Viewpoint: Why Diversity Matters

April 29, 2024



Viewpoint from Mimi Chapman, co-founder of the Coalition for Carolina Foundation

My dad was a WWII veteran. I think about him so much now that he is gone because of the lessons he taught me and sometimes the lessons we learned together. Prior to the war, he had attended a junior college not far from his rural Missouri community. I’m not even quite sure how those colleges worked at that time, but when he came back from two years in the Pacific theater, he was eligible for the GI bill and used it to go to law school at the University of Missouri.

He was probably 97 years old and was telling me about the requests he was receiving to contribute to scholarships at his law school alma mater. He was both curious and frustrated about why so many scholarships were needed. He lapsed into old stories about working from dawn to dusk from the time he was five years old in his farming family. At first, I tried to talk with him about how expensive college was these days, housing costs, pressures were different, etc. But my arguments were a hard sell for him.

Finally, I quit arguing. Given his age, our time was growing short and arguing seemed a poor use of it. I shifted. “What was it like when you went to law school after the war?” “I was a fish out of water,” he remembered. “All the other boys knew what they were doing.” (Note: few if any women were in his class. It would be years and court cases later before an African American was admitted.) “Their fathers and brothers were lawyers. They talked the right way, dressed the right way. I had country clothes, overalls, hand-me-downs. I wasn’t that good a writer then. I wasn’t doing well in my classes, didn’t have very much money. Just couldn’t compete. I was about to leave after my first semester.”

I pressed on, “What happened? Why didn’t you?”

“There was a professor who could see what an odd duck I was, my scruffy clothes, stuff like that. He asked me where I was living, how I was making ends meet. He talked to me about my work and helped me with how to study for law school tests, how to write a good brief, that sort of thing.” Next the professor found my dad a place to live where he was given room and board in exchange for what was admittedly back breaking work hauling coffins in a funeral home. The description was so vivid that I now have a picture of my dad, showing up in his overalls at this family funeral parlor and taking up residence in the basement.

My dad was a white man, and as such, was allowed to use the GI benefit to advance his education. Many people of color who served in the war were shut out of GI benefits. Yet, his story in some ways encapsulates what DEI is about. He was “a fish out of water.” His preparation wasn’t quite the same as his peers. His socialization was different. He doubted his abilities, thought he didn’t belong in law school. The professor, who reached out to him, did what DEI programs do now albeit in more proactive ways, by asking questions: How can we help you understand this place? What can we do about the barriers – physical and psychological – that may keep you from feeling like you belong here? Can we connect you to others who have had similar life experiences, so you don’t feel alone?

I am not charged with leading in the DEI space on our campus and there are other places that can give a more robust history of DEI’s roots. But from what I have experienced, DEI programming consists of advocating the use of clear, transparent standards in hiring, admissions procedures, and grading so that applicants and students are evaluated on the same transparent dimensions. There are programs aimed at helping professors be more wholistic mentors to students who are from marginalized groups including those of different racial identities as well as people who are neurodivergent or have a different sexual identity or gender expression. Likewise, there is a focus on first generation students, like my dad. DEI trainings, which I have never been required to attend in my 20 years as a faculty member, help people like me be more like my dad’s professor. They prompt me to think about the whole student, not just what they are or are not doing in my classroom. Some DEI work makes visible structures and histories that that shape student experience. As a professor, confronting such facts may make me uncomfortable at times, but real learning is not ever comfortable for any of us. For those of us who devote our lives to college campuses, discomfort comes with the territory. We must model tolerating it for our students.

To be sure, there are controversies within this space, particularly now in light of the war in Gaza. But that is cause for deep conversation, the civil discourse we hear so much about from our governing bodies. Not something to do away with through a vote on a consent agenda.

At its heart, what the UNC System Board of Governors will dismantle in May, without so much as a conversation, is a set of strategies and commitments for helping a wider range of people to succeed on our “of the public, for the public” campuses. They say the money saved is to be directed toward mental health efforts. The best way to address mental health problems is to prevent them from occurring. When we attend to whole people – students, faculty, and staff – we create a campus climate where everyone can thrive.

My dad and I eventually ended the conversation. “So you worked really hard and you had some pretty significant help.” He thought on it, nodded slowly, and smiled his wry smile, the one he got when he’d rethought something he thought he knew. After he died, I found a picture of him at an honorary dinner and a program telling me he’d been the president of his law school class. He never mentioned that. But I was so proud of him, that farm boy who thought he didn’t belong, and so grateful for those that championed him. Don’t all our students deserve as much?

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