FHSU's president brings personal credibility to the case for diversity

10/20/15 kb
HAYS, Kan. -- Fort Hays State University's Cuban immigrant president took her personal message of diversity to the Michael Tilford Conference on Diversity and Multiculturalism at Pittsburg State University Monday night.

"I remember arriving in the States, the fear that came with not knowing a word of English -- how could I communicate with others?," said Dr. Mirta M. Martin, recalling her arrival in America after leaving Cuba for Spain as a little child, then moving to the United States as an older child, but still a child.

"I remember going to school full time while also working 40 hours and then getting up on Sunday at 6 to go to Mass and then off to work cleaning houses to put food on our table," she said.

"But I also remember how very happy and how very grateful we were to be in a country where sacrifice and hard work opened doors, a country where through education we could achieve anything. And in this country, we found individuals who were willing to give us a hand up, not a hand out."

President Martin used her personal experience -- as an immigrant, as the first Hispanic Kansas Regents institution president and as the first woman to lead Fort Hays State -- as the foundation of her case for the necessity of diversity in higher education.

"The diversity we need -- the diversity that allows us to build an innovative and entrepreneurial culture, one that differentiates us and creates the best programs and services on a worldwide scale -- must include people who reflect a broad spectrum of demographics and people who reflect a broad spectrum of experiences and ideas," she said, contrasting this vision of diversity with a purely demographic one that counts people based on ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or other factors.

Even by a purely demographic standard, she said, American higher education has made progress over the last 40 years, she said, "but diversity measured solely by demographics has limits, and it does not guarantee inclusion."

She used evidence from studies and the experience of entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group of more than 400 companies, to call for diversity in not only "inherited traits" such as gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation but also for an "acquired diversity" of life and work experience, education and culture, among others.

For Branson, she said, the results of this kind of diversity were "teams that can spot opportunities, anticipate problems and innovate solutions."

"Now, aren't these the kinds of teams we want as we face unprecedented fiscal and demographic challenges?," she asked. "Unfortunately, many in higher education still view diversity as an imposed cost of doing business in a politically correct world. This needs to change. Diversity must be seen as a valuable strategic asset, a competitive advantage, a growth enabler. Diversity is about people, about their thoughts, their experiences."

In her presidency, she said, the lessons of her youth still motivate her, and the results of her knowledge and experience guide her in her presidency. She is putting into practice the policies she advocates.

"When I became president of Fort Hays State University in July 2014, 16 percent (one in six) of our senior executive leadership team was a minority," she said. "A year later, by July of 2015, 66 percent (four in six) of our senior executive leadership team is a minority and/or is from an international background. Fifty percent of our current senior leadership team possesses a diverse array of insights gained from previous careers outside of academia."

"Our multi-dimensional diversity powers our new beginnings and our commitment to a 'bottom-up information for top-down support' leadership style, and this is a new philosophy that has been embraced by the family of Fort Hays State University. It's no longer my vision. It's our vision."

The Tilford Conference was established "to provide an opportunity for faculty, staff and administrators at the Kansas Board of Regents' institutions to approach diversity in higher education by examining the challenges and opportunities in Kansas," according to its website. It was named in memory of Dr. Michael Tilford, a Wichita State University professor who was the WSU representative on the Regents Diversity and Multiculturalism Committee from its founding in 1994 until his death two years later.

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