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Interview: Chancellor Robert Coombe discusses diversity

"Diversity is about the excellence of the intellectual environment on campus," says Chancellor Robert Coombe. Photo: Michael Richmond

Q: Why is diversity a concern for DU?

A: First, let me say that one has to distinguish diversity from affirmative action. Affirmative action has to do with remedying past discrimination. Diversity is about the excellence of the intellectual environment on campus. If we can recruit students, faculty and staff members who reflect diversity in many dimensions — not just racial or ethnic diversity, but intellectual diversity, geographic diversity, international diversity, diversity in philosophy, diversity in political thought, religious diversity — then we’re creating fertile ground from which ideas can grow. And that’s what a university is all about. When you have that kind of bubbling, percolating, idea-generating environment, it’s the best possible environment for student learning, and it’s the best possible environment for scholarship and research.

Q: Does the University have a diversity problem?

A: I don’t know that I would call it a problem, but we certainly have a long way to go. Thinking just about geographic distributions of students and faculty, we would like to become more national than we are now. We’d like to become more international than we are now. The other side of that coin is looking at the rapidly changing demographics in the Rocky Mountain region, with all kinds of interesting people flowing in. There is a rich diversity of human beings in this part of the country that we can tap into. We’re doing that now, but we can do so to a far greater extent. We have an unusual chance to do this; it’s a benefit of our location in the West.

Q: Is all the talk of diversity a manifestation of DU simply worrying about its image?

A: I suppose that there will be those out there who think that this is an entirely political move, but it really isn’t. I think that if you ask students about the value of diversity on campus, they’ll give you the same answer I did. Last spring we surveyed our first-year students as we approached the end of the academic year, and we asked about how their experience at DU measured up to what they thought it might be before they came. We did very well with regard to all of the academic measures. But the one thing students very clearly called out was that they expected we would be more diverse than we are, in many dimensions, because they believe it is an important part of their education.

Q: How will we know when we’ve achieved our goal? Is there a moment at which we arrive as a diverse campus?

A: I view the growth of diversity as something that is continuous, because we don’t define it in terms of numbers. Success is not defined by a numerical distribution. The real measure is the intensity of the intellectual environment on campus, but that’s continually changing. As cultures change and shift throughout the world, we can build those differences into the campus community on a continuing basis.

Q: What is the biggest impediment to us becoming more diverse?

A: For students, the biggest impediment is financial aid. That’s particularly true for international students, because federal and state aid is unavailable. Financial aid also affects the socioeconomic distribution of students at DU and all the other dimensions of diversity that correlate with that distribution.

Q: If you could leave readers with one thought on the topic of diversity, what would that be?

A: Discrimination still exists in the United States, and it’s not limited to racial and ethnic discrimination. Institutions of higher education have to be safe places where there is absolutely no such discrimination. But diversity and inclusiveness are about more than social justice. They’re about building a campus culture that brings a vast array of backgrounds to the intellectual table. They’re about providing the best possible educational environment for our students. They’re about excellence. That’s what we’re after.

Send your questions for Chancellor Coombe to or write to: University of Denver Magazine, attn: Q&A, 2199 S. University Blvd., Denver, CO 80208.

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