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An academic community that embraces diversity and that welcomes, supports, and sustains all who come here is a necessary component of becoming truly one of the finest universities in the nation.

have communicated to the University community recently, in this column and elsewhere, four of the essential components of academic excellence for the University of Connecticut. These are: the centrality of an undergraduate educational experience of the first order, the need to assure that our research and graduate programs are crafted around selective excellence and are nationally and internationally competitive, the critical role of the University as a provider of first-rate professional schools linked closely to their practitioners through education and research, and the University's critical role as a partner with the state of Connecticut in economic, social, and cultural development, through collaborative, interdisciplinary research and outreach.

Chancellor Mark Emmert
Chancellor Mark Emmert

The fifth component necessary to becoming truly one of the finest universities in the nation is an academic community that embraces diversity and that welcomes, supports, and sustains all who come here. The University of Connecticut must be an academic home to all those with the ability and willingness to succeed, regardless of their background, origins, or economic status.

The creation of a diverse academic community is essential for several reasons. First, we seek to provide all our students with an educational experience second to none. An educational experience that fails to expose students - majority and minority - to multicultural perspectives or that does not include interaction in a diverse community simply cannot measure up to this standard. All students leaving the University have to be able to take their places in the global village.

We must build a multicultural academic community because it is an inherent ingredient in an excellent education. Also, as we enter the 21st century, the most intellectually exciting and potentially rewarding research agendas occur at the nexus of disciplines and involve new scholarly perspectives. Multicultural perspectives bring just such new and promising modes of exploration to our scholarship. Universities that do not incorporate diversity into their scholarship will certainly miss much of the intellectual excitement of the next century. We need to prepare our students and conduct our research for tomorrow, not just for today.

In addition to issues of academic quality, we must pursue diversity because it is one of the most basic components of the University's historical mission. Land-grant universities were founded on what at the time was a very radical notion, that higher education should be made available to a much more diverse segment of society that just the children of the elite. The University of Connecticut was founded as the Storrs Agricultural College in order to serve a more diverse student body. Today, we are not the university for part of Connecticut, but for all of Connecticut. It has always been UConn's task to provide education to all those willing and able to join its community. To carry out this mission we have a moral and legal obligation to make certain we serve and support all our citizens.

Finally, we must embrace diversity for an even simpler reason - arithmetic. If we are to be one of the finest universities of the next century, we must recruit and retain the best and brightest students and faculty available. In ever-increasing numbers those students and faculty come from diverse backgrounds. Universities that fail to provide welcoming, supportive environments for multiculturalism will be unable to recruit and retain the brainpower needed to sustain themselves. They will rapidly become irrelevant anachronisms. On the other hand, those universities that can respond adroitly to these new realities, that can build on the intellectual strengths which proceed from diversity, and that can attract and retain talented students, faculty, and staff from all segments of society will have an enormous competitive advantage.

If diversity is such an essential goal, how are we doing? In recent years, we have made encouraging progress in diversifying our academic community. There has been a steady increase in the racial diversity of both our student body and faculty ranks. In total student enrollment at all campuses (not including the Health Center) the percentage of students who are members of an ethnic minority has risen from 7 percent in fall 1985 to 15 percent in fall 1998. In fall 1998, undergraduate students of an ethnic minority comprised 16 percent, as compared to 7.5 percent in fall 1985. The proportion of students who are female has been slightly higher than 50 percent throughout the 1985-1998 period.

Since fall 1975 the percentage of females among all staff has increased from 43 percent to 49 percent. The minority percentage among all staff has increased from five percent in fall 1975 to 14 percent in fall 1998. The current total full-time faculty, including new and continuing faculty, has a higher percentage of minority (15 percent) and female (29 percent) faculty members than was the case in fall 1985, when 7 percent of the faculty were minority and 20 percent were female. (These figures do not include the Health Center.)

The results of the most recent years are especially gratifying. The entering freshman class of 1998 was impressive. Overall freshman enrollment grew by 17 percent. But minority enrollment swelled even more, increasing by 25 percent. Similarly, new faculty members joining the University have been both extraordinarily talented and significantly more diverse. In the fall 1997 group of newly hired full-time faculty, 31 percent were minority and 43 percent were female. In fall 1998, 21 percent of new faculty were minority, 51 percent female.

We have also made excellent progress through our multicultural centers and institutes. Indeed, I believe we have, in aggregate, one of the strongest collections of such programs in the nation. The directors and committed faculty with joint appointments in the Institutes for African American Studies, Asian American Studies, Puerto Rican and Latino Studies, and Women's Studies have strengthened academic programs and diversified the curriculum. The directors and staffs of the Asian American Cultural Center, African American Cultural Center, Puerto Rican and Latino Cultural Center, Women's Center, and the Rainbow Center promote multiculturalism through their programming and offer exceptionally supportive communities for our students.

While we have reason to be pleased with our progress to date, it is hardly cause for relaxing our efforts. Quite the contrary. These results show us only what is possible and encourage further efforts. Recruitment activities must continue and increase in effectiveness. Financial obstacles must be overcome. The now vacant position of vice provost for multicultural affairs must be filled. Our retention and graduation rates for minority students must continually improve. And we must add greater diversity to the curriculum. In short, we must match our espoused values with real action if we are to become a truly great university for the remainder of this century, the next century, and beyond.