2016 VCU PACME Award recipients with Wanda Mitchell, vice president for inclusive excellence, Gail Hackett, provost, and Michael Rao, president

‘This Nation (and University) of Many Peoples’

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As VCU celebrates our annual PACME Awards this afternoon—and as our nation marks the 48th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, commemorated by a “Die In” of students here and at campuses across the country — I am reminded of the poignant opinion penned by Justice Lewis F. Powell in the landmark case of Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke.

That case, brought before the Supreme Court in 1978, challenged affirmative action in higher education. But Justice Powell saw it for what it really was: the role that universities should play in building a more-diverse, inclusive and just society.

“The atmosphere of speculation, experiment and creation that is so essential to the quality of higher education is promoted by a diverse student body,” wrote Powell, a Richmonder. “It is not too much to say that the nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to the ideas and mores of students as diverse as this nation of many peoples.”

But in the generations since Bakke, I worry that we in higher education have not done enough to build that more inclusive world that he described.

Universities have to do more to embrace all people in ways that are real and relevant. Diversity must be at the heart of our mission, not just our marketing.

In many ways, VCU is exceptional among our university peers because of the remarkable commitments we make to diversity and inclusion. And so, we can be a model for the 21st century in assuring that anyone from any background can succeed here in whatever ways they can imagine.

As often as I can, I use my podium as president to advocate for diversity and inclusion at VCU and everywhere, and I am proud to join my leadership team in this clarion call. But the real reason I am convinced that VCU is a national model for diversity and inclusion are the members of our faculty, staff, student body and community who make that commitment real.

They educate and mentor our students in classrooms, studios, laboratories and clinics. They make a difference in the diverse communities around us. They come together to find solutions to real problems. They push us to think about diversity and inclusion in new ways, and to ensure that the culture at VCU is where diverse people feel embraced, not just tolerated.

I am so grateful to my many colleagues across VCU and VCU Health who make us a model for diversity and inclusion as a 21st-century research university that is relevant to all people. We will continue to commit ourselves to the enduring values of community, advocacy and human rights for every person. And we will continue to recognize what each person brings to the progress of humanity.

As we celebrate diversity at VCU today and always, let us remember that we are really celebrating a rich, vibrant and inclusive community of people who are, as Justice Powell wrote almost 40 years ago, “as diverse as this nation of many peoples.”