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A step beyond equality

University of Cincinnati embraces diversity as a core value; nation takes notice

by Deborah Rieselman

Emotions couldn't get much higher in 1964 for college freshman Mitchel Livingston, who was in Austin, Texas, preparing to compete in one of the country's biggest track and field events, the Texas Relays. Within moments, however, his emotions would plummet when he found an anonymous note on his duffle bag: "If you win this event, you will die."

The only black competitor on his Southern Illinois University team, Livingston (now a vice president at UC) finished in second place. He can't say whether the intimidation hurt his performance, but he certainly admits it scarred his memories.

Unfortunately, the rest of the trip, which included two more meets in Florida, was no better: The whole team was refused admission to a pool hall in Louisiana, and the drive home through Alabama was grueling. "We had to drive through the entire state before we could find a restaurant that would allow us to come in as a team and eat," he recalls.

"I remember all those incidents like they were yesterday. That was my introduction to higher education."

Instead of instilling Livingston with hate, the incidents forged in him a determination to stop such introductions from being commonplace for minorities. In the early 1990s, Livingston created the award-winning Just Community Initiative while vice president of student affairs at New York's University at Albany. In 1994, he joined UC in the same VP position and brought his initiative with him. Its goals, in part, are to "promote justice, embrace freedom, practice civility and celebrate the uniqueness of each individual."

In 2008, he became the University of Cincinnati's first chief diversity officer, a significant step in the university's path to prove its seriousness in embracing diversity as a core value. Livingston's new title is the result of the president's office assembling a task force in 2006 to create an agenda for change, using a broad concept of diversity that includes race, ethnicity, gender, age, disability, socioeconomic status, sexual identity, sexual orientation, religion, and regional or national origin.

In the end, the task force created the CDO position, established a permanent diversity council and rewrote the university's mission statement to reflect its new commitment. Diversity Council members realize that many people mistake diversity for a focus on numbers, demographics and compliance with directives. Yet diversity is more about creating a welcoming environment and affirming the value of all persons, they insist. Furthermore, a wide range of perspectives is vital for functioning in a global economy these days.

"Diversity is much larger than race," says Livingston. "Race still matters, but diversity is the defining characteristic of American higher education.

"You can't have a university without diversity expressed in every way possible -- diversity in curriculum, faculty, students, even architecture. Diversity and excellence are threads of one cloth. One cannot occur without the other."

"This is not just about equality," adds Lou Bilionis, Diversity Council chair and dean of the College of Law. "It's about tapping the diversity of human nature to get stronger, to create a place where more and more talented people will want to come, where the range of perspectives will grow."

The university's definition of diversity will grow as well. "Twenty years from now, there will be common dimensions of diversity and inclusion that we're not seeing clearly today," Bilionis says. "We want to be really mindful of that and be responsive to those as they emerge -- ideally, anticipate them before they emerge."

To keep the campus community aware of its strategy, the Diversity Council and the Just Community Initiative have sponsored or hosted many events, including the UC Diversity Conference in 2009, the annual Worldfest Week and speakers such as Colin Powell, poet Maya Angelou and Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel. It also awarded grants supporting recruitment and retention.

To measure progress, the council recently completed an audit that showed 500 diversity initiatives across campus. Plus, UC's efforts in the field have attracted national attention.

First, the university was listed in "The Templeton Guide: Colleges that Encourage Character Development" because of its Just Community Initiative. Then in 2008, the Princeton Review ranked UC 19th in the nation for having a diverse student population, based partially upon student interviews. The publication called the campus "a vibrant quilt of culture" and quoted one student as saying, "It could be considered the melting pot college of the Midwest."

Worldfest dancer

The Worldfest International Festival in April 2009 featured cuisine and cultural displays of the countries that some UC students call home. The rain did not dampen appetites or the entertainment. Photo/Lisa Ventre

Perhaps more impressive are the results tallied through the National Survey of Student Engagement and the Student Satisfaction Inventory, in which UC students reported higher levels of engagement and satisfaction both inside and outside the classroom than students at peer institutions. "When we cut that data by race, students of color reported even higher levels of engagement and satisfaction both inside and outside the classroom than white students," Livingston notes.

At UC's peer institutions, the opposite was found; African-American students were less engaged and less satisfied than white students. "That told us we were doing something right," Livingston says.

Yet Dean Bilionis warns people not to grow smug. "There are achievements that UC can properly celebrate," he says, "but there are also improvements that we need to see.

"You have to be humble here. You can look back in time and shudder at what our ancestors may have thought or said, but we need to be mindful that future generations could easily judge us in the same way. The heart of the matter is we still have work to do.

"The world is a diverse place. The institutions that don't appreciate and reflect that are going to pay the price."

Specifically, he is concerned that diversity of faculty lags behind that of the student body. He and Livingston agree that faculty recruitment and retention are priorities, and both men look forward to the challenge.

"I think we're a far stronger university when we are demanding more and more," Bilionis says. "This initiative ensures that we are open to healthy pressures to constantly seek out a deeper measure of diversity."

"The outrageous incidents of discrimination are gone," Livingston acknowledges, "but inequities are still in play. I experience little moments of indignation every day." He gives a poignant example from the festivities surrounding the presidential inauguration ceremony at another college.

Livingston, along with UC's provost and the chairman of the UC Board of Trustees, was getting "robed" to represent the university in the processional when an elderly white gentleman introduced himself and asked who they were and what they did. Livingston's UC colleagues responded first. Then the man turned to Livingston, the only black man in the trio, and asked, "What professional team do you play for?"

"I was obviously with the other two and wearing the same kind of robe," Livingston says, "but he had ideas that would not allow him to see me as a scholar, as a person with an earned PhD, as a vice president of a university. None of those things fit his frame of mind."

Sadly, a similar incident was repeated the next weekend at a downtown restaurant where Livingston and a group of colleagues were dining. "A woman came up to our table, introduced herself and made light social interaction. When she got to me, she saw my ring and said, 'Oh, what bowl game did you win?' My wife, Carol, said, 'That's a PhD ring.'

"It looks like a class ring to me, but she saw it and made an assumption that defined me as an athlete. She didn't even ask.

"That's unfortunate, and that's real. For me, they're teachable moments, but there is enough of them, subtle as they are, that says constant effort is needed to make diversity work."

Changing profile of the UC student body

  1980 2008
Total students 39,772 37,072

Full-time students


Undergrads 84% 77%
Male students 52% 46%
Ohio residents 91% 84%
Uptown campus 88% 80%
Caucasian 80% 73%
African-American 9.88% 10.05%
Asian .87% 2.78%
Hispanic .54% 1.54%
Non-resident Int'l 1.29% 5.05%

*Data from Office for Institutional Research


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Related articles:

University of Cincinnati faculty member on diversity

UC groups that promote diversity


UC's Just Community

UC's Diversity Council