UM Shares ideas on promoting diversity Computer network aims to close racial divides

November 30, 1997|By Karen Masterson | Karen Masterson,SUN STAFF

Through a new computer network, the University of Maryland is sharing its expertise in promoting diversity and multiculturalism on campus with institutions of higher learning across the nation.

The network -- dubbed DiversityWeb -- was created this year through a $1 million Ford Foundation grant to the College Park campus and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU).

DiversityWeb was singled out by the White House on Nov. 6 as one of the best of 14 programs nationwide aimed at bridging racial divides -- a major effort of the Clinton administration.

"It is a communication project," said Gladys Brown, director of human relations programs on the College Park campus, who is running the DiversityWeb program in cooperation with AACU. "We're trying to communicate the values of diversity and help other universities integrate those values into campus programs."

Brown, a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Law, was hired in 1979 to investigate discrimination complaints. Her job grew to include the creation of programs that reflected the changing demographics of the student body that were, in part, a consequence of affirmative action.

She devised a plan, implemented by the administration, to hold back merit raises from deans and heads of departments failing to diversify faculty and curriculum. She also helped to create dozens of daylong and weeklong events celebrating different cultures.

Affirmative action programs helped to create culturally diverse campuses. Now the concern is making students feel at home and ensuring that course work and faculty are inclusive of the heritage of all backgrounds -- including race, religion, national origin, gender and sexual orientation.

According to Brown, an array of people and faculty reminds white students that theirs is the majority culture, but not the only culture.

"People who understand this are better prepared to contribute to society. They are more likely to accept others. And they're what employers want," Brown said.

Melissa Berman, a senior vice president of the Conference Board, a New York-based corporate research group representing companies that includes most of those on the Fortune 100 list, said the firms want open-minded employees.

"For many companies, the competitive factor in hiring someone is whether they have a sophisticated understanding of the world," Berman said. "And they need to be able to work in teams of people with different backgrounds. That's on top of having technical skills."

The Ford Foundation grant to Maryland is, in part, paying for the creation of an online communication system that will enable multiparty dialogues on diversity.

The site, http: //www.inform.umd.edu/DiversityWeb, has work rooms and chat rooms that can thread together virtual debates and panel discussions.

All AACU members have been invited to participate, but anyone can access the site and join the discussions -- which are overseen by moderators monitoring the results, ready to eliminate any hateful content that may wander in from the wider information highway.

These threaded conversations -- which are electronically grouped by subject -- have dissected diversity in different contexts, including affirmative action.

Joann Stevens, in charge of the Ford Foundation project for AACU, said DiversityWeb is more important than just providing a place for academics to debate the merits of diversity. "Higher education has got to learn how to formulate its message in a passionate and succinct way," she said.

Diversity initiatives across the country, she said, are changing the landscape of higher education by emphasizing the "intellectual integrity" of teaching students to accept differences in people unlike themselves. "But the message is always so jargon-ridden, so long and academic, that people, especially journalists, can't understand."

Stevens, a former reporter for the Washington Post, runs DiversityNewsroom, an adjunct to DiversityWeb that provides information and source listings, as well as suggested story angles, for journalists.

The content of DiversityNewsroom suggests that diversity is the most important higher-education topic in race relations, not affirmative action programs, which have been challenged and substantially weakened in recent years by the courts.

The President's Initiative on Race has established a link on its White House home page to DiversityWeb, and the White House's race advisory board staged a discussion at the College Park campus Nov. 19 on diversity issues in higher education.

Despite the White House and Ford Foundation attention to diversity, some academics on the College Park campus remain skeptical about whether students care about the issue.

"I see banners across campus of this group's diversity and that group's diversity, but I'm not sure what they mean," said Herman Belz, a professor of constitutional history.

He said he sees diversity initiatives that encourage groups to celebrate their identities as benign and innocuous, especially when measured against race-based preferences of affirmative action that he examined in a 1991 book, "Equality Transformed."

Of the average student, he said, "They're aware that this diversity shtick is going on, but they're probably not affected by it."

Pub Date: 11/30/97

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