In my blog some six months ago, I attempted a handful of high-level ideas for our future. With the vaccine distribution expanding and the City gradually coming back to life, now is the time for us to start a deeper conversation about the future to which we want to return—by identifying what parts of the past we want to reclaim and re-imagining a future we want to shape together. In the coming months, I will share my thoughts and observations for that future, with the goal of starting an ongoing dialogue with our community. A few topics to consider include:
- A future where we celebrate our diversity while attaining inclusion and equity by transforming our culture and institution;
- A future where we share a culture of creativity, curiosity, and engagement through institutional learning and collaboration;
- A future where our students experience seamless support to achieve success, meeting their distinctive needs and aspirations;
- A future where we leverage and meet the needs of the fast-changing, hybrid world around us; and
- A future where Baruch helps to re-invigorate a post–Covid New York City through economic, social, and cultural rebuilding.
What I share here are my personal views, philosophies, and opinions of how I see the possibilities, informed by my understanding of the aspirations expressed by the Baruch community. They are by no means the final answer but rather starting points for deeper community conversations. In this blog post, I will start with the first topic in regard to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Finding a Cure for Apathy
When we talk about advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), the first challenge we face is that those words, and the issues they represent, loom 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 surrounding DEI can easily fall into this trap, with some dismissing it as “political correctness,” “liberal rhetoric,” or worse—interpreting it as racial politics in the context of ideological and tribal conflict. The truly troubling part is that even reasonable, compassionate people turn their attention elsewhere or are too afraid to question what DEI really means to them.
This is why I view the first challenge to overcome is that of apathy and a sense that this is a problem for a certain group to perpetuate, or someone else to worry about. For decades, there has been a rich and compelling intellectual framing that made DEI a priority in American universities, which starts with the idea that the foundation of democracy is built on an informed citizenry that respects the freedom of expression and diversity of opinions around politics, religion, class, race, gender, and sexuality, without the fear of prosecution. This is complemented by the reality of demographic shifts in the U.S.—the nation has become increasingly diverse in all dimensions. Particularly relevant for New York City are the immigrants from cultures of the world. While 13.7% of the U.S. population is foreign born, nearly 38% of New York City residents are immigrants. The Baruch community reflects that reality, making it all the more important that we have a deep and nuanced understanding of what equity and inclusion mean in our diverse community.
Recent events have invoked a public reckoning of social justice issues and the structural inequalities that are still painfully evident in our society. Institutions of higher education provide the intellectual, social, and historical context—as well as the platform—to facilitate difficult but thoughtful dialogues, and to inspire social change. Perhaps most significantly, an excellent education is about equipping our students with the framework to think for themselves, and to be respectful and curious about perspectives other than their own. As I stated before, we have a 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—that is when learning truly occurs.
Sharing Stories and Changing Hearts
Whichever framing resonates with you—be it democratic foundation, demographic reality, social justice, or learning environment—translating these ideas and concepts into reality requires nothing short of an “institutional transformation.” That is, a leadership commitment for culture change that eventually manifests into policy, structural, and procedural reform. I am often reminded that culture change starts from sharing stories, not by preaching or “logic bullying”—starts from changing hearts, not by winning arguments.
I will take a detour and retell the story of a 2012 cross-country race in Spain. Iván Fernández—who had been running a distant second behind race leader Abel Kiprop Mutai—noticed the man in front of him slowing down. Mutai stopped 30 feet short of the end because he could not read the Spanish signs and erroneously believed he had already crossed the finish line. Rather than capitalizing on Mutai’s error and claiming victory for himself, Fernández used hand gestures to explain the situation, remained behind, and allowed the other man to win the race. When asked by confused reporters why he let his competitor prevail, Fernández replied, “I didn’t let him win; he was going to win. The race was his.” When reporters noted that he could have easily won, Fernández simply said: “What would be the merit of my victory? What would be the honor of this medal?” Fernández chose human decency over self-interest, and we find ourselves in the same moral quandary: Does it matter that others are suffering from indignity and real harm when it does not affect us directly? We can shape a future where we slow down once in a while to point our fellow runners in the right direction, or we can remain indifferent to those around us and pass the finish line alone.
Which Subway Car Do You Choose?
I enjoyed reading Bill Hayes’s Insomniac City—the book is full of vivid descriptions of New York City life—where he shared his experience taking the subway:
“The other day, I was on a local 6 going uptown and seated next to a young woman with a baby in a stroller. At each stop, a man (always a man) would enter the car and end up standing right above us. I had my iPod on and was just watching. Inevitably, each man would make goofy faces and smile at the baby, and the baby would smile and make faces back. At each stop, the standing man would be replaced by a new one, straight out of central casting: First, an older Latin guy. Then he gets off and a young black man appears. Then a white man in a suit. Then a construction worker with a hard hat. Tough guys. New York guys. All devoted to one important task: making a baby smile.”
So much in this brief passage reminds me of something so primal and yet constantly present. We’ve all been in that situation which could go either way: an unspoken level of a human connection leaves us feeling relaxed and happy, or a silent malevolence keeps us on edge while we anticipate the worst. I think of two metaphoric futures in front of us like the subway cars we choose to jump on. In the first car, you feel the energy that everyone around you is devoted to make that baby smile. In the other car, no one makes eye contact, and you have an instinctive fear that any person next to you may harass you because of the way you look, the way you dress, or the accent you carry.
The subway car you choose to jump on is also the future we yearn to return.