On Diversity and Collaboration

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Scott Lanyon, Vice Provost & Dean of Graduate Education at the University of Minnesota said this at the U of M Arts Sciences and Engineering Graduate Commencement ceremony this afternoon. 

“Earning a graduate degree is a significant undertaking, one that less than 10% of the US population will achieve. Everyone has questions. What sets you apart is that you had both the motivation and the means to pursue the answers to those questions in academia. You wondered. Your passion, patience and persistence have helped you arrive at this moment. Graduates as we come together to celebrate your accomplishments, I invite you to consider what you will most remember about this time. To consider that you are at a proverbial crossroads and that we indeed as a society are at a crossroads. 

I invite you to consider how you can use the countless hours, weekends and years