By now, I hope you have realized that I’m a curious person by nature and enjoy reflecting on things around me. It is fortuitous that my parents named me Szu-Yung, which roughly translates into “forever thinking” or “ever reflecting.” As my name suggests, I have been reflecting on the implications of social justice as related to equity, diversity, and inclusion on university campuses. Drawing from my own upbringing and life experiences, I realize I have a personal perspective that might be helpful in framing a broader conversation for our community.
Discovery and Human Connections
Academia has been a good fit for me. When I began my career as an assistant professor almost 35 years ago, I was constantly amazed that I had the freedom to pursue topics I loved in both scholarship and teaching while getting paid to do so. I came to realize that the creative process defines us as humans and that I enjoyed the epiphany from discovery and invention. But the discoveries I valued most were ones with my students—both the students I taught and those whom I advised. My students were from all over the world, different races, ethnicities, and creeds. Without academics, our paths would have never crossed. Over the years, I learned about their interests and struggles as well as their goals, successes, and failures. I found myself in many of them and saw alternative versions of myself in all of them. Those bonds that I formed with students have been the highlight of my academic career.
As my administrative responsibilities evolved—from department chair, to dean, to provost—I made a conscious decision to approach each role with the spirit of discovery I embraced as a scholar and inventor. While my regular interactions with students continued, I also discovered new ways to understand complex situations and experienced distinctive perspectives from my colleagues—often from disciplines with drastically different paradigms. As I grew professionally and personally, I realized that developing an authentic understanding of diverse—sometimes divergent—perspectives was the most effective way to build bridges and make progress.
Authenticity and Learning
An immigrant since my early twenties, I’ve long known that each of our perspectives are formulated from a complex combination of cultural influences, personal experiences, as well as expectations and anxieties—many of which are shaped during our formative years, when our brains are still undergoing major developments (see my September blog). As I have encountered points of view or perspectives throughout my life that contrast my own, I’ve learned to approach them with a sense of wonder—as if I am reading a book or watching a movie with intricate plots. Once I find some degree of resonance that is authentic for me, I can start to appreciate the new perspective and am able to incorporate its essence to broadening and enriching my own.
I do this because, often times, authenticity—the foundation of independent and critical thinking—is missing in our increasingly polarized environment. It is human nature to follow whatever is perceived as the norm by the group with which we most identify. This tribal mentality can be toxic as it seduces individuals into believing that they are right, or morally superior, and others are wrong. Further, it discourages individuals from asking questions and understanding points of view that are not aligned with their own.
When faced with such formidable determination to remain single-faceted in one’s thinking, it takes a great deal of self-discipline, hard work, and intellectual honesty to break open the mind and maintain a genuine curiosity about alternative thoughts and ideas. But it is this very process that helps shape mental capacity to absorb and comprehend new perspectives and mental constructs and formulate a deeper understanding of the world around us.
As educators, we must remember that what we expose our students to when their brains are still taking shape will impact the rest of their lives. It is now well-known that young adults exposed to unhealthy drinking are more likely to develop alcoholism later in life. By the same token, if we fail to equip our students with the framework to think for themselves, and be respectful and curious about perspectives other than their own, that window of opportunity can be closed forever. As such, we have an awesome responsibility to create an environment for our students that is conducive to openness and curiosity, to understand cultures, backgrounds, and points of view that are peculiar from their own—and that is when learning truly occurs. While it is not necessary nor right for them to agree with every opposing viewpoint, they must at the very least learn to examine and respect other ideas. After all, that is the very foundation of our democracy.
Begin with Appreciating Others
Before an intellectual understanding of ideas and dogmas can occur, it’s imperative to truly appreciate others—but that can only happen once we’ve put ourselves in a healthy state of mind. Finding that love and appreciation for people, and for life, took time in my life’s journey. I spent years trying to understand the world cerebrally, but that did not fill the inner void until I started to care about those around me. I knew this, intellectually, since childhood as I walked the neighborhood streets with my mother. As she frequently stopped to chat with everyone, it seemed, I never understood why and often felt impatient. But now I do—kindness and compassion are a way of being.
In the short time we have in this world, we have the option—or obligation—to live in the richest, deepest, and most meaningful way. While the human connection is in all of us, it is also in our nature to be tribal and to seek out those who are most similar. That is why, as educators, we have an obligation to create an environment where our students can develop that sense of curiosity and wonder and that courage for something unfamiliar and someone completely different from themselves. If we teach them to listen, positively engage, and appreciate the people around them, we are helping to create a better world.
Thank you for this. Words about compassion and kindness are surely ones we need so much at this fraught time. As a member of an Asian American family, I’d love to read even more about your specific experiences as an Asian American!
