University’s diversity history recalled at public panel event


The historical context to promoting diversity at the University of Michigan was the focus when past and current university leaders gathered Monday for “Reflections On U-M’s Diversity History.”

Community assembly

The Diversity Summit continues today with a Community Assembly at which the campus is asked to share comments and ideas with President Mark Schlissel. The assembly is at Rackham Auditorium from 9-11 a.m. and also can be viewed live online.

The event at the Michigan League Ballroom, one of several presented as part of the Nov. 4-13 Diversity Summit, featured panelists who played critical roles in that progression. They discussed U-M’s diversity history and progress. They also discussed challenges that need attention.

“We haven’t accomplished it all. But we have accomplished something that we can all point to,” said Abigail Stewart, the Sandra Schwartz Tangri Distinguished University Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies, director and senior counselor to the provost, director of the ADVANCE Program and former director of the women’s studies program.

She said the most important thing when it comes to promoting diversity is people committing to the work.

The Diversity Summit launches the public-engagement component of a yearlong process designed to create a comprehensive blueprint to allow all members of the U-M community an equal opportunity to thrive.

Among those participating in the panel discussion about the history of diversity at U-M were, from left, James Toy, Abigail Stewart and Lester Monts. (Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

Lester Monts, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Music, special adviser for the Confucius Institute, and former senior vice provost for academic affairs and senior counselor to the president for the arts, diversity and undergraduate affairs, recalled joining U-M’s administration in 1993.

He said then-President James Duderstadt’s Michigan Mandate, a strategic plan presented that academic year linking social diversity and academic excellence, proved to be one of the first and most successful such plans in higher education.

Monts said there are stories barely told of students and faculty advancing diversity at U-M. They range from Wolverine football star Willis Ward in the 1930s to Albert Wheeler. In 1953, he became the first black tenured professor at the Medical School, and later was Ann Arbor’s first black mayor.
U-M leaders who have played a critical role in advancing the diversity agenda reflect on the university’s diversity history, progress and challenges.

James Toy, co-founder and former director of the Spectrum Center, advocating for the LGBTQ community, said he was honored and humbled to bring to the Board of Regents the concerns of lesbians and gay men, mostly students.

“President (Robben) Fleming invited me to occupy his chair as I spoke, because there was not a vacant chair in the Regents Room. The university, I believe, took an enormous risk in creating what we now refer to as the Spectrum Center,” he said.

Some panelists lamented slow progress.

“It’s going to take purposeful and structural change from top to bottom and the resources to back it up,” said panelist Maria Cotera, associate professor of American culture and women’s studies, and former director of the Latina/o studies program. She said that, among other measures to promote diversity, U-M needs a much more diverse faculty in key departments.

Panelist Charles Moody, professor emeritus of education and vice provost emeritus for minority affairs, suggested getting the regents involved, as they are the policy makers.

Michigan Appeals Court Judge Cynthia D. Stephens, a U-M alumna, vice president of the Black Student Union in 1969 and a member of the Black Action Movement that protested in 1970 against U-M policies and actions, offered advice to the senior leadership at the university.

“I would urge you to look at how decisions are made and to do your level best to assure that the decisions you make are true to your core values,” she said.

The audience for “Reflections on U-M’s Diversity History” filled the Michigan League Ballroom. (Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)


  1. James Crowfoot
    on November 10, 2015 at 10:58 am

    I attended and listened carefully to yesterday afternoon’s panel on the history of the U of M’s past diversity initiatives goals and results. This summary in the Record is not a a complete nor fair summary of what this panel shared. Important descriptions of past failures by the University including its leadership were ignored in this morning’s report. Also, ignored from yesterday’s discussion is the history of BAMM 1, 2 and 3 and the ensuing cycles of temporary superficial progress and subsequent retreats that failed to alter the basic system and culture of the University of Michigan. From my perspective ignoring these lessons so honestly and courageously shared by this panel disrespects these panelists and as importantly weakens the current “new” initiative to once again seek social equity in the face of inequities and to face the ongoing racism, sexism and classism are embedded in the culture of this university and to identity and change the values, structures and processes of the University that perpetuate these fundamental injustices.

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