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Cultivating an Inclusive Environment

I turn now to a second exercise of leadership where the sensibilities of a philosopher are helpful: the cultivation of a broad consensus about the importance of establishing an inclusive and equitable community on the university campus. It is an unhappy hallmark of social life in America today that division along the lines of race, religion, ethnicity, or sexuality play a very great role in ordinary life. Racism, religious bigotry, and inter-group prejudice continue to be powerful factors in American society. A university needs to be reflective, committed, and explicit in its goals concerning racial equality and interpersonal respect.

This fact presents a major challenge to people who want to see universities change fundamentally with regard to race and culture. We want the twenty-first-century university to be genuinely multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-religious, and multi-ethnic. We want these “multis” because our country itself is multicultural, and because we have a national his ton’ that has not done a good job of creating an environment of equality and democracy across racial and cultural lines. And we want the universities to change, because they are key locations where the values and skills of our future leaders will be formed. If universities do not succeed in transforming themselves around the realities of race and difference, we cannot expect the wider society to succeed in this difficult challenge either.

How can a university work deliberately to foster a climate of genuine inclusiveness across its diversity? How can a university leader work effectively to create a campus environment in which difference is welcome, members of all groups express respect for and interest in members of other groups, and students, faculty, and staff genuinely learn from each other and learn how to work together in a constructive and growth-inducing way?

The challenge of creating a truly inclusive university is a difficult one. Inclusiveness is more than diversity. It is an institution and culture in which people from all social groups—those of race, nationality, gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity—are fully embraced and respected. It is an environment in which every individual is afforded the opportunity and space to do his or her best work, unimpeded by stereotype or discriminatory arrangements. But achieving this harmonious and democratic outcome is challenging for a variety of reasons. Most important among these is the difficulty of overcoming limitations of perspective from the various groups, including especially the majority group. Practices that seem innocuous and neutral to majority group members are often experienced as demeaning and limiting by non-majority group members—what some observers now refer to as “micro-aggressions.”

Institutional leadership is a crucial part of the answer to the question of how to bring about the culture change needed for inclusion and diversity. The culture of a university is a complex product of many factors. But the active and visible engagement of leaders in the discussion of core values is one important aspect of the causal background of positive culture change. Philosophy provides important resources for leaders if they are motivated to learn. Philosophy has spent great effort on the topics of equality, justice, discrimination, and human worth, and if we have learned these lessons well, we are much more able to speak with sincerity and authenticity about the crucial importance of dignity, equality, and civility in a democratic society. Moreover, philosophy makes it possible that our commitments to anti-racism and anti-bigotry will have a very deep and motivationally effective foundation in our ordinary decision-making and leadership. The democratic pragmatism of John Dewey is inspiring in this context as in many others.

Training as a philosopher can be helpful in the years-long process of helping a university to find its way to a climate that embodies genuine respect and inclusiveness for all its members. A sincerely held and often expressed commitment to equality and inclusion is an important ingredient in institutional and cultural change. And philosophy helps through its focus on principles and clear thinking about the fundamentals of the moral situation of human beings. This is not to say that philosophers are uniquely well qualified to be leaders for civil rights and democratic equality; individuals from many walks of life have demonstrated their own eloquence and commitment on these issues. But a philosophical education provides us with a deeper understanding of why racism, discrimination, and bigotry are fundamentally wrong, and it helps create a context for deeper interaction and communication with others about these issues.

Philosophy comes into the struggle to create a genuinely inclusive and diverse university culture in at least two ways. At its best it provides a principled and nuanced basis for commitment to the fundamental equality and equal worth of all human beings. But this is not enough—witness the racial prejudice and stereotyping that survives in the most eloquent defenders of universal moral values such as Immanuel Kant. Beyond the formulation of philosophical principles, the cultivation of a genuine openness and interest in the different life experiences of other people is needed. Race is a crucial element of life experience in the United States today, and to overcome the mental barriers that continue to entrench racialized ideas and assumptions about each other, it is crucial for all of us to have opportunities to interact with people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Anyone who has taught undergraduate ethics knows that the simple algebras of utilitarianism, Kantianism, or virtue ethics have virtually no effect on the attitudes and behavior of students. What does affect students is when they are brought to think concretely about the human realities of various ethical dilemmas; and then they are brought to think much more seriously about the principles that might be invoked to reach a better understanding of what ought to be done. The value of inclusiveness on a university campus derives from the principle that an open and welcoming campus is a good thing in itself; but it also stems from the fact that the learning that students can do in a culturally inclusive environment makes it much more likely that they will learn a new respect and kinship for each other that is more profound than the stereotypes about religion, ethnicity, or race that they bring with them.

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