Illinois State’s President Timothy Flanagan believes diversity is one of the cornerstones of a successful campus.
Flanagan, who joined the University in August, said he has long been a proponent of the empowerment that comes with embracing diversity. “One of the critical characteristics of a great university is recognizing that diversity strengthens us,” he said. “As an educational institution, our interest in diversity is not just because it is the right thing to do, or the politically correct thing to do, but because there is a sizeable body of research that shows it deepens student learning. Promoting diversity serves our number one goal, which is student success.”
Providing a diverse environment stems from understanding what diversity means today, noted Flanagan. “Contemporary definitions of diversity cover a wide variety of attributes – not just race, but gender, religious backgrounds, orientation and more,” he said. “A modern definition of diversity recognizes that people are different in all kinds of really interesting ways that we want to celebrate.”
That celebration happens inside and outside the classroom for students, said Flanagan. He added diversity could only be explored through another hallmark of a great university – acknowledging that faculty and staff is the University’s greatest resources. “Students need to be grappling with ideas that are different than ideas they have encountered before,” he said. “Students who experience diverse environments – where they are around people who have different backgrounds, different ideas, different histories – are challenged, and that has a powerful impact on student learning.”
While many universities judge diversity by a percentage of underrepresented groups on campus, Flanagan believes strongly that diversity is more than a numbers game. “We need to get beyond diversity in composition and talk about diversity in action, which is where people have experiences and opportunities to interact with those who have different perspectives.”
For years, Flanagan studied the disproportionate numbers of underrepresented groups in the criminal justice system, which helped to inspire him to explore a greater understanding of diversity issues. When he became president of Framingham State University, Flanagan developed the President’s Diversity Task Force. The group, later known as the Committee of Diversity and Inclusion included faculty, staff, students and alumni with the aim of bringing diversity to the forefront of the campus.
“I charged that group with challenging the university from time to time to do a better job with respect to diversity,” he said. The task force evolved into a study of the university’s diverse environment and to build diversity content into courses. “You know you have arrived when you begin to penetrate the curriculum. That’s where faculty and students live,” he added.
Flanagan has already met with the heads of the Diversity Task Force at Illinois State, and said he will bring them together soon to discuss what still needs to be accomplished on campus. “The first order of business is to learn about the work of the Diversity Task Force to date. I’m really excited to see what the next step might be to enrich our campus environment.”
As engaged as the task force will be, Flanagan said it is the duty of every person on campus to work toward a welcoming and diverse environment. “We have a natural tendency to gravitate toward people who are like us,” he said. “We have to work to seek out opportunities to broaden our horizons. Institutions have to seek that out as well,” he said, adding, “Presidents and vice presidents alone cannot push a diversity agenda. There has to be a grass-roots level of interest and support and passion for diversity on campus in order for it to work.”