitte & Touche, Eastman Kodak, General Electric, General Mills, Hewlett-Packard, Lockheed Martin, Nike, Proctor & Gamble, Sara Lee, Shell Oil, 3M, and Xerox, to name a few — had collective annual revenues of well over one trillion dollars and conduct business around the world. 3M, for instance, is a $16.7 billion diversified manufacturing and technology company with operations in more than 60 countries and customers in nearly 200. Boeing makes 70 percent of its commercial airplane sales to international customers. Procter & Gamble sold a branded product to more than 2.5 billion people in 2002, for more than $40 billion in sales.

Today's global economic ecosystem, the corporations argued, "and the increasing diversity of the American population, demand the cross-cultural experience and understanding" which is gained from a diverse educational environment. They continued that "because of the increasingly global reach of American businesses, the skills and training needed to succeed in business today demand exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints."

Similarly, a nation's economic health requires that it acknowledge the value of diversity and suffuse that value throughout its institutions and interrelationships. If one accepts the premise that innovation is key to global competitiveness, economic strength, and security, one must understand the essential link of leadership to innovation, and of innovation to the creation and sustenance of a talented multicultural workforce — especially a science and engineering workforce. It is imperative that the talent and intellectual prowess which exists among people of all colors, religions, and creeds, be welcomed and encouraged.


But, just throwing people together does not necessarily create innovation. It requires really smart, focused people — drawn from the complete talent pool — challenging each other and understanding each other, to create something really new. In other words, it requires excellence, leadership and community. Excellence must be the standard in all that we do. Leadership must lead and set the standard — in demand for achievement, in understanding, and in ethics. Such leadership must be claimed — in a university — in pedagogy and research. Community is what we are, because there is one world, and the university is the fundamental microcosm of it — within which we create global leaders.

How do we do this?

I thought it might be useful in this regard to pose questions for you to ponder.

1. In what ways is diversity a meaningful term? What elements constitute true diversity?

2. How far are we willing to go with the concept of "diversity?" To diversity of thought? Diversity of politics? Diversity of background? Diversity of income? Is there diversity in fact? What do these imply? What might be their manifestations?

3. Does diversity lose its meaning if applied too broadly?

4. What is the place of diversity in a free society? What role does it play?

5. Earlier this year, a flurry over comments concerning the varying abilities of men and women to do science led to a national discussion over differences between men and women. In what way does gender diversity manifest in the classroom, in faculty, in pedagogy, in administrative policy?

6. What changes are implied for teaching and learning in a diverse student population?

7. There are uses for technology in almost every arena. Are there ways in which technology can be useful within this context?

8. What policies support the kind of diverse environment we want? What policies support the full range of talent?

9. What changes, reforms, policies, and enhancements should colleges and universities implement to assure diversity in tenured and tenure-track faculty? To assure diversity in admissions, and in student populations? What outcomes are important to achieve? What standards/considerations are important to apply?

10. What kind of an environment — school, neighborhood, community, government, university, corporate is most productive? How it is supported? How do the different arenas reinforce each other to create a nurturing yet productive and challenging environment?

11. Are ethnic, cultural, and gender diversity, alone, enough to ensure excellence? Given the relative academic under-achievement of some racial and ethnic groups and the relative academic over-performance of others — all in the face of static or falling overall achievement of young Americans in mathematics and science — how do we close the performance gap?

12. Can different groups learn from each other? How?

13. How do we do this within the university, given that many students come out of high schools and/or, sometimes home situations which may leave them under-prepared for college/university work? That many come with very different life experiences?

14. Is there a way of demanding more out of all of our students without gender or racial bias, or stereotyping?

15. What about white males, whom some are beginning to see as a new, or about to become, an "underrepresented" group in American higher education? In fact, males overall.

16. Would or should all of this require universities to create pre-collegiate "academies" of their own?

I ask these questions because we cannot attempt to lead globally without, again, an understanding of the essential link of leadership to innovation, and of innovation to the creation and sustenance of a talented workforce. This requires that we tap the total talent pool — globally and domestically.

True excellence requires drawing the best from all of us, through intellectual, gender, ethnic and geographic diversity and through high standards and expectations of performance for all, yet doing this in a way which nurtures all.

Your answers to these questions will speak from and to your particular circumstances. They are worth pondering, and the answers will help elevate the discussion. Your discussion today, and into the future under leadership of Chancellor Denice D. Denton, will advance both history and excellence, at the University of California Santa Cruz, and extend far beyond the campus perimeters.

Diversity, and discussions of it can be turbulent, and uncomfortable. But, it also is clarifying, illuminating, leading to a deeper understanding of one's self and one's world. Diversity advances innovation — diversity powers excellence.

I look forward to the conversation.

Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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