Inclusive Excellence at DU: From Past to Present
By Claudio Neu-Ries, 2018 graduate, journalism studies and applied computing
The University of Denver cares deeply about the well-being of its students, and it strives to create the best environment for students to not only receive a higher-level education in a variety of fields, but to also grow and develop as people. Although this has always been a goal for the university, the administration has recently made significant steps towards this ideal environment.
This is especially evident in Chancellor Chopp's DU IMPACT 2025, which articulates a plan for the University of Denver to truly become "an axis for ideas, a marketplace for innovation and a hub of connections." It was created over a period of eighteen months, in which the administration interviewed students, faculty, community members and partners, and critics to determine the direction the University of Denver would need to take to become the best university it could be.
DU IMPACT 2025 is divided into four different "Transformative Directions;" one of these directions is dedicated entirely to advancing "One DU," which aspires to maintain a strong and intentional university community that provides "a place of belonging, engagement and meaning in a world with too few enduring communities."
In order to promote One DU, the administration has also taken the initiative to promote inclusive excellence, or a culture of respect that promotes inclusivity and diversity within the community. Not only does the University seek compositional diversity within its student body and faculty, but they also seek to "devote resources to developing cultural competency and high-level diversity skills for students and employees," according to DU IMPACT 2025.
Promoting inclusive excellence has become one of the larger challenges for the University of Denver. Although the University has started to gain compositional diversity over the years, many students still find themselves subjugated to microaggressions that affect their well-being in an overall negative manner, directed at the student's race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and other aspects of their humanity. Likewise, many of these students find that although they receive a high-level education, they find it difficult to feel welcome in the university's community, with some even leaving it entirely.
So, what might be a solution to this challenge? In order to get an idea of how the administration might move forward, we can look back into the university's history, particularly to the late 1960s and early '70s. Not only was this a major period in American history — when civil rights and multiculturalism began to take a major hold in American society — it was also a time when the University of Denver underwent a major paradigm shift in how it approached diversity and inclusion on campus.
Moses Brewer came to the University of Denver on a scholarship to play basketball in 1967; hailing from Tennessee, the University of Denver gave him the opportunity to achieve his personal and academic goals in a non-segregated environment that he could not find at home. "I grew up during the time of Jim Crow. I remember the white water fountains," said Brewer, referring to drinking fountains in southern U.S. states that, from the late 19th century into the 1970s, were labeled for "whites only" and for "colored" persons. "I remember that. And I remember coming to the university and seeing the kind of facilities that we had here, as opposed to the ones I was used to playing in."
After graduating in 1971, Brewer was hired by the university as a university 'ombudsman.' "I served as a liaison between students and the administration," said Brewer. "I made sure the student's experience here on campus was rewarding, because we found that if students didn't have any kind of outside activity besides studying, boredom would set in, and many would leave the university. So, my job was to create programs that would eliminate that boredom and make them feel more connected to the university."
Similar to today, the University in that time was trying to ensure that students from every demographic felt welcomed and comfortable in their DU environment. "The University was going through some challenges," said Brewer. At the time, the University was struggling to have a diverse representation on campus. However, DU was fortunate to have prominent figures that pushed several solutions to this issue. John Rice – the father of Condoleezza Rice – was the dean of the history department at the time, and he played a major role in founding many programs that included more minority students on campus. "He pulled a lot of students from the south to come here," said Brewer. Another prominent figure was the chancellor at the time, Maurice Mitchell. Chancellor Mitchell was a vocal advocate for civil rights and was also a personal hero for Moses.
Brewer, Rice and Mitchell — along with countless others — helped found the Black Cultural Center in 1973, which served as a space for black students to feel comfortable and welcomed on campus. The Center served as an 'invite' for all students to experience black culture; "it was not just for black students; white students could come and be a part of it as well," said Moses. The Center offered programs for students to learn about black culture, and often hosted famous civil rights advocates as guest speakers. One program that John Rice offered was a class called The Black Experience of America, which attracted over three-hundred students – a large enrollment even by today's standards.
The Black Cultural Center no longer exists today. In fact, it was gone from the university within four or five years of its founding. "The reason it didn't sustain itself was because of the transition of students coming and leaving," said Brewer. "People started leaving, and no one was able to take it over, so that created a void." With the departure of key people such as John Rice, Maurice Mitchell and Moses Brewer, many of the programs that they helped to establish left with them.
