Higher ed that looks like us

The truth can be uncomfortable, especially in the parochial world of higher education. Bruce Shepard, the president of Western Washington University, provoked a debate that’s kindled predictable blowback from right-wing media. In his January blog, Shepard echoed the need for diversity.

“In the decades ahead, should we be as white as we are today, we will be relentlessly driven toward mediocrity; or, become a sad shadow of our current self,” he writes.

Shepard’s takeaway goes to the heart of public education, to serve the needs of all Washington students. It’s as much an economic as a social justice argument, that magnifying the racial divide accelerates that relentless bend toward mediocrity.

“Many do get it. But, too often, I encounter behaviors and communications that suggest to me that folks have not thought through the implications of what is ahead for us or, more perniciously, assume we can continue unchanged,” Shepard writes.

Western’s students don’t mirror Washington’s racial and ethnic makeup. If the trend line continues, WWU will become an even more distorted reflection, given the Northwest’s evolving demographics. Compounding this are all the self-fulfilling tropes, introduced and reinforced early in life, that disciples fall along racial and gender lines: Engineering is for men; environmental policy is whites-only.

For generations of Western and University of Washington students, diversity meant classmates from Ephrata or California. In the 19th century, Euro-American migrants to the Pacific Northwest were mostly of German, Scandinavian and Irish ancestry. Japanese and Chinese immigrants outnumbered African-Americans, with the first meaningful wave of black residents arriving during World War II. Today, it’s a burgeoning Latino population, along with South Asians, who are remaking the fabric of the Northwest.

K-12 educators and community colleges get it. It’s the disparities among the state’s four-year universities that underline education’s interdependent parts. Students need to graduate from high school prepared for college. It’s the only credible way to breathe life into the promise of equal opportunity.

Shepard, a political scientist, seems to sidestep George Lakoff, the political linguist whose scholarship focuses on how we frame debates. Diversity needs to be the centerpiece.

All of this circles back to those uncomfortable truths — Washington’s educational mosaic and what it will look like decades from now.

As George Orwell wrote, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”

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