My classes very often cover controversial topics. Discussion and debate are great, but sometimes things can get quite heated. If things get too hot, I ask the students to direct the comments to the class as a whole not to the person they are opposed to. And any invective or cursing is absolutely forbidden. If a particular point of view on any topic is in the minority, and especially if students try to shout it down, that minority point of view is given extra time to speak. Students are always encouraged to speak their mind on anything. I also tell them that they can play devil’s advocate and pick a position that they do not believe in. Very often students say, “Now, what do you think, Professor?” I always tell them that the class is their time to express themselves, and if they want to know what I think, stay after class and we can talk. Some invariably do and together with the smaller group we continue the debate at length, oftentimes ending up in my office to continue the talk, especially if another class needs the room.
Good for you. Too many educators believe in censorship against conservative views. This is a step towards fascism. You are helping to reverse this type of thinking. Everyone has the right to express themselves without fear of retribution.
I take to heart your wise words on approaching diversity with kindness. Coming from a disadvantaged socio-economic background but now living and working in a position of privilege, I am not however surrounded by my “tribe” and neither are our students. Kindness is a perfect starting point and I look forward to more details on your plans to strength/expand current initiatives to nurture inclusive excellence for staff, students, and faculty at Baruch.
Thank you for this. Words about compassion and kindness are surely ones we need so much at this fraught time. I love to read more about your experiences as Hispanic American.
David. This an inconvenient truth in these polarized times, but a truth elegantly expressed that challenges us to embrace our better angels as we engage others in all walks of life.
Beautifully composed! I reckon it all comes down to empathy for others and the willingness to embrace such expressions as: “when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change”.
Thank you for your reflections and continued engagement on this topic.
It’s a moment in our collective history where introspection is called for.
To deepen our reflections, it’ll be interesting to explore the history of Title VII as it pertains to our community. It is a topic that connects us to the history of the Civil Rights Movements going back to the Johnson administration.
I’m not versed in the law, but from my readings there is an interesting distinction b/w “disparate treatment” and “disparate impact.”
The “disparate impact” doctrine has had its share of ups and downs — most recently reflected in a decision about housing: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/10/26/court-stops-hud-rule-discrimination-432592
Discussing “disparate impact” and employment can give rise to conflict over how one might define “successful job performance.”
Nevertheless, since Title VII came into effect in 1964, there are places at Baruch where the definition of “successful job performance” has changed in the direction of decreasing “disparate impact.”
How is this history reflected in Baruch’s Affirmative Action Plan?
Report of the Diversity Committee on Diversity at the Austin W. Marxe School of Public and International Affairs
It would be helpful to have a historically-informed discussion that would connect our present moment to the broad arch of U.S. history.
this is truly wonderful ; It lays SOLID FOUNDATION FOR THOSE SERIOUS ABOUT DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION. UNTILL WE ARE ABLE TO RETHINK OUR PERSPECTIVE AND REPOSITION OURSELVES AND OUR ATTITUDES , NOTHING WILL CHANGE .N THERE IS SO MUCH WORK TO BE DONE IN THESE FRAUGHT TIMES NOT ONLY DOES IT TAKE COURAGE BUT EMPATHY IS OF EQUAL IMPORTANCE ON THIS JOURNEY. THE FIGHT IS FIERCE, BUT IT CALLS FOR PATIENCE AND ENDURANCE . IT CAN BE DIFFICULT FOR THE CONSERVATIVES TO QUICKLY CHANGE . WE MUST OPEN OURSELVES TO NEW POSSIBILITIES . WE MUST NOT BE THAT SELFRIGHTEOUS THAT IT IS IMPOSSIBLE” TO REACH OUT AND TOUCH”
Your words mean much! I have the same feeling. Humanity should be the most important teaching. We got true knowledge when we have a “healthy state of mind”. The difficult part for me when I was young is to accept other people’s perspectives. Sometimes the egotism was so strong that I would only chose the learning that benefited me. I think we need to develop a generosity that suits today’s expanded worldview. It is a learning forever, even beyond our classrooms.
Thank you, President Wu
This post resonated with me so much. I truly believed that mindset effect outcomes. Looking back at my life, I am thankful for the educators that made the effort to share life lessons with me during my challenges. It can be difficult growing up black in America. Having educators with your mindset will definitely help the fight for diversity and inclusion.
please add me to the subscription list–thank you
Thank you for this important statement, President Wu. I strongly agree with what you have written. In my introduction to cultural anthropology classes, I regularly hear students say that they are “afraid” to express opinions about sensitive topics. When we talk about why they are afraid, they say that they don’t want to “offend” anyone. Sometimes this means that they are approaching dialogue from a place of kindness and compassion, but often it means they are afraid that if they struggle in an authentic way to understand divergent ideas and experiences, they will be attacked. Social media has contributed to the fear I encounter in the classroom as well as the tribalism you describe. I look forward to incorporating this blog post into future Ant 1001 class sessions.
