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Column: Recruitment Is Only Part of College Inclusiveness

I’ve been a college professor for 30 years, and when August begins, my thoughts turn toward the fall semester.

In a few weeks 3,000 Wesleyan students from various walks of life will be back on our lovely campus in Middletown, Conn. But this year, there may be 100 times as many students taking Wesleyan classes online through Coursera. When we decided to become the first liberal arts school to begin offering online classes in this format, many of my colleagues on campus and across the country objected that online education was somehow a betrayal of liberal learning. I agreed with others who thought liberal education was something we should bring to these new technological platforms. Learning communities on campus may be quite different from online discussion boards, but they are not antithetical

So I don’t see any contradiction in developing online classes at the same time as we continue to invest in the quality of education on campus. While we experiment modestly with online courses, we should double down on our commitment to residential education by reinforcing those elements of campus life that stimulate our students’ learning.

Colleges and universities like ours have talked about the importance of co-curricular life, and how the residential experience contributes greatly to the transformative potential of one’s college years. At highly selective schools, we have also dedicated significant resources to creating a diverse campus community. We recruit low-income students from around the country, and we use a holistic admissions policy that, when combined with robust financial aid, makes it possible to meet the full needs of a significant percentage of our students without asking them to take out large loans. We do this because we expect graduates to embrace diversity as a source of lifelong learning, personal fulfillment and creative possibility.

Recent news stories suggest that elite schools need to do even better. Too many qualified low-income and first-generation high school seniors don’t bother applying to highly selective schools because they don’t realize that scholarships are available.

And our responsibility to students from under-represented groups isn’t just in recruiting and in financial aid. How can we go further to ensure that these students thrive when they get to our campuses? This isn’t about technology, it’s about how we can live up to our aspirations to “make excellence inclusive.”

The verdict in the trial of white-Hispanic George Zimmerman, who shot black teen Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012, has been much on my mind recently. Zimmerman was found not guilty by a jury; prosecutors had claimed that Zimmerman profiled Martin. Many of our African and African-American students have told us that they feel likely to be profiled. Campuses must react strongly to counteract the fears of minority students. University leaders must ensure that profiling has no place on university campuses.

Officially prohibiting profiling is one thing; promoting inclusion is a more complex challenge. How do we promote inclusion on campuses that claim to value diversity? In classrooms and dorm rooms, from athletics to the arts?

Some schools do it through special programs organized by administrators, and a few have even canceled regular classes as a sign of their seriousness of purpose. Official programs can be symbolically important, but they often wind up preaching to the choir with little residual effect. My hope is that students, faculty and staff will rise to the ongoing challenge of promoting inclusion through myriad, informal discussions across campus, and become more mindful of any barriers to inclusion that still exist.

This will mean that people will have to talk with others with whom they might not share an obvious affinity. Athletes and activists, artists and lab rats will have to engage with one another about their lives on campus. Blacks and whites, Hispanics, LGBTs and Asians will have to share some of what it means for them to try to participate in campus community. This means leaving behind the anonymity of the online chat and facing one another with all our differences and possible connections. And when people begin to recognize barriers to inclusion, not online but in the flesh, they will want to tear them down.

Let me quote President Obama on what might come of these efforts: “There’s the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.”

Trying our best to be “a little more honest” and to “wring as much bias” out of ourselves as possible will be important tasks on all our campuses as we strive to provide the best residential education for all our students. We won’t just do this via listserves and discussion boards; we will do it across the lunch table, or in the library, or in the classroom. We can’t pretend that our campuses are immune to the violence and prejudice that infects much of the world around us. But we can stand with those who promote fairness and inclusion.

Campuses are not “bubbles” that keep the world outside at bay, nor are they virtual sites for anonymous interactions. They should be sites of inquiry at which students can challenge themselves and the status quo in a spirit of generosity and idealism. By building more inclusive and dynamic campus communities, students will be able to use the lessons learned to make a positive difference beyond the borders of the university.

Michael Roth is president of Wesleyan University.