Education, Diversity, and Democracy: A Lecture with Jeff Milem

(Alexander Meinhof)

Lauren Baker

For many, the dream of an open and diverse society is being undermined through racism and bigotry. College campuses, which are meant to be inclusive environments of learning, often fail to adequately address complex issues of race and identity. This past Thursday, Jeff Milem, Dean of UCSB’s Gevirtz Graduate School of Education, tackled this issue in a lecture entitled “Education, Diversity, and Democracy: How Can We Fulfill Higher Education’s Promise to Prepare Citizens for an Increasingly Diverse Democracy?” The lecture discussed what role higher education can play in contributing to a society that favors inclusion rather than exclusion.

The audience consisted of students, professors, and professionals interested in hearing what Milem had to say. One young woman stated that the topic of diversity “…drew [her] to coming.” Another was wondering just what kind of diversity would be addressed, and wanted to know if “…what he [was] saying is what the university is doing.”

Before Milem began his lecture, one of his graduate students introduced the speaker and  provided some background information. Milem’s qualifications include tenure at the University of Arizona since 2008 as the Ernest W. McFarland Distinguished Professor in Leadership for Education Policy and Reform in the College of Education and work with the Department of Civil Rights.

To open, Milem addressed some of the ways in which students had perpetrated acts of intolerance and hate on campuses around the world. Some of the examples he brought up included students going to parties in blackface or hosting parties based on stereotypes of other ethnicities.

Both examples, Milem argued, demonstrate a lack of cultural awareness that, whether through ignorance or ill intent, damages the way people of different ethnicities perceive of and interact with one another.

Milem asked the audience how we thought it was possible for students to graduate high school and still not understand how offensive and demeaning their actions were. He then went on to explain that when actions such as these are not followed by proper consequences, their perpetrators remain uneducated and eventually graduate into the “real world” still ignorant as to how their actions have a very real and harmful effect on entire groups of people. No repercussions suggest that the behavior, if not acceptable, is at least permissible.

Milem went a step further, suggesting that it is actually at high school when having an open dialogue on diversity is most important. According to Milem, high schools fail to properly introduce diversity to their students.

Because of this gap in education, Milem claimed, many students first come to encounter the “real world” and all the issues of diversity it contains. While colleges may serve the role of challenging preconceived beliefs, Milem believes that starting earlier in high school can alert students on the issues of diversity. 

Milem emphasized that one of the only ways to resolve situations involving racial tension is to become less uncomfortable talking about them. He stated that a trained group of facilitators would be best to achieve this end goal, and that it should never be the responsibility of one racial/ethnic group to be the “educators” for everyone else. Furthermore, he said that white students especially need to engage with members of different ethnic groups.

According to Milem, although members of minority groups tend to hang out within their own ethnic groups, they are also more likely to engage other non-similar groups than white people who hang out within their own groups. Milem suggested hiring a more racially and ethnically diverse staff at UCSB would also be a major step.

Over his talk, Milem warned that unless students and educators actively seek out and desire diversity, they will find themselves unprepared for life outside of college. The shelter of privilege provided to students by an exclusive campus cultivates a false sense of security that is not reflective of the actual complexities of the world. Only by acknowledging the diversity that awaits, Milem suggested, can students prevent the culture shock they will receive upon exiting college.