Inclusion: Obstacles and Opportunities

This is the first of a series of summer blog posts on obstacles to and opportunities for  inclusion. Subsequent posts will focus on gender, political and religious beliefs, and economic inequality.

As we prepare for our discussions on campus planning this fall, I am eager to gather student, faculty, trustee and alumni views on what we can do to make Wesleyan’s residential learning experience as powerful as possible. Today we re-launched the online version of my Modern and Postmodern class, and I have been impressed with what students have reported from their work in this and our other Coursera classes. While we experiment modestly with online courses, I want to double down on our commitment to residential learning. Campus planning discussions will be a key part of that.

I am particularly concerned with issues of inclusion, and summer events have provided plenty of food for thought. Issues of diversity and inclusion were highlighted last year in two campus-wide diversity forums and in countless conversations among staff, faculty, students and alumni. Wesleyan has proudly adopted the label “Diversity University” for a long time. Two years ago I wrote the following in an essay entitled “Why We Value Diversity.”

At Wesleyan University our mission statement reminds us that we aim to prepare students “to explore the world with a variety of tools.” Diversity is an aspect of the world we expect our students to explore, turning it into an asset they can use. We expect graduates to have completed a course of study in the liberal arts that will enable them to see differences among people as a powerful tool for solving problems and seeking opportunities. We expect graduates to embrace diversity as a source of lifelong learning, personal fulfillment, and creative possibility. Selective universities want to shape a student body that maximizes each undergraduate’s ability to go beyond his or her comfort zone to draw on resources from the most familiar and the most unexpected places.

How can we live up to our aspirations to make “excellence inclusive?”

This question has been much on my mind in thinking about the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Trayvon Martin in Florida. Zimmerman followed Martin because he found the young man suspicious – Trayvon was black and he was wearing a hoodie. Martin was guilty of “walking while being black,” and many of our African and African-American students have told us that they feel likely to be profiled in similar circumstances. Profiling has no place on our campus, and we will not stand for it.

Officially prohibiting profiling is one thing; promoting inclusion is another, more complex challenge. How do we promote inclusion here? In classrooms and dorm rooms, from athletics to the arts?  We do it in part through administratively organized programs, such as the new work in orientation we’ve added in this year. But my hope is that we will rise to this challenge through myriad, informal discussions across campus to become more mindful of any barriers to inclusion that still exist at Wesleyan.

Let me quote President Obama on what might come of these efforts: there’s the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can?  Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?  That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.”

Trying our best to be “a little more honest” and to “wring as much bias” out of ourselves as possible will be important tasks as we discuss how to ensure that  Wesleyan provides the very best residential education for all our students. We can’t pretend that we are immune to the violence and prejudice that infects much of the world around us. But we can stand with those who promote fairness and inclusion, making the most of out of diversity in the service of education.

Our campus is not a “bubble” that keeps the world outside at bay. Our campus should be a place of inquiry at which “boldness, rigor and practical idealism” are put in the service of “the good of the individual and the good of the world,” to paraphrase Wesleyan President Willbur Fisk (1831). By building a more inclusive and dynamic campus community, we are encouraging everyone at Wes to use the lessons learned here, with “independence of mind and generosity of spirit,” to make a positive difference beyond the borders of the university.