Guest Column: Diversity is Crucial to Our Mission, in Good Financial Times and Bad

Guest Column: Diversity is Crucial to Our Mission, in Good Financial Times and Bad

By Raji RhysOffice of the President
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In times of financial strife, the value of efforts to diversify our campus and build an inclusive academic community may be called into question. To some, diversity programs may seem like a luxury we can ill afford. Yet nothing can be further from the truth. Diversity is not a luxury; it is a necessity. Programs that diversify our campus community and make it more inclusive benefit each of us, no matter what our background. This statement is not based on opinion – it is based on science. Promoting diversity is not about being politically correct; it is about providing a high-quality education. Let me give you just a few research-based examples of how diversity and inclusion can contribute to the UA’s strategic directions. (To learn more about the research, visit

Expanding Access and Enhancing Educational Excellence

Expanding access and creating diverse, inclusive learning environments benefit all students by increasing their engagement with the educational process, motivation to achieve, self-confidence with regard to their intellectual abilities, cognitive development, critical thinking skills, and independent problem-solving abilities.

Increasing Achievements in Research, Scholarship, and Creative Expression

A diverse faculty enriches the curriculum by incorporating multiple perspectives and scholarship by generating novel research questions that lead to the discovery of new knowledge. Clearly, we need innovation today, more than ever, to solve some of society’s most complex problems, such as persistent disparities in education and health care.

Expanding Community Engagement and Work Force Impact

A diverse student body and inclusive campus helps us better prepare our students for a global, interconnected marketplace and community. It fosters in students the motivation and ability to understand other people’s points of view, leadership skills and community engagement.

Improving Productivity and Increasing Efficiency

Organizations that create diverse working environments that encourage and value the participation of all team members are more innovative and productive, and generate more feasible ideas and effective alternatives.

We need to keep in mind, though, that these benefits don’t "just happen.” We need programs that actively leverage our campus diversity in teaching, research and service so that all our students benefit educationally. To preserve these programs in times of financial challenge, we must increasingly collaborate and be creative in how we offer programs. 

So, you might be asking yourself, “What is the UA doing to ensure that our students are getting these diversity benefits?” The answer is “lots.” I’ll give you a few highlights.

  • To increase access for Arizonans, the UA established Arizona Assurance, providing students from families earning up to $42,400 per year the opportunity to graduate in four years with little or no debt. Not only does this program increase the diversity of our student body in terms of socioeconomic background, but racial minority students make up more than half of students in the new class of Arizona Assurance Scholars.
  • Our Office of Admissions has worked tirelessly to increase the diversity of our student body. The enrollment of our racial minority students has increased every year for the past 10 years. Our new freshman class is 34 percent minority students.
  • Our nationally recognized Disability Resource Center not only improves the retention and graduation rates of our students with disabilities, but is a leader in helping the UA design physical, social and curricular environments that take full advantage of the richness that students with disabilities, and others from diverse backgrounds, bring to our campus.   
  • We have established the LGBTQ Affairs Office and the Institute for LGBT Studies. They represent important additional progress in creating an inclusive campus community and in enriching curriculum and research.  For example, the institute’s Oral History Research Cluster is a major partner in the Arizona LGBT Storytelling Project, which brings to life the history and perspectives of Arizona’s diverse LGBT communities. As Marcus Garvey said, a people without a history is like a tree without roots. The Storytelling Project serves as an important research and teaching tool because it helps our students, faculty and staff to reflect critically on who they are, recognize their contributions and pursue new veins of inquiry. 
  • This year the UA is hiring its first professional program director for the Women’s Resource Center. All but one of our Pac-10 peers have a professionally run center, so the hiring of a director will not only provide additional support for the excellent student-developed programming that originates from the center, but will create stronger partnerships with organizations like our award-winning Southwest Institute for Research on Women.

Despite our accomplishments, there are certainly still challenges. The diversity of our faculty has lagged significantly behind the diversity of our students. To amplify our progress in this regard, the Strategic Initiative for an Excellent and Diverse Faculty was established in July 2008 to help us address the lack of representation of women, underrepresented racial groups, people with disabilities and LGBTQ faculty, among others, in target areas. So far, 12 faculty members have been funded through the initiative and our commitment to hiring a diverse faculty is continuing.

A recent development has compounded the faculty diversity dilemma. In the wake of the signing of Arizona House Bill 2013, which redefines "dependent" to most likely exclude from health care coverage domestic partners and their children and all children over the age of 18, including disabled children, unless they are enrolled as full-time students and under age 23. I have grave concerns about our ability to recruit and retain the kind of top talent that is essential to a world-class university. I am deeply concerned about the approximately 800 campus colleagues who will be impacted by the bill, and what the bill means for creating an inclusive campus climate. I believe that the creativity and inspiration that results from having a diverse and inclusive community will empower us to find possible solutions to this challenge. 

While sustaining a diverse and inclusive community is a responsibility we all share, the special adviser for diversity and inclusion position was established as one additional means to help infuse diversity and inclusion into the fundamental ways we do business. Since excellence is a must, then the cost of failing to preserve diversity and inclusion are simply too high.

Raji Rhys is special adviser to the president for diversity and inclusion.

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