Michael Bassis

President Emeritus, Westminster College, Salt Lake City
Served from 2002-2012

Global Consciousness, Social Responsibility, and Ethical Awareness Reflection

The ARTIFACT  I  chose to illustrate how these three important attributes are reflected in my work is a simple letter I wrote to alumni and friends of the college shortly after the birth of my first grandchild in 2006.  In the letter I talk about my hope that my grandchild grows up to understand the richness of human diversity and to appreciate the strength that comes from that diversity. I went on to describe how we’re working hard at Westminster to help our students to develop the same understanding and appreciation.

Since transportation and communication are increasing our capacity to interact with people across the globe, a global consciousness is critical for understanding the full range of human diversity. At the same time, understanding and appreciating the richness that comes from diversity is both socially responsible and ethical because it connects one with others in a positive way and requires one to consider the value of perspectives and orientations that are different from ones own.
Promoting Diversity at Westminster
I feel strongly that for people to lead full and successful lives in our increasingly diverse and global society, they need to develop skills to understand and interact comfortably and effectively with people of different races, nationalities, socio-economic backgrounds, religions, ages and cultural, political and sexual orientations. I feel strongly, as well, that schools which fail to exposure students to different peoples and perspectives are putting their students and our society at a great disadvantage.

2010 McNair Cohort

Much of the early progress Westminster made with diversity issues is described in the letter. Since 2006, we have made more progress. We have recruited many more students from out of state, many more members of underserved populations (students with few resources, first generation college students, students of color) and many more students from other countries. We expanded the opportunity for our students to study abroad through both our May Term experiences as well as formal exchange programs with other institutions. We developed partnerships with universities in China (2), Thailand, Argentina, Peru, Germany and the Netherlands. We now offer a joint degree program with our partner school in Shanghai. Our McNair program is specifically devoted to taking students from underrepresented groups and setting them on a path to earn a PhD and become college professors. We created a Diversity and International Center on campus to expand opportunities for students to learn about diversity and to attend to the special needs of underrepresented and international students.

Click to enlarge

At the same time, we have made service learning and volunteer work critical components of the Westminster experience. Our Center for Civic Engagement has gotten hundreds of students involved in specific service learning activities where they do more than learn through service to others—they use what they are learning to improve the lives of others. Our students have served as tutors at inner city schools, helped establish a library in a rural village in India, worked to improve the lives of people in rural Thailand, traveled to Native American reservations to provide health care, worked with senior citizen groups, hosted V-Day events and organized the $2 challenge which replicated the experience of living on $2 a day. 
Much More Needs to be Done

Still, I am not convinced that we have done enough. I regret that I didn’t push harder for the college to make diversity, both domestic and international, a more important part of the strategic plan. Yes, “respect for diverse people and perspectives” was included in the plan’s statement of core values and the plan did call for the college to increase the proportion of students, faculty and staff from diverse backgrounds and to establish a diversity center.

T.L. Joshi School. Wai, India

But the plan failed to include “learning to be effective in diverse environments,” or some similar statement, as a college-wide learning goal. I hope that will be added sometime in the near future. Also, I’m disappointed that the plan didn’t call for a program of “difficult dialogues,” where people from different backgrounds and perspectives would talk with each other about immigration issues, bi-lingual education, the relationship between Arabs and Jews, and explore the legitimacy of violence in a world where oppression and economic exploitation are all too common. Some of those conversations have happened, but not enough.

We have made little progress increasing the diversity of our faculty. A more diverse faculty would help all of our students better understand that there are a wide variety of different yet valid perspectives on our society that are grounded in issues of identity. Members of our board of trustees are aware that they could be more effective by being more diverse, but they are slow to make it happen.

Also, I’m not convinced that we have maximized the value of the diversity we have created. Too many of our international students interact almost exclusively with their peers—they sit at the same table and talk to each other in their native language. While our Pell-eligible students represent a greater percentage of our campus than at any other school in Utah, I don’t know the extent to which they interact with our more affluent students.

I’d like to see our first-year students assigned to learning communities with an eye to diversity as well as interests; I’d like to see housing assignments focused on creating more interaction between different groups; and I’d still like to see if we can create those “difficult dialogues” which I think would help all of us come to grips with the fact that while we do share some common characteristics, we also have differences which cannot be eliminated and should not be ignored.

Helping Hands Day, 2010

I am greatly encouraged, however, by Westminster’s growing commitment to these issues. In fact, two years ago, the college specified “diversity and global learning” as one of four core themes of the college. That step forward signifies that this issue will remain at the center of the college’s agenda in ways that it has never been before.
One of the Things I had to Learn
As a New Englander, I came to Utah with more than a few prejudices and stereotypes about this state. I think I have, for the most part, overcome them. But I confess that I have failed to adjust to the “niceness” of Utah residents.

I still mistake an “Oh yes” for agreement rather than recognizing it as an effort to avoid disappointing someone or precipitating a conflict by saying no. But I think I have grown as a result of living here. I have improved my ability to interact with people whose background is different from mine and whose values and beliefs, at times, seem to be quite alien. I can’t help but believe that our students, as well, are improving their ability to live comfortably and productively with diversity.

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Michael Bassis, President Westminster College, Utah
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