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Creating Inclusive Communities: Diversity and the Responses of Academic Libraries

From: portal: Libraries and the Academy
Volume 10, Number 3, July 2010
pp. 355-363 | 10.1353/pla.0.0107

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In mid-October 2008, a group of University of Illinois’ alumni returned to their campus to join community members in a celebration of a transforming moment in the life of the university. Project 500, as it was named by university officials in fall 1968, was launched in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., as American sensibilities were heightened to the cost of discrimination and social inequality. With great ambition, they sought to change the campus overnight by enrolling at least 500 new undergraduate students of color. As Clarence Shelley, the university’s long-standing special assistant to the chancellor,1 remembered, neither student nor campus was sufficiently prepared for the abruptness of change. Shelley asked, “How do you prepare a university for a different kind of student?”2

Students of color were not unknown to the Urbana-Champaign campus. Like many other colleges and universities across America, Illinois had its distinguished list of graduates and “firsts” well before 1968. Yet, after nearly a decade of federal legislation aimed at turning the Civil Rights Movement into public policy and a growing number of acts of micro-aggression in cities and on college campuses, there seemed to be a great urgency for social reform. Inside campuses across America, community and student activism mirrored social protest in the broader society; and schools responded by aggressively recruiting diverse students and faculty, broadening the curriculum, and opening avenues for new areas of research and scholarship. As Martin Kurlansky stated in the opening paragraphs of his book, 1968: the Year that Rocked the World, “There has never been a year like 1968, and it is unlikely that there will ever be one again.”3

Despite flaws, missteps, and shortcomings among the plans that would unfold to broaden access to higher education and increase opportunities to provide a home for racially and gender neutral curricula and scholarship, one might say that they got it right. In the long run, the labors of higher education’s reformers also forged systematic and structural changes that enabled diversity and inclusion over successive decades. In looking back over 40 years of reform concerning access to higher education, what sort of challenges will diversity pose to colleges and universities in the coming decade? Where among a multiplicity of scenarios for creating inclusive communities will libraries likely have their greatest impact?

A “Social Contract” with Higher Education

In her 2002 speech before the Third National Conference on Diversity in Academic Libraries, then University of Illinois Chancellor Nancy Cantor proposed that universities should be viewed as “prototypical public goods” exemplifying “the values of exploration, preservation, and community.” Accordingly, universities and their libraries “cannot serve the public good unless we learn the fundamental lesson of diversity.” 4 Following Cantor’s argument, a case can be made that, since World War II, colleges and universities entered into a social contract with the government, maintained through systems of public support for educational opportunity and access and unfettered research, scholarship, and creative activity. For their part, federal and state officials have revisited the government’s social contract with higher education and revised the terms of access to education for those seeking postsecondary degrees. Beginning with accommodations for education for veterans in the G.I. Bill, government has addressed educational access in various ways since the 1950s through federal decisions and presidential executive orders that have been issued to end segregation and discrimination in public schools, libraries, and higher educational institutions. In the 1960s, a succession of major legislative initiatives were passed by Congress and signed by President Lyndon Johnson, beginning with the Economic Opportunity Act of 19645 and the 1965 Higher Education Act, which broadened access to federal-backed student loans.6 Other government agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Education, created aggressive programs to encourage researchers to recruit underrepresented students to their disciplines, pursue areas of research that would respond to societal disparities and broaden knowledge about diverse communities, and award scholarship and fellowship support in scientific, humanities, and social sciences disciplines.7

Broadening the contract toward inclusion has proven to be a greater challenge for higher education than imagined at the...



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