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Friday, February 28, 2003

Learning to hear the sounds of diversity



By Mike Graham
Guest columnist

At a time when diversity seems to be endorsed by everyone, but completely embraced by fewer, I am still discovering what it really means. One lesson I learned recently in my role as president of Xavier University is that diversity is less about being in the same room together, and more about how we listen to one another in that room.

I share that lesson here in hope that others in our community will find it valuable and important as well.

A few weeks ago, I was surprised to learn via e-mail that an event had been scheduled on the Xavier campus that was to feature a down-linked, satellite speech from Minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam.

Knowing little more about the event than this - and assuming that Minister Farrakhan's reputation as a lightning rod, especially among whites, was all I really needed to know - my initial inclination was to cancel the event. This I did the next day after a conversation with my executive Cabinet.

Media attention inevitably followed, and the university issued a statement regarding what Xavier stood for and why, in our view, Minister Farrakhan did not stand for those same values. We were also concerned that the format of the event did not permit the dialogue and discussion important to us as a university. We then moved on to the other affairs of a busy university at a busy time of year.

And that's when I began learning the lesson, beginning with several important conversations.

One, between a Xavier vice president and Minister James Mohammad of Cincinnati's Temple No. Five, the local sponsor of the cancelled event, revealed a criticism of our decision-making process: We never discussed the issue with Minister Mohammad and his congregation before deciding to cancel the event.

A similar point was made to me in a conversation with a few Xavier faculty and administrators who are African-American. Their concerns echoed the telling complaint of Minister Mohammad.

"This decision impacts us," they argued, "our view of the university, our place in the community, even our spirits themselves. Wouldn't it have been better to engage in a fuller and broader conversation whatever the decision might eventually have been?"

Their message was clear: Diversity is about more than who is in the room; it's about whose voices get to be heard and considered and how decisions are made and conclusions reached. It's about including points of view from those whose views have been historically overlooked and excluded.

My final conversation was a frank and cordial meeting with Minister James Mohammad himself, through which I learned something vital for Xavier University and its mission in our community.

In a world where voices are often loudly raised, we need places where civil discourse can replace the decibels and diatribes. I hope Xavier University can be such a place. To that end, we have extended an invitation to Minister Mohammad and his congregation to join us here for dialogue and conversation in the future.

I cannot say what decision I would have reached had we had these conversations before the event was canceled. Yet, even if we had reached the same decision, it would not have been the "same" decision, because the process leading to it would have been crucially different.

But more than this, I am seeing more clearly a lesson that will be important for us all here in Cincinnati as we try to move forward together from our shared and broken past.

It is a lesson that Cincinnati CAN, at its best, embodied, and a lesson that is our only real hope as we look to the future of our community. Who sits around the tables where important decisions are made? Who does not? Whose voice matters? And whose voice does not? Who is listened to? And who is ignored?

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Mike Graham is president of Xavier University.




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