Opinion: DEI made me a better professor and person

Reality is complicated, and the best way to understand the complexity of humanity is to experience it first-hand.

(Calla Kessler | The New York Times) An empty classroom on April 15, 2020.

When I was in grade school, we sat in little wooden desks that wrapped around the right side of the seat to create an arm support. The school district made a few desks that wrapped around the left side so that they fit left-handers.

Was this “differential treatment?” Yes, a simple nod to the reality that some people have different needs.

That grade school was situated in the middle of a nice neighborhood in suburban Indianapolis. I had an easy life growing up there. I went to excellent public schools. For fun, we would go to Riverside Amusement Park, where every ticket booth had a sign that said “For White Patrons Only.” In the summer, we would spend our time at the Miramar Swim Club; I never saw a person of color there. There was one Black kid in my high school, but he was beat up so often that he quit.

Most Black people in Indianapolis were stuck in run-down inner-city neighborhoods due to redlining and racially restrictive covenants in the more affluent neighborhoods. In my neighborhood, I was surrounded by opportunity; in their neighborhoods, they were surrounded by poverty and despair.

When I went to Purdue University, I saw people who looked like me; nearly the entire campus was white and most had come from middle-class homes similar to mine. While I was a student there, Purdue recognized that many Black people came from a very different experience — a much more challenging experience — and began a program to actively recruit Black students and make them feel more welcome. An event was held on-campus to celebrate Black history, and I attended, primarily out of curiosity. It was the first time in my life that I had ever been around a substantial number of Black people, even though I had grown up in a city with a large Black population. As I mingled with these people, whose experience was so different from mine, I realized that I had missed out on something essential to emotional growth and development, that I could learn so much by being around individuals from different backgrounds and cultures.

My all-white upbringing had robbed me of a rich cultural milieu that would not only help me understand other people’s perspectives but enrich my own life with new horizons and new ways of interpreting the human experience. Reality is complicated, and the best way to understand the complexity of humanity is to experience it first-hand and learn from other peoples, cultures and ethnicities.

When I joined the faculty at the University of Utah, I began working with a small number of Native American students. They were a tiny percentage of the students on campus, even though there are eight tribal nations in Utah and the team mascot is named after a local tribe. My first impression of these students was that they were in a kind of shock. The campus was an alien place, and they were surrounded by a dominating culture that had tried to exterminate them, forced them to assimilate and took by force nearly all their land, water and independence. The resulting historical trauma still affects Native people today.

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I can only imagine how intimidating it must have been for them to be immersed in such a hostile environment. Recognizing this reality, a group of faculty and Native students began lobbying for a place on campus that would be a refuge for Native students, a home away from home where they could relax in a welcoming environment and recharge their cultural batteries. The University responded by creating the American Indian Resource Center, recognizing that students have different cultural backgrounds and different needs.

In recent years some states have banned DEI in public and higher education. This is a basic failure to understand that students are not automatons manufactured on the same assembly line. It’s like insisting that everyone wear the same size clothes. We cannot treat every student alike when there is such dramatic variation among them.

Some students grow up poor, some are from neighborhoods where almost no one goes to college and some experience racism or sexism — or both. DEI is a response to that reality by attempting to make educational success accessible to all, not just the advantaged portions of the population.

We can tailor the educational experience to students’ needs, but not if such a response has been outlawed by a state legislature that is blind to the great diversity of student backgrounds, needs and experience. DEI is the educational equivalent of making left-handed desks for left-handed students. Educators need the freedom to recognize reality.

Daniel McCool

Daniel McCool is professor emeritus at the University of Utah.

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