In fact, this is one of the larger issues with cultural centers, even today: too often, the sustainability of a center or a program depends on individuals, rather than on being embedded into an institution as a whole. This is a problem identified by Frank Tuitt, PhD, who is the senior advisor to the chancellor and provost on diversity and inclusion. He wrote an article in 2016 for the AACU arguing that historically white institutions often face this dependence on key individuals for cultural centers and efforts of inclusive excellence, to their detriment.
"This is another drawback of not having (such programs and Centers) embedded in the systems and structures that drive university life," said Tuitt. "This was a professional and personal interest of John Rice, and so he was able to facilitate these types of programs. But he was doing that on his own as a sort of side project, so it sort of left with him," he said. Today, the university has employed staff who are well-versed in topics of multiculturalism and diversity and these staff-members hold multiple key positions within the institution, so the responsibility for inclusive excellence efforts no longer sits on the shoulders of a few individuals unofficially.
Another issue with cultural centers conceptually is that they do not always have the agency to really change an institution, mainly because they are isolated. "When they're isolated, they become these isolated islands of innovation, and they don't really do a whole lot to change institutional systems and structures, they really just provide a safe-space for folks who are able to access those programs and resources," said Tuitt.
Despite the absence of specific cultural centers on campus today, the university has a central center – the Center of Multicultural Excellence. Like many cultural centers of the past, the CME offers a safe space for students who seek it; however, the CME also offers a more holistic approach to addressing and changing the university's structure to be more inclusive. "What I like about our approach today, is that we're much more intentional about looking at the system and structures that drive university life and how we can make those more inclusive, and as a result make the campus more inclusive," said Tuitt.
Tracey Johnson is the executive director for student engagement at the Center of Multicultural Excellence, and it's her job to develop programs and opportunities for all students on campus to succeed. "The students are saying that me and my identity was a challenge being here – I'm the only person in class, my professor makes a statement about drugs and looks at me like I'm the person who should have an answer to that, or they talk about welfare and somehow they assume I'm on welfare," Johnson said.
"Those kinds of things – those microaggressions – which happen to our students over and over again, it gets to weigh on you. And for our students, what they needed to find was a retreat; someplace where they can relax and be themselves without the fear of being judged, and that's what the center provides for them". The goal for the CME as a whole is to provide the support current students need in order to excel, and to avoid the situation in which students are invited to the University of Denver — whether that be through recruitment or marketing — only to find themselves in an environment that does not welcome them.
However, the CME does more than to provide such a space; it also strengthens the bonds and connections between alumni and current or prospective students within the DU community. "Alums are so critical in this", Johnson said. "The alumni are still our voice; even if they say 'My experience wasn't great, but you need to talk to this person, and you need to go to the multicultural center, and get the support that you need. That helps a lot, especially when a student is trying to determine which institution they will go to." This means that the centers like the CME can help strengthen the way DU appeals as a university, and it means that students of all stages can have access to the support that they need.
Overall, we can see that DU has made some very positive steps in the direction of One DU, and it appears that the institution has learned from past obstacles. "Last year, it was the first time in my tenure here at DU where the students marched to the Chancellor's office, and the Chancellor gave an amazing opportunity for our students to speak; not only did the Chancellor make time available, but she had everyone in her cabinet there to hear what the students had to say. That spoke volumes to the students", Johnson said. "And they followed up to say these are the things we've been able to do, these are things we haven't been able to do, and these are things that we plan to do in the future." The institution is very willing to work and articulate with students on how to better the university; the University of Denver seeks to be inclusive not just in its functions, but also inclusive in its decisions.
However, it's important to note that a large structural change within an institution takes time. "The challenge is that DU has had one-hundred and fifty plus years of becoming what it is," Tuitt said. "And to expect that to change in a few years is probably a little unrealistic." Logically, this makes a lot of sense; if a university has existed for such a long period of time without the explicit sentiments of inclusive excellence in mind, then it would naturally take a long time for such an institution to adopt these sentiments into its structure.
"We have to commit over the long run; it can't be this short-termed 'Well we invested here, and they still didn't give so why should we do it?' – it needs to be a sustained effort over time," Tuitt said. With this in mind, embracing One DU does not seem too idealistic; with time and effort, the University of Denver can embrace its potential and become an institution that truly embraces all people.