Before a college campus can truly call itself diverse, its students, faculty and administrators must have a conversation with each other regarding their racial, cultural and social differences, along with their similarities.
"That's the nature of higher education – it's about asking questions and trying to find answers. But, if we don't ask the questions we'll never find the answer," said Dr. Alma Clayton-Pedersen, senior scholar with the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U).
Clayton-Pedersen was the keynote speaker for the University of South Dakota's annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Day of Service events. The speech took place Tuesday night in the Muenster University Center Ballroom.
Among other issues, she discussed the role and importance of the AAC&U's idea of "inclusive excellence" in higher education.
"We define inclusion as the engagement with diversity for learning and knowledge development throughout the educational experience and by all members of the campus community," she said. "It doesn't take many campus leaders long to recognize that they and their institutions are ill-equipped to connect their diversity and educational quality efforts. …
"Making academics inclusive seeks to create a reinvigorated 21st century educational process that has diversity and inclusion at its core," she said.
In the United States, there are a lot of diversity initiatives and outreach programs, but Clayton-Pedersen said they are too often poorly linked to the core academic mission of their respective universities, or inadequately coordinated between each other.
Part of the issue is that diversity is so nuanced, she said. In addition to different ethnic, cultural and social groups, there is diversity within the groups themselves.
"There are both group things that need to occur, but even within that group we need to think in more nuanced ways about what's happening with individuals within those groups," she said.
A beginning solution is for all the varied campus groups to come together for a conversation so they can begin to understand each other.
"I'm not talking about learning just from our differences – our similarities are what bring us together," Clayton-Pedersen said. "But it's in talking about those differences that we begin to understand the similarities. … It is there that the learning occurs."
This learning process will then encourage members of the different groups to become engaged on all levels of campus life.
"AAC&U has been promoting a set of learning outcomes that are broad enough yet specific enough to provide a robust framework for the discussion about [that seeks to make excellence inclusive," Clayton-Pedersen said.
The outcome will be beneficial to all students, as it will aid them in developing skills for the workforce and society.
"It is the culminating educational outcome of educational excellence," she said. "By this we mean that graduates have the capacity to adapt knowledge, skills and responsibilities to new settings and new questions."
Clayton-Pedersen acknowledged that in speaking as part of a Martin Luther King, Jr., Day observance, she was "preaching to the choir."
However, the choir needs preaching sometimes, she said.
"I think the choir needs rehearsal, I think the choir needs to sing better, and the choir needs new music," she said. "Why? Because, if the choir were doing its job – and that is proselytizing for whatever we're trying to do – we would have made more progress."
There has been a lot of progress, but more needs to be done, Clayton-Pedersen said.
"Inclusive excellence is the new music," she said.
Tuesday's address was hosted by the campus Center for Academic Engagement.