10/02/2012 02:32 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2012

An Inclusive University

American universities have talked a lot about the value of student diversity in the past 30 years. This is largely what the affirmative action debate was about: the positive educational value of including the perspectives of a racially and ethnically diverse group of students in the classroom. It is what permitted UC-Davis and the University of Michigan to largely prevail in their defenses of affirmative action in 1978 and 2003.

But many leaders and faculty have come to recognize that diversity in a university community is only the beginning. It is necessary to work constructively to create an inclusive community where members of the community come to understand and respect one another through positive interactions with each other. The university needs to work hard to create a culture of mutual respect and engagement that allows all segments of the community to interact on an equal basis. Cross-group communication and learning are positive values that need to be facilitated.

This positive feature of inclusiveness doesn't emerge automatically from the fact of diversity. Rather, it depends on deliberate positive efforts by students, faculty, and administrators to create the expectations and practices of inclusiveness. This means involving student organizations, academic leaders, faculty, and administrators in creative conversations about how to enhance the grounds of inclusion on the campus -- the activities and expectations that provide the context of inclusiveness. Here is a good example from my own campus -- the student government created an annual "Town Hall Meeting on Inclusion" three years ago and has worked hard every year since to involve as many students as possible in the event. It sends a strong message to our whole community: student government is "all in" for inclusion.

This is enormously important on my campus. We have a great diversity of students on our campus, with over 60 countries of origin and a very strong representation of African-American, Latino/a, Arab-American, and Asian-American students among us. This diversity allows our students to learn greatly from each other -- recent immigrants from Iraq in conversation with inner city African-American students, visiting students from China talking with Muslim students from southeast Michigan, gay and lesbian students interacting with older returning students. The opportunities for learning are great, but so are the opportunities for misunderstanding and antagonism. So we take great efforts to establish a pervasive culture of mutual respect and acceptance of difference. And it works.

These values and priorities are important to the university, of course. But they are also important for the future of American society. When young people gain the tools of respectful and curious engagement with people with very different ideas and life experiences, they will take these tools with them into their jobs and their civic lives as well. And this means that our society will be all the better prepared to handle the frictions that often arise from difference in a complex and diverse society.

There are a number of university leaders who are taking a very positive and ground-breaking role in advancing the cause of inclusiveness on their campuses. One of those is Nancy Cantor, chancellor and president of Syracuse University. Cantor was recognized by the American Council of Education for her efforts with the 2011 Reginald Wilson Diversity Leadership Award. It takes passion and skills at the task of creating collaborative change to move a university, and Nancy has shown both in her career of university leadership. Here is how she puts the importance of inclusiveness in her contribution to The Future of Diversity (Palgrave, 2010):

In this context, higher education (private as well as public) has a critical -- one might say, urgent -- role to play as a public good. In many cases, college will be the first and best opportunity for young women and men (not to mention their faculty) to learn to affirm -- rather than fear and privilege -- difference, and to confront our common fates. (19-20)