Click for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Forecast


Print This Issue
Front Page
All About Teaching
Subscribe to E-Alamanc!



Encouraging Interaction and Collaboration

In July, I had the pleasure of attending the taping of a "Justice Talking" debate on the most recent Supreme Court decisions. Produced by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at Penn and hosted by National Public Radio, "Justice Talking" tackles the hot legal controversies that touch our lives.

Few topics were hotter that week than the U.S. Supreme Court's decision on affirmative action, which upheld the right of universities to take race into account in admissions decisions. Like many, I anxiously awaited their opinion and was elated to read Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's majority opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger, which recognized, in her words,  "the substantial, important, and laudable educational benefits that diversity is designed to produce, including cross-racial understanding and the breaking down of racial stereotypes."

O'Connor invoked "numerous expert studies and reports showing that such diversity promotes learning outcomes and better prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce, for society, and for the legal profession." She noted that "[m]ajor American businesses have made clear that the skills needed in today's increasingly global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints."

"Moreover," she continued, "because universities ... represent the training ground for a large number of the Nation's leaders, the path to leadership must be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity."

The ruling was an important victory for the principle of diversity. And contrary to one critic's complaint that the Court had perpetuated "government involvement in picking winners and losers on the basis of skin color," O'Connor understood that assembling a diverse class to advance a university's mission entails "complex educational judgments in an area that lies primarily within the expertise of the university." The Court's ruling was, in her words, "in keeping with our tradition of giving a degree of deference to a university's academic decisions."

Still, those of us who cherish diversity cannot pretend that the storm clouds of opposition and protest will dissipate. The Supreme Court's decision simply resolves one aspect of a debate that will likely continue in different forums. Critics will continue to challenge affirmative action vigorously and question the pedagogical value of diversity. Many commentaries will be shrill and abrasive. Some critiques will be reasoned, thoughtful, and compelling.

In the September issue of Atlantic Monthly, for example, columnist David Brooks maintains that "[t]he dream of diversity is like the dream of equality. Both are based on ideals we celebrate even as we undermine them daily. "

Brooks laments "the segmentation of society" into "little validating communities" in which  "people [are] content to cut themselves off from everyone unlike themselves." He thinks "adults [should] get out of their own familiar circles," in their travels, their social encounters, and their reading." 

I agree strongly with this perspective. We all have more work to do to encourage interactions and collaborations that foster both a deeper understanding of other cultures and close, meaningful personal relationships among men and women from all backgrounds.

While a stroll through campus, a survey of Penn's diverse faculty hires and research portfolio, and the flowering of intercultural activities on campus reflect diversity's beneficial impact, more can be done. We must proactively help all our students to know and interact frequently with peers from many different backgrounds. Only when the full potential of diversity is realized will it develop our students' powers of thinking and problem-solving, prepare them for leadership in business, government, the professions, and the arts, and deepen their understanding of a complex world.

And while we have not yet fully realized the "dream of diversity" at Penn, maintaining our strong commitment to diversity--in student admissions, in faculty appointments, and in staff hirings--will keep us on the right track.

As I begin my last year as President, I cannot help but think back not only on how much we have accomplished as a community, but how much Penn has changed since I arrived as a freshman a fair number of years ago. In the early 1960s, my classmates and I had few opportunities to learn from encounters with peers from many different backgrounds, places, or experiences. Of the many reasons I would love to be entering Penn as a freshman in 2003, one is the presence of extraordinary men and women who have transformed Penn from a regional institution into a truly global community of scholars.

As we begin this academic year, let us celebrate Penn's dynamic and diverse community, which has the potential to enrich our learning and our lives. And let us commit ourselves to redoubling our efforts to engage one another across all boundaries as colleagues and friends.

Rodin Signature

  Almanac, Vol. 50, No. 2, September 2, 2003