Hundreds gather at Fairfield University for strategic conversation about diversity
By Meg McCaffrey
President Obama just called on universities nationwide to get creative in improving diversity. Fairfield University has been at work on that goal for some time as part of its strategic plan.
Hundreds of members of the University community recently gathered for a conversation to gauge how ongoing efforts to enhance diversity on campus stand. The initiative reflects a mission to prepare students to be part of a more interconnected world. Moreover, as a Jesuit university, Fairfield has inherited a specific tradition that obligates the University community to make even greater efforts to be global in outlook and diverse in character.
"As I'm sure you are all aware, one of our goals as a University is that to reflect the broader culture in all of its variation and complexity, and that we become a learning environment that prepares our students to meet and engage with the world as it is - fully at home in a multicultural, multi-lingual, and pluralistic global environment," Fairfield University President Rev. Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J. told the audience, largely made up of students. "If we are to do this then our University - in its constitution - must reflect that environment, and embrace and incorporate a diversity of cultures, races, religious traditions, sexual orientations, and socio-economic backgrounds."
Rev. Paul J. Fitzgerald, S.J., senior vice president for academic affairs, spoke of how a diverse community needs a culture of engagement in mutual respect so that it can overcome stereotypes and prejudice. Fairfield has such a culture in its Jesuit tradition, which is all about finding God already present and active in every human culture.
"A diverse group of people can share and learn from one another and be enriched by it," Fr. Fitzgerald said at the event. "Prejudices and stereotypes can be eliminated."
Ann Stehney, assistant vice president of institutional research and planning, provided data that countered conventional wisdom that "everyone is homogenous" at Fairfield. "The reality is that the student body is increasingly diverse in recent years," she said.
Will Johnson, associate dean of students & director of student diversity programs, asked attendees to break down into conversation groups to brainstorm about how diversity at Fairfield could be enhanced. "Diversity is an integral element to achieving our institution's goal of inclusive excellence," he said.
Longtime employee James Fitzpatrick '70, assistant vice president of student affairs, spoke of steps being taken as far back as the 1980s to address 'gender challenges' involving gay, lesbian and bisexual students. Those students were being marginalized then, he recalled. "The feeling at the time was we could not let this happen," he recalled. "These were our students."
Attendees weighed in on the progress, and some commented that more work needs to be done.
A member of the class of 2012 said the diversity initiative should not just work to foster tolerance but also must promote acceptance. "If you don't have it, you should make it," she said, urging fellow students to become more involved on campus. "Get involved in a student club or create one."
A staff member spoke of diversity programs that are mainly academic-based, stressing that more social-type gatherings should be planned to break down silos. "You wouldn't go on a first date to a lecture," she said. "The first step may be a get-together... Judaic Studies hosts Shabbat dinners, but an event like that is an exception here."
Another senior called for Fairfield to "branch out" in meaningful ways. She also spoke of second-guessing her decision to enroll at Fairfield when she was a freshman, a time when she realized that she was "not one of many." She instead decided to stay and got involved on campus. "I've built bridges since then," she said. "I've had chances to build connections."
The conversation comes in the midst of a university-wide program nurturing students to become 'global citizens.'
"You are our bridge builders when you leave here," Fr. Fitzgerald emphasized.
Image: At a recent strategic conversation on diversity, one staff member commented that events like the University's Kabbalat Shabbat service are a welcome addition. The services and Shabbat dinners that follow are part of a concerted effort to celebrate all faiths at Fairfield, a hallmark of the institution's Jesuit mission.