Diversity and Democracy

From the Editor: Studying the Past to Build a Better Future

A decade after she announced the release of a groundbreaking report on Brown University’s historical connections to slavery, president emerita Ruth Simmons returned to Brown to address attendees at the “Slavery and Global Public History: New Challenges” conference.

“You can’t go back and redo history,” Simmons said. “But you can be responsible for what you do today. . . . The ongoing process of confronting the past . . . enables us to imagine how successive generations may judge us” (Brown University 2016).

This issue of Diversity & Democracy examines how colleges and universities are studying the histories of their institutions and local communities, connecting history to present-day issues, and working to create a better future. This issue begins with an essay that traces the history of higher education and how it has evolved to more fully execute its democratic mission and serve increasingly diverse groups of students. Later in the issue, contributors confront the sometimes painful histories of their own institutions and neighboring communities and also tell the stories of the leaders, thinkers, activists, and social reformers of the past who worked to transform their communities and society.

With an understanding of history, colleges and universities are building new legacies, programs, and practices to help their students and communities heal from the ongoing effects of injustices such as slavery, colonialism, unethical medical research, discrimination, and displacement. They are enabling students to conduct historical research, produce art and media based on events of the past, and immerse themselves in the history of local communities. They are also empowering individuals and communities to tell their own stories. Our contributors describe the many ways they are connecting people and nurturing relationships—among students, faculty, and community members; among today’s student activists and veteran civil rights leaders; and among people of diverse backgrounds as they help each other heal from the nation’s long and destructive history of racism.

As this issue goes to press, we at the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) are mourning the loss of our beloved senior scholar, L. Lee Knefelkamp. Among her many contributions to AAC&U and to higher education as a whole, Lee served on the advisory board of Diversity & Democracy since its inception as Diversity Digest in 1996.

I was lucky to have the chance to work closely with Lee on my first issue as editor of Diversity & Democracy. She was generous with her brilliance as a scholar and with her incredible warmth and kindness as a human being. As I look back at our correspondence from my first few months at AAC&U, I can feel her positivity, enthusiasm, and encouragement pouring forth from the many exclamation points that dot her emails. Lee inspired so many people with her dedication to fostering more welcoming and effective learning environments. This issue of Diversity & Democracy reflects her passion for creating a more caring and inclusive future.

With awareness of the past and hope for the future, the colleges and universities that tell their stories within these pages are promoting equity, integrity, empathy, civic responsibility, and human dignity. Inherent in this work is a commitment to honoring voices and stories that have been silenced in the past. As Lynn Pasquerella, president of AAC&U, writes, “Redressing past and present injustices mandates aligning our expertise as teachers, scholars, researchers, and artists in order to rewrite the dominant narrative that consigns to the lower shelves of history the contributions of marginalized groups that have shaped American society and culture in profound, albeit often unacknowledged, ways” (2016, 20). Remembering this history is crucial as we strive for a more equitable future.

—Emily Schuster, Editor, Diversity & Democracy


Brown University. 2016. “A Decade after Brown’s Historic Report, Scholars Convene to Discuss Slavery and Public History.” December 2. https://news.brown.edu/articles/2016/12/cssj.

Pasquerella, Lynn. 2016. “Rewriting the Dominant Narrative: How Liberal Education Can Advance Racial Healing and Transformation.” Liberal Education 102 (4): 16–21. https://www.aacu.org/liberaleducation/2016/fall/pasquerella.

Emily Schuster is the editor of Diversity & Democracy.

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