Episode 9: Diversity

Why is diversity important? Why do we strive for diversity in higher education? Today's podcast dives into the subject.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hello again everybody! Welcome to Solutions for Higher Education. I'm Steve Meredith, and joining me today as always is president of Southern Utah University, Scott Wyatt. Hi, Scott.

Scott Wyatt: Hello, Steve. It's nice to be with you today.

Meredith: Always a pleasure. Today we're going to talk about an issue that is on the minds of leadership groups in almost every field of endeavor, and that is the issue of diversity. And here at Southern Utah University, we are undertaking a number of important initiatives regarding diversity, but before we get into specifics about that, you have some data and some information about why diversity is so important. So, why do we strive for diversity in higher education and elsewhere?

Wyatt: Well, Steve, I think that we all share similar beliefs about this. For example, one of the goals in higher education is to elevate people, to give everybody opportunities to be successful,  and we don't want to go there with just one group. We want to go there with everybody. And so diversity is important for us because we want to make sure that every single group, every category of people, everyone, gets a chance. And in order to do that, sometimes we have to make a little extra effort. So…

Meredith: So in order to be inclusive to everyone, we reach out to others who have been underrepresented at the university. Is that right?

Wyatt: Right. And…yeah, we want them to be successful, we seek them out, we go to extra efforts to be helpful…it's the right thing to do. It's our mission to help people. And then I think that there are a lot of people who value diversity and promote diversity because it really enriches their lives. I know that both of us would say that as we have made friends and got to know people from other places and cultures and backgrounds that it actually makes our lives better.

Meredith: Yeah. I think that travel to other lands might be the single best educational experience that a person can have. Seeing how other people live in the place that they live I think is one of the best ways to understand how different cultures enrich the tapestry of the world.

Wyatt: Yeah. I've spent a lot of time in Asia, China in particular over the last several years, and I've learned so much about their culture and have come to respect and appreciate them like I never thought possible. And then additionally to that, I've been able to make some wonderful friends who are from different cultures, underrepresented groups in the United States, African Americans and Native Americans and Hispanics—just a variety of people—and as I've made friends with them, it has really helped me become a better person. And it's really a rewarding, satisfying thing.

Meredith: You and I have made somewhat facetious and humorous references to the fact that at the university, one of our goals is—and it sounds a little bit like a Miss America statement—is to promote world peace. But I think that there's probably no better way to promote world peace than to get to know other members of the world community and to understand them and befriend them and have them understand and befriend you.

Wyatt: Yeah, and we have students from 56 countries around the world. And we have students from all of the underrepresented minority groups that are traditionally in the United States. So we've just got all of these wonderful people that we're learning more about, and we learn to love them and appreciate them and respect them. And what better way can you break through prejudices and barriers and national conflicts than to get to know people?

Meredith: Yeah, we think it's so important that we've made it part of our strategic plan—that we introduce students to diverse cultures and diverse areas of study—and all of those things are impossible to do unless we have a commitment to diversity at the institutional level.

Wyatt: Yeah.

Meredith: But there are other reason too, still, to promote diversity.

Wyatt: Right. We're…there's a long list of reasons. Another reason is that there's a tremendous amount of research that shows that diverse teams are smarter than non-diverse teams.

Meredith: Hmm.

Wyatt: This has been written up a lot recently. And you take a…there's a lot of reasons for this, but here's one example as to why: If you have a whole bunch of people in a team who all come from the same background, they all think the same way, if one of them has to make a pitch to the group for some kind of a new project or proposal or something, then that person starts thinking that, "This is going to be fairly simple because everybody thinks the way I do, and so I don't have to put in all that much extra effort to convince everyone." But if the person making the pitch knows that the group that she or he is presenting to comes from all kinds of different backgrounds, persuasions, then she knows that she's going to have to put in extra effort, research a little bit harder, because she knows that the sell is going to be more challenging. And the result of that is, she performs better. The team performs better. The outcome is better. Just simply having people in the room from different cultures and backgrounds and ideas forces us to all be better. We all step up. And not only does that make sense thinking about it, but there's data to support that.