Excellent message. Time to move forward. Free speech and free inquiry is needed to ensure a nationbthat can passionately and productively debate ideas, policies and practices without fear or favor.
Baruch is uniquely placed to inculcate this spirit among its wonderfully diverse students. Your leadership in this area is much welcomed!!
I found this excerpt to be spot on to the experience on human interactions with others. I particularly related with when President Wu said “I found myself in many of them and saw alternative versions of myself in all of them.” as we often take parts of other’s personalities and incorporate it into ours. Basically, a trade of ideas. In an anthropological sense, it is important that we have this open mindsight to be able to have the option to see big and small, and be able to unbiasedly see what the other person believes in. To sum up, I thought your article is an important message that needs to be spread about erasing our personal barriers even if only for a few minutes, in our daily lives.
Well done and timely, President David Wu.
Lehigh University missed your leadership, but Baruch College Students are gaining from your wisdom as well humanity-at- large. Keep it up and best wishes.
Professor Emeritus Mohamed El-Aasser.
Wow. I Loved this blog post. I completely agree about compassion and kindness and, right now, we need it more than ever. It is a privilege to contribute to shaping young minds and our responsibility to our students goes beyond teaching our specific disciplines. The post highlights our individual responsibility to cultivate these important characteristics in ourselves so we can serve as role models to our students (and others).
As a returning student, who originally enrolled at a private college in the Midwest, I am proud to attend an institution that serves as the catharsis of New York City’s rich diversity. I too led a life based on cerebral notions and a myriad of idealisms, until I met those who would be directly affected by my ideas when put to action. Before I could ever dispense these thoughts and ideas into my surrounding sphere of influence, I first had to come in contact with those who would have conflicting opinions on my thinking. However, by coming into contact with dissenting voices, I’ve learned that I care more about the dissenters themselves than I care about my own ideas. At the terminal point of every idea, lies a person, who is either positively or negatively affected, a person that we may grow to love, care for, and appreciate.
Given that Baruch College is the sum-total of every student, faculty member, and staff member’s enculturation into a given society, we consequentially exist in an environment where culturally curated ideas are seamlessly transferred between malleable minds. In an environment where culturally curated ideas are consistently floating around with ease, the very real barriers that separate members of society based on race, class, religion, gender and sexuality, begin to fall apart. Suddenly, instead of student’s sticking with one another based off of these classifications, students are instead seeking out one another to hear ideas they may not have heard yet, and to hear dissenting opinions that help formulate new ones.
In an anthropology class that I’m currently taking, I’ve had the pleasure of watching my peers grow every week via this process. What was originally a seemingly divided group of individuals, coming from all walks of life, has now become a marketplace of ready-to-dispense ideas, where students are gradually opening themselves up to this type of exchange. In the first few weeks, many of my peers would stick to culturally based worldviews, challenging the dissenting speakers who thought otherwise. However, as the weeks went by, many of my peers formed bonds with one another, a consequence of human tendency. By learning to appreciate the other, whatever it may look like or represent, we dually learn to appreciate the ideas of the other as well. Eventually, my peers would not only begin to appreciate their dissenters, but would incorporate the very dissenting voices that challenged their original ideas into new, and as President Wu would say, “authentic ideas”.
Watching this process has solidified my reasons for being here. I am not only fortunate, but proud, to attend a dynamic and diverse institution, even if means trading hand-shakes and hugs for black boxes and Instagram group chats. I’ve waited 5 years to return to the world of academia, and I couldn’t have asked for a better welcome than the one Baruch offered me.
Beautifully put! It is heartening to see what you and your peers have experienced in your class. It is transformational experiences like this we are all striving for, and I am so very happy to know that it is happening even in the environment of black boxes and instagram group chats.
After reading President Wu’s blog, it has come to my attention that he is the type of person who is very well respected and genuinely cares about the community in Baruch. He mentioned about his experience in interactions with people of different races, ethnicities, creeds, and religions and how others should truly embrace it as he does. For instance, he even said he found himself in many of these people he has met and saw other versions of himself in all of them. A person like him would remind us to be thinking anthropologically as he reflects on the type of situations he has been in with different kinds of people. This shows that it is crucial for us to be open-minded to see not only the bigger picture but the smaller as well; thus, we would reduce biased views.
The subsequent time I read a weblog, I hope that it doesnt disappoint me as much as this one. I imply, I know it was my choice to read, however I truly thought youd have something attention-grabbing to say. All I hear is a bunch of whining about one thing that you would fix in the event you werent too busy on the lookout for attention.
[…] large but are often considered rhetoric and have lost their full authentic meanings. As I said in my October blog, oftentimes authenticity is absent from our increasingly polarized environment. The conversation […]
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