Noting that we “learn from difference,” President Mark S. Schlissel called on leaders of higher education to “relentlessly work at building a diverse campus community — at all levels.”

“The challenge we face is maintaining a constant, persistent, focused effort; not really allowing our energy level to lull … and to realize we’re aiming toward a necessary, both social and academic, good,” Schlissel told leaders from around the country who convened at U-M this week for a top-level dialogue on new pathways to racial and socioeconomic diversity within higher education.

The two-day invitational conference, titled “New Paths to Higher Education Diversity,” was co-hosted by the National Center for Institutional Diversity at U-M and The Century Foundation, and was co-sponsored by Pearson Higher Education and the Lumina Foundation for Higher Education.

Together, the 50 select conference participants reviewed current research and assessed the implications of promoting diversity under shifting political and legal parameters. They explored strategies to ensure student access and success, to create the political will to achieve diversity in an ever-changing environment, and to ensure a commitment to racial inclusion as a specific responsibility for American higher education.

U-M President Mark Schlissel talks with Rutgers University-Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor at this week’s conference on diversity in higher education. In the background are, from left, University of Florida President Bernie Machen and Oberlin College President Marvin Krislov. (Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

Schlissel was on hand to welcome the participants and to share some thoughts.

“I’d like to see us broaden our definition of diversity a bit. All too often it becomes focused on race and ethnicity, and those are incredibly important. But to me, equally important is the diversity of experience, diversity of culture, socioeconomic diversity, or geographical diversity,” he said.

“A lot of the learning that goes on on our campuses we learn from one another. We don’t learn quite as much from people who grew up in the same type of environment, read the same books, and have the same family traditions, same ethnicities, same cultures.

“We learn from difference. So we really have to relentlessly work at building a diverse campus community — at all levels, not just students, but faculty and staff, for sure, and this includes a diverse alumni base.”

Schlissel said it is not enough to create a diverse campus.

“We have to take advantage of it in terms of focusing on building a climate on our campuses that’s welcoming to all students from all backgrounds, where people feel similarly valued,” he said.

Nine current and emeritus college presidents and chancellors from around the country were among the participants, including several former U-M leaders:

• Rebecca Blank, University of Wisconsin-Madison chancellor and former dean of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

• Nancy Cantor, Rutgers University-Newark chancellor and former U-M provost.

• Marvin Krislov, Oberlin College president and former U-M vice president and general counsel.

• Bernie Machen, University of Florida president, and former U-M provost.

“I would argue that the University of Michigan has served as the training ground for more important current leaders across the academy than any other institution,” said Schlissel. “I’m very proud to be part of that lineage.”

As moderator of the “Leadership View” panel, American Council on Education President Molly Broad summarized the issues.

“Diversity is absolutely critical to higher education,” she said. “What is diversity in the 21st century? It’s race, ethnicity and class. For instance, only 10 percent of baccalaureates are attained by people in lower socioeconomic circumstances, versus 50 percent among those with greater socioeconomic resources.”

President Mark Schlissel and John Burkhardt, director of the National Center for Institutional Diversity, talk during the conference. (Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

“The stakes are extremely high for individuals and for all of us as a whole,” said Cantor. “We cannot afford to leave the nation’s talent behind.”  To do this, she said, “It is imperative not just to act, but to act differently.”

She suggested considering Major League Baseball’s “farm team” system. “Farm teams cultivate talent and build community among the players. We need to get out there, on the ground, and do the same.”

“Diversity doesn’t mean getting ‘them’ to come to our institution and become more like us,” said Blank. “The goal is for everyone to change some, from the learning experience” generated by a diverse learning community. “We need to pay attention to culture as much or more than we do numbers.”

The participants acknowledged U-M as a continuing steadfast force in the pursuit of diversity in higher education, and its role as a leader in seeking new paths to racial, ethnic, and economic inclusion.

“NCID at U-M is a leading advocate for diversity and inclusion in higher education and we are no less determined than ever to maintain our commitments to that goal,” said NCID Director John Burkhardt. “If there is to be an important discussion on this topic anywhere in higher education, we want to be among those who are shaping it.”

— Julie Hussain and Nicole Wilson of the National Center for Institutional Diversity contributed to this article.