A liberal arts college that I know pretty well is trying to get aligned with the popular 21st century academic practice of defining a vision and "strategic goals" to help the school move toward "social responsibility", "global engagement" and "diversity". This prompted some personal observations which I furnish (in suitably edited form) for my readers.
Celebrated economist and columnist Walter Williams has commented on the modern wont of certain busybodies to require demonstrations of "social responsibility" from corporations and businesses. This is code-speak for spending business-profits on social programs and diversity consultants. Entire "shakedown" industries have been constructed around demands of payments from businesses so they can avoid charges of discrimination or greed - the Rev. Jesse Jackson being an accomplished practitioner (to the tune of $10 million-plus a year) of this dubious art. Dr. Williams points out that providing a quality product - be it gasoline, electricity, clothing or automobiles - at a competitive price is, ipso facto, a socially responsible act. No ancillary demonstration of responsibility is required from a business.
This is also true for colleges, which are actually businesses of a kind. Their product is supposed to be mature, academically sound, morally put-together graduates who are prepared to help society by applying the disciplines in which they have been trained to work and think. Admittedly, some colleges are better than others at producing them. But to the extent that a college is doing so, some artificial construct of "global engagement" - perhaps expressed by establishing satellite campuses in far-away places - need not be laid onto this critical mission with which the college has been entrusted.
In the past, the college to which I refer has produced high-quality graduates who went out and engaged "the world" in medicine, writing, education, the Christian ministry, music, psychology, mathematics, etc. This is what graduates are supposed to do. Any college that produces them is engaging the world. Every able mathematician or biologist or theologian helps his own little corner of humanity. A search for additional "global" meaning is superfluous - even pretentious.
A college should be committed to continuity with its past, but to a vast future also. In that spirit, leaders should envision an environment of academic excellence, spiritual strength, personal growth and social opportunity for its students and its faculty that enables production of graduates who are academically sound, morally strong, and well grounded in their faith - thoroughly fitted to do honest, high quality (and therefore "godly") work in the world. If this is not a practical definition of "global relevance", I don't know what one might reasonably be.
"Diversity" is another hot topic on campus. Many colleges are preoccupied with making diversity plans. Some Board members of my college are church leaders. Do their churches have diversity plans? Doubtful - probably because they believe people come to church by a Providential calling. A college is not a church, but in some respects the way students are drawn to a campus has a mystic, even religious, quality. The college I attended (and its people) changed my life. I believe my attendance there was divinely ordered.
Nevertheless, there are modern pressures on colleges to be hospitable to students of many races, backgrounds and cultures. We are light-years away from the pre-1960 era, when campuses were stocked exclusively with white, all-American kids who looked like Central Casting's idea of a college student. Blacks who once were limited to their own colleges have now been mainstreamed into most American schools. And a great flood of Asian and Hispanic students has forever changed the face of American higher education. This is all to the good. The country can only be helped by this racial and cultural enrichment of its educational product.
Diversity, however, is a result that can't necessarily be programmed without affecting that product. Many colleges have learned this to their pain. So did a company I also knew well. The firm grew dramatically and was very strong in early years when excellence and performance were the watchwords. But then company executives got spooked by bean counters who didn't see enough skirts or non-white faces to suit them. I heard a human resources manager call middle-aged white men "the company's biggest problem". (Not a valuable resource. Not the champs who did the heavy lifting when the company was zooming upward. Just a big, fat problem.) Many capable men left for friendlier surroundings, and the company hit a flat spot.
Eventually sanity returned and the ship righted itself. A valuable lesson was learned: in enterprises requiring excellence, "diversity" is not a programmable result. (A look at the New York Yankees or the Washington Redskins tells all you need to know about how excellence and diversity mix.)
That company was not just filling seats with warm bodies. It needed people who could sell and perform at high levels. Many got the chance to show what they could do. Those who couldn't cut it were out. The successes were disproportionately male and Oriental. This displeased some, but these people had prepared for the work at hand and had the necessary skills. Managers realized the firm could not be successful if a less qualified person of a desired race or gender was selected in place of a better-qualified person.
Colleges have waded out into the diversity waters, too, but have found that the bottom drops off quickly. Sensible leaders discover that diversity - however desirable or politically correct - can't be programmed. A college needs to advertise widely, create a friendly, ethnicity-neutral campus, and select students equipped to work in an environment of academic excellence and moral stability. When its highly qualified graduates are eventually sent out into the world, no one (except old fuss-budgets at the New York Times) will care exactly what their racial mix was.
An acquaintance attended a medical school where it became known that minority students were being given exam questions ahead of the exams. When other students (who lacked this advantage) complained, the administration replied that the school "could not afford to have the minority students fail". The school thought it was succeeding in its diversity mission. But it really was failing - at a fundamental level - in its academic, social and moral responsibilities to the global community. Excellence - first, last and always - must be what a college is about. As they say in Detroit, "good-looking junk will not sell."