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Does UW really Suffer from a Dearth of Diversity? [The Cap Times]

November 20, 2009

UW-Madison’s long-standing focus on “targeted minorities” is a much-too-provincial view of “diversity” in the global world of the 21st century. This narrow approach ignores the many channels through which students are exposed to the wide range of subject matter, ideas, people, cultures, and attitudes that characterize UW-Madison.

For starters, in 2008-09 UW-Madison undergraduates came from cities large and small, spread across Wisconsin’s 72 counties and all 50 states, plus Guam and Puerto Rico, and more than 100 foreign countries.

The most “targeted” of the “targeted minority” groups — African-Americans, American Indians, and Hispanics — included 2,088 students. “Targeted” Southeast Asians added another 528 students. To this must be added the 1,149 Asian-American undergraduates who are not counted among “targeted minorities” but bring with them a rich cultural heritage and unmatched academic prowess.

International undergraduate students numbered 1,335 and came from 106 foreign countries. Their presence offers rich opportunities for UW-Madison students to learn about different cultures and peoples. Add to this the 1,234 undergraduate students who last year participated in campus study abroad programs. An uncounted number of additional students went abroad to study or travel on their own. Other undergraduate students have resided abroad, including 127 U.S. citizens who lived in 35 countries when they enrolled at UW-Madison.

What about graduate and professional students? To the 798 black Americans, American Indians, and Hispanics, we must add the 544 Asian-Americans and 2,136 international students. Many undergraduates have direct contact with these graduate students, who often serve as teaching assistants in large undergraduate courses.

Members of the faculty and instructional academic staff constitute another rich source of diversity. Many of them gained international experience through their teaching and research abroad, as well as their meetings with foreign scholars. This enables them to incorporate that experience into both their teaching and research.

Undergraduate and graduate students alike benefit enormously from the many varieties of “diversity” they encounter on the Madison campus. This exposure is not limited to people from a narrow group of racial/ethnic categories. It goes beyond that to embrace what it is that students learn in their courses, classroom interactions, and extracurricular encounters.

After they graduate, many students motivated by their “Wisconsin experience” quickly gain international experience as Peace Corps volunteers and Fulbright scholars, and through overseas jobs and personal travel. Some of them return later for advanced study and further enrich the international flavor of the campus.

Campus officials continue to voice the largely unsubstantiated claim that employers avoid hiring our graduating seniors for their lack “diversity competence,” which seems to mean the presence of greater numbers of “targeted minorities.” What employers are more likely to want these days is “global competence.” This calls for undergraduate students to develop an appreciation for the diversity of ideas, attitudes, and modes of thinking that come with exposure to the global world in which we now live. That is what a university education is all about.

View the full article by W. Lee Hansen, professor emeritus of economics at UW-Madison. wlhansen@wisc.edu

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