A Jan. 30 story in the Deseret News concerning the legislative audit of the U’s medical school included a comment from a state legislator: “Do we want to celebrate diversity, or do we want to celebrate excellence in whatever form it comes?” In this issue of Continuum, Lorris Betz, the dean of the medical school, sheds some light on the findings of the legislative audit (see And Finally). But the quoted comment, which implies that diversity and excellence are mutually exclusive, does more than refer to the audit. It indicates the state in which “diversity”—a word that has been overused, misused, massaged, and generally pummeled into confusion—finds itself. And that’s of particular interest to the University, where President Machen has made diversity one of the cornerstones of his administration.

Hardly an expert in diversity myself, I sought out those who are—namely, Bryan Brayboy, William Smith, and Octavio Villalpando, three faculty members who have created the Center for the Study of Race and Diversity in Higher Education at the University. Brayboy, an American Indian, Smith, an African American, and Villalpando, a Chicano, all from the College of Education, realized they had an academic community of shared interests—they all study diversity in higher education in different ways—and began the center last year.

Here are a few things I learned:

The definition of diversity is broad. While “diversity” often refers to racial and ethnic diversity, it can refer to all kinds of differences, and to more subtle intersections of class and gender. Brayboy, trained as a cultural anthropologist, notes that “there are 250 definitions for ‘culture.’ Diversity is like that, too; it’s very contextually based.” And Villalpando adds, “I think it’s beneficial that there’s some confusion about how to define ‘diversity.’ It brings more people together; it broadens the conversation. That’s a healthy thing.”

Utah’s diversity is steadily increasing. “Look at the 2000 census,” Brayboy says. “Society is changing; we are more globalized.” Adds Smith, “And that means that all of us have to deal with many more people who are different than us. We need to be able to problem solve with all kinds of people.”

Diversity in higher education needs to improve. A recent report by the Business-Higher Education Forum, a partnership of the American Council on Education and the National Alliance of Business, notes that while the nation’s minority population is growing rapidly, members of most racial and ethnic groups are not proportionally represented in higher education. The report predicts that by 2028 there will be 19 million more jobs than workers who can adequately fill them.

There is a strong correlation between quality and diversity in higher education. Villalpando points out that there are 40 years of data on diversity in higher education. These studies indicate that, among other things, “racial diversity enriches the educational experience for every constituency—students, faculty, and the community. It benefits society, and it benefits the economy.”

Studies show that students who attend diverse institutions of higher education have higher rates of degree completion, are more inclined to pursue higher degrees, have their critical thinking enhanced, and are more employable. “The students who are at the U—all of them—benefit from diversity,” Brayboy points out. “In fact, white students may benefit more. But there is clear evidence that everyone benefits from it.”

The benefits of diversity remain after college. “Graduates of diverse institutions are more engaged civically and more committed to their communities,” Villalpando says. “They become more democratically involved citizens.”

A commitment to diversity is long term. “We need practices that are aligned with a commitment to diversity,” says Villalpando. “The fact that the University 30 years ago allowed the faculty to have joint appointments and created programs like Ethnic Studies and Gender Studies makes it possible to do more now. Things don’t just happen in a vacuum.”

Diversity is about people. Policies and statistics don’t quite get at the meaning of diversity. Being exposed to, as Associate Vice President for Diversity Karen Dace says, “different ways of knowing and being” makes all of us better rounded. “The great divide,” says Dace, “occurs when we see the word ‘diversity’ and think, ‘That’s not about me.’”

Diversity is about us, and it is about excellence, however we define that. At the very least, it requires, as Dace puts it, “the commitment to listen.”