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Modeling Equity, Engaging Difference:
New Frameworks for Diversity and Learning

Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel, Baltimore, MD
October 18-20, 2012

Whether one enjoys the fruits of our democracy or suffers its pains has everything to do with one’s social location.
Ramón Gutiérrez, Foreword to Second Edition, The Drama of Diversity and Democracy: Higher Education and American Commitments (AAC&U 2011)

What we can see depends heavily on what our culture has trained us to look for.
Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2010)

Conference Overview

Photo credit: Macalester College

For the past twenty years, AAC&U has gathered together national leaders of the diversity movement to articulate a shared vision of the complex connections between societal diversity, liberal education, and democratic aspirations.  It is now understood that without a fully inclusive vision of democratic justice and voice—and the creation of significant new knowledge that accompanies that recognition—there is no genuine academic excellence; without high expectations for excellence for all, there is no genuine inclusiveness. But unfortunately, “being aware that we are still divided along racial/ethnic, and cultural lines . . . is not the same thing as embracing the task of truly confronting our racial legacies and working to remedy continuing inequities and injustices” (Gutiérrez, Foreword, The Drama of Diversity and Democracy, xiv).

This conference will address a series of urgent questions:

1) What does diversity mean to students, campus educators, and administrators today?

2) What does diversity mean in a world that is more intensely defined by global interdependencies, increasingly diverse student bodies, and continuing patterns of inequality?

  3) How do we examine in the curriculum and on campus our society's extreme inequalities and continuing segregation based on class, race, and immigration status?

4) What does society require of education to prepare students for today’s multicultural complexity, to engage differences, and to help revitalize democracy’s future?

The 2011 release of the second edition of The Drama of Diversity and Democracy signals AAC&U’s intention to spur new thinking—curricular and cocurricular—about ways to engage all college students with fundamental questions about the past, present, and future of the democratic quest, for all peoples and especially those for whom the full possibilities of democracy and freedom have yet to be achieved.  This 2012 Diversity and Learning conference builds on the legacy of AAC&U’s American Commitments and Making Excellence Inclusive signature programs and presents an opportunity to sharpen these visions for the 21st century.

We invite you to join us in exploring emergent definitions of diversity and learning and new diversity practices in curriculum design, campus life, mission, and scholarship.  Join with colleagues to set a new agenda for diversity, inclusion, and equity.

Foundational Commitments

The conference will explore our foundational commitments and new contexts:

  • The academy—made up of a diverse set of institutions with real social, cultural, political, and economic power—takes seriously its obligation to help build a society in which democratic rhetoric becomes democratic justice. Framed as a community and civic issue, engaging diversity also calls for reengagement with democratic aspirations, principles, and possibilities and a renewed recognition of the structural asymmetries of acknowledgment, opportunity, and justice that are woven into the fabric of past and current histories.  This reengagements also calls for affirmation of identity, equity, and inclusion. 
  • All institutions strive to graduate students who are prepared and inspired to contribute to the success of a just and diverse US democracy. Consequently, students, faculty, and staff know and understand more about the multiplicity of groups and people that have been unequally acknowledged in our nation. They develop intercultural competencies in order to negotiate their disparate and multiple commitments and communities—inherited and self-chosen. And they gain the capability to both acknowledge difference and take grounded stands in the face of difference.
  • Higher education provides laboratories in which diverse communities can collaborate to build more just, responsive, and inclusive forms of what John Dewey has called “associated living.” Full recognition of all peoples is required for such experiments to lead to excellence.  Without a fully inclusive vision of democratic justice and voice—and the creation of significant new knowledge that accompanies that recognition—there is no genuine academic excellence; without high expectations for excellence for all, there is no genuine inclusiveness.

New Contexts

  • The majority of college students in the future will be from racial and ethnic groups historically underserved by higher education. More and more students will be the first in their families to attend college and will come from low-income families. As these changes will come to our institutions, to date, American society has failed to ensure equitable access to high-quality learning, much less equitable college completion rates.
  • In the twenty years since American Commitments was conceived, the need to understand and attend to global issues related to diversity, difference, interdependence, democracy, and inequality has become more urgent.  At the same time, the stark juxtaposition of egalitarian creeds and democratic aspirations with the persistent and structural inequalities experienced by people of color and other marginalized groups in the United States remains.
  • The United States has become, in the words of David Mathews, president of the Kettering Foundation, “a citizenless democracy”. Many trends and practices “sideline citizens”: people’s roles have been recast from producers of public goods to consumers of material ones, districts have been gerrymandered exacerbating the deep divides that already shape our politics, opportunities for civic alliances are shrinking replacing what ought to be thoughtful deliberation about public issues with incivility and hyper-polarization.