Diversity is a widely discussed issue and educational goal at the University of Wisconsin– Milwaukee, but a new initiative is getting UWM students, faculty and staff talking about diversity on a deeper level.
The full University of Wisconsin System is adopting the initiative, called Inclusive Excellence. Three hundred members of the UWM community got the conversation started at the Dec. 8 Inclusive Excellence (IE) conference.
“IE is really based on the understanding that for students to maximize academic learning and success on campus, there needs to be a welcoming and inclusive environment in the classroom, dormitory, student union and throughout campus,” said Michael Powell, associate vice chancellor for diversity and climate at UWM.
IE aims to integrate diversity efforts into every aspect of the student experience, from classroom conversations and reading and writing assignments to technological and teaching accommodations for students with accessibility concerns. IE even considers the social programming and campus resources available to students outside of their academic responsibilities.
A skill for lifelong learning
In opening remarks, Chancellor Carlos E. Santiago said that a strong UWM commitment to IE can help students succeed on campus.
He highlighted the early success of UWM’s Access to Success initiative in closing the achievement gap between students of color and majority students, and in increasing retention of the UW System’s most diverse student body – right here in Milwaukee.
“We’re closing the gap, but we’re not where we need to be,” said the Chancellor. “But this trend reflects an important qualitative difference in terms of the care [faculty and staff] give our students. It’s subtle, but it’s there.”
Conference presenters and UWM faculty members Rachel Baum and Ghada Masri looked at diversity – from cultural, economic and religious perspectives – as a necessary intellectual and professional consideration.
“It is an intellectual skill to put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” says Baum, a lecturer who addresses Christianity, Judaism and the Holocaust in her courses.
She added that “to learn ways of thinking you don’t believe in” can enhance students’ academic performance and is an excellent skill for life beyond the university.
Masri added that an understanding of diverse viewpoints and perspectives is “essential for problem-solving” in an increasingly globalized society and job market.
A wider diversity spectrum
Philosophy student Kelly Miecielica talked about gender expression and sexual identity, suggesting that professors ask what name individual students prefer to go by. Kelly is not Miecielica’s legal name, but one that Miecielica prefers and is comfortable with. More genderinclusive facilities – bathrooms, changing rooms, locker areas – also are high on Miecielica’s list. There are about two dozen such facilities throughout UWM that are open to anyone regardless of gender identity.
The experience of campus community members who are disabled was the focus of an afternoon conference session. Deaf students, for example, may require more than audio-visual accommodations to feel supported in a UWM classroom, said Ginny Chiaverina of UWM’s Student Accessibility Center.
Keynote speaker Christopher Metzler, professor at Georgetown University, reviewed a list of diversity categories: race, gender, culture, sexual orientation and others. Someone in the audience noticed that the category of “disability” was missing and asked why.
“That’s the problem with ‘the list,’” said Metzler. “Somebody always gets left off but, yes, that should be on the list.”