What is Diversity at Marquette University?

By Dr. William Welburn

Recently I was re-reading passages from Parker Palmer’s book, A Hidden Wholeness, when I ran across one that seemed pertinent to the question, “What is diversity at Marquette?”  Palmer was ruminating about conditions for a circle of trust, and suggested that one condition was “the creation of common ground on which people of diverse beliefs can explore issues of the inner life.”  He continued, “But as we create open ground that welcomes diversity, we cannot allow people to wander aimlessly.  The soul wants hospitality, but it also wants honesty, wants to engage challenging questions that we would prefer to avoid.”

We often want to define diversity through a single lens when in reality it is far more complicated.  The above mentioned meditation frees us to dive deeply into the ways that our community looks at diversity.  At the surface we actively seek to keep the doors of our institution open across demographically defined diverse cultures and communities, or as we say in our university’s Statement on Human Dignity and Diversity, “regardless of age, culture, faith, ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, language, disability or social class.”  Diving to greater depths, our community comprises an even greater diversity of beliefs, and we are even more challenged to find and maintain common ground to “explore issues of the inner life.”

This may be the point of real distinction for Marquette and other Catholic Jesuit colleges and universities.  We are continually challenged to seek common ground for divergent beliefs, or to put it another way, as an educational community following the path of St. Ignatius of Loyola, find a place at the table for all of us who share a common commitment to justice and a genuinely transformative education.  This is reflected in the second part of our Statement on Human Dignity and Diversity, where our commitment to “a diverse university community helps us to achieve excellence by promoting a culture of learning, appreciation and understanding.”  Not only do we respect differences, we “value and treasure” them. 

I have come to understand this as our determination to deliver transformative learning experiences to our students during their years as undergraduate, graduate, and professional students at Marquette.  Our students come from all walks of life, differing communities and cultures, a host of national origins, and different challenges to get to college.  Part of the transformative experience of learning in the Marquette community is to come to understand the meaning of St. Ignatius, who said, “Love ought to manifest itself more by deeds than by words.”  Through this experience I believe that we develop an appreciation for generosity of the spirit.  Again we consider the question, “What is diversity at Marquette?”  It is that exposure our students have to the other by studying together and performing acts of service alongside one another that prepares them to contribute to a complex world. 

Those of us who are employed by Marquette not only support our students’ journeys but are called upon to serve as examples of diversity and inclusion in practice.  To do so requires us to work together with a sense of openness and mutual respect if we expect our students to learn from our own example.

The need for a genuinely transformative experience is more important now than ever before.  This leads me to my third attempt to answer to the question, “What is diversity at Marquette?”  Our focus on diversity and inclusion is in many ways our strategy to address a society that continues to struggle with the legacy of separate and unequal as a practice.  Part of the infamous “separate but equal doctrine” that defined the last century in the United States also accommodated several forms of incivility.  From our vantage point today, the idea that it was perfectly okay to be segregated in jobs, housing, education, and the use of public facilities seems archaic, as do the brutal acts of retaliation against those who publicly marched and protested against conditions of inequality.  Yet today we see other acts of incivility on our campuses that appear as hurtful statements and behaviors and other micro-aggressions that seem to reinforce exclusion.  Just this past year, numerous articles and postings in social media have pointed to difficulties in intercultural behavior as the perceived visibility of cultural diversity has increased on college campuses throughout the United States.  For the past several years, students have taken to emerging media to voice their concerns, as evidenced by student-initiated projects at Fordham University, UCLA, Brown, Harvard, and the University of Michigan.  One blog, the Microaggressions Project, which was initiated several years ago at Columbia University, has accumulated more than 15,000 comments from students and university employees, including such statements as “Are you sure you have the right room number?  This is the ‘honors’ section” and “My black friends:You aren’t really black though, you act like a white girl.  My white friends:You aren’t really white though, you’re like dark.”

These kinds of transgressions are nothing new to college life or the broader society.  Yet when aggregated they form a compelling reason to make the quest for civility an integral part of diversity at Marquette.  This is how we “value and treasure” difference in our community.

There are many other ways to answer the question, “What is diversity at Marquette?”  These three ideas – who we are, how we work and learn together in our shared community, and our civility toward one another are all key among the many ways that we can respond to the question, “What is Diversity at Marquette?”  Yet how does diversity translate into a strategy for building an inclusive community at Marquette?  Drawing from the experiences of colleges and universities around the United States, consider the following: (1) how well are different populations represented among our students and employees, (2) are they able to achieve their aspirations at Marquette, whether it is a degree in a desired area of study or long term job satisfaction, (3) has our university made space for diverse scholarship and learning, especially as our students are positioned to meet the complexities of our world in the 21st century, and lastly (4) how we as a university reach out to and remain relevant to communities beyond our campus, in Milwaukee, the Midwest and beyond. 

In the end, we strive to be a welcoming environment at Marquette for all who want to put the university’s mission into everyday practice.  Along with that, diversity at Marquette is an opportunity to engage in questions that are difficult at times, but whose answers are rewarding and to the betterment of the society in which we live.