Meredith: That having a diverse group of people examine a problem from every angle that would only be possible with that diverse group of people will lead you to a more satisfying and higher quality conclusion?

Wyatt: Yeah. Just simply having male and female members of a board results in higher outcome.

Meredith: That's interesting.

Wyatt: Just that one factor. You look at all the boards that have all males, you look at all the boards that have at least one female…the groups that have at least one female on the board perform at higher levels.

Meredith: Hmm.

Wyatt: And that's true we believe in all aspects with diversity. These different motivations for diversity hit people differently.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: You know, it's this…one person, as I've talked to people of color, some have said to me, "I don't want to ever, ever, ever have anyone think that I was hired because of my background. I want everyone to believe that I was hired because I was the best qualified person." And then I've had other people say, "You know, it isn't really a fair race. Because, you know like running a 50 yard line, if you start us all out at the beginning, then the white males are going to win every time because you've got a head start, you're part of a privileged class [so] you need to do something that helps everybody succeed." And you can see these diverse opinions about diversity within diverse populations.

Meredith: A diversity of diversity?

Wyatt: A diversity of diversity.

Meredith: Well it is, to be sure, a hot button topic and at various times, a fairly hot political topic as well. But at SUU, we are committed to diversity of thought and background and ethnicity and gender and all of the things that we think make us better thinkers and produce students who are better prepared to work and to live in their communities, correct?

Wyatt: Right. Right, it's a very important part of our mission statement, or our strategic plan I should say. It's a very important part of our strategic plan and it is there because of all of our goals of helping people succeed, of enriching everyone's lives, and of being more productive and more successful. And all of those are met by diversity.

Meredith: You've had a great opportunity to travel the world as you mentioned earlier, and there are certainly examples of societies that you have visited that tend to be of one background or one race or one school of thought, and as you compare that with the American ideal of a nation of immigrants—people coming from elsewhere and all looking at the idea of what it means to be an American, and regardless of what your background is, all sort of pulling together—how does that…how does Americanism factor into the whole idea of diversity? Because we are different than China because we're not all Chinese. And…does it make sense to you that one of the very pillars, one of the foundations of what it means to be an American is, in fact, to embrace diversity?

Wyatt: Yeah. So if you look at the countries of the world, there's a large number of countries that have almost no diversity. And our country is defined by diversity.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: I mean, yeah, as you said, I was visiting a country a while ago, and had a chance to spend some time, just as one example, some time in their college of Arts. And I noticed that in the painting classes, they were all painting the same thing. And in the dance classes, they were all doing these traditional dances. And in the music classes…and I could go into more detail, but it was interesting that when you went into the university classes, you could tell a very distinctive culture that had existed in that country for a very long time and they were trying to perpetuate and preserve, and that was their focus.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: And I remember thinking, "We would never do that in America. Nobody would say, 'Paint this way because somebody 200 years ago painted this way—or 300 or 500 or 1,000 or 1,500—and here's a copy of the painting, and copy it. See if you can duplicate this perfectly. Take a master and be that master.'" What you get in that country is people who keep thinking the way they've always thought, and there's something beautiful about that no doubt, but in the United States, we would never say, "Copy somebody." We would always say, "Be creative. Do your own thing, and we'll help you figure out how to be yourself and to be honest with your and your own person." And undoubtedly, that causes more creativity.

Meredith: It does. There's no question in my mind that because American culture is America's top export, that what appeals to the rest of the world about American culture is largely driven by diversity. It's the people who are creating the newest, greatest inventions—phones and computers and whatever they are—those are inevitably diverse teams of people. The people who are creating the films and television and the cultural benchmarks that we have as a nation, those are typically pretty diverse groups of people.

Wyatt: Yeah.

Meredith: And it's American culture that is so appealing to a lot of the places in the world that are not very diverse. Because they are never exposed to that diversity of opinion, diversity of thought, diversity of background.

Wyatt: Yeah, and Steve, sometimes when we say, "What is the American culture?" Well, it's everybody else's culture all mixed together.

Meredith: Right. It's hard to define.

Wyatt: Where you can do what you want to do.

Meredith: Yep. That's exactly right.

Wyatt: I'm in Japan or China or Korea or these places and they say, "What's American food?" And I think, "Well, it's your food." [Laughter] "It's your food. That's our food, it's your food and everybody else's food."

Meredith: Exactly right.

Wyatt: It makes me feel bad when people identify American food as being hot dogs. [Both laugh]

Meredith: Right. And even that we got from the Germans. [Laughter]

Wyatt: That's right.

Meredith: Hot dogs and hamburgers are American but they came to us from elsewhere.

Wyatt: They are not American food.

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: We eat them during baseball games, but we didn't invent them.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: This whole idea of diversity is really important, and it's important to remember that the kind of diversity that makes us better is diversity of racial and ethnic groups, gender, age, thought…it's all of these different things that the goal is to get differences. In our Cabinet at Southern Utah University, we have people who have spent their whole careers in higher education and people who have been in the private sector, and just having that one different causes those groups to see things differently. To question assumptions and then to defend the assumptions. And in such a simple way as that, it's making the university better. And the more we add other types of diversity and get so many different ideas in the room, we just become stronger and stronger and stronger.

Meredith: There's a famous Mark Twain quote that I'm going to mangle, paraphrased, is that "It's not the thing that you don't know that causes you trouble. It's the stuff that you know for sure that just ain't so." Any time that there's a non-diverse group of people, they have some things that they know for sure that "just ain't so." And having a more diverse group of people to solve problems and to move the institution ahead inevitably results in a better destination.

Wyatt: Yeah. It absolutely does. This is a wonderful thing to be about. We have, as one of the initiatives at Southern Utah University, is to make sure that we continually increase the outcomes for our students. And by outcomes we mean job placements, graduation rates, those kinds of things, and we've talked before about this Steve, but when we compare ourselves with all of the regional public university in the eight intermountain west states, we have the highest graduation rate.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: And that's something to be pleased about. But I'm equally please that we have the highest graduation rate among all those schools for women. And I'm pleased that we have, within the top couple, the highest graduation rate for Native Americans. And the highest graduation rate for other groups. Because our initiative is not to have the highest graduation rate. Our goal is to have the highest graduation rate for all of the people that come.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: That we don't leave anybody behind. Because if you said that they goal was to have simply the highest graduation rate, then you might stop recruiting people who having a high graduation rate is more difficult.

Meredith: Right. First time college students, or excuse me, first time college attenders…

Wyatt: First generation.

Meredith: Yep. Those for whom it's not in their background or history in their family. One of my very favorite stories that gets repeated year after year to me is when a student will come up to me at graduation and say, "I'm the first person in my family to get a college degree." And you can just tell that their family is surrounding them and they are all so proud of this accomplishment, and that it's been a transformative thing for their family to have a member of their community or of their family reach that goal.

Wyatt: Yeah. It's great, we have a lot of first generation students. We talked about this a while ago in terms of, "How do you rank universities for success?" And there are a lot of universities like ours that are actively recruiting first generation students, Pacific islanders, Native Hawaiian students, Native Alaskan, Native American, African American, Hispanic, students from different countries from around the world…and some of those groups really struggle to graduate. We could increase our graduation rate almost instantly if we became more exclusionary.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: But what pride is there in that?

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: So…

Meredith: Another reason not to trust the rankings. [Laugher]

Wyatt: Yeah. So, we're trying to bring everybody along. We're trying to make sure that everybody is successful. We're trying to promote, as silly as it sounds, we're trying to promote world peace.

Meredith: The American way and world peace.

Wyatt: We're trying to bring the peoples of the world together and as we do all those things, we have every confidence to know that we will all be better. Diversity isn't elevating one group. That's the wrong way to look at it. Diversity elevates all groups. And we've been using the word "diversity" Steve, and perhaps the right word that we should be using is "inclusion". It's diversity and it's inclusion. You've no doubt heard the saying that "Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance." Well, may I suggest that inclusion is more than giving the opportunities to dance, it's that we all get to enjoy a better dance.

Meredith: You've been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast with Scott Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University. Thank so much for listening, we'll be back again soon. Bye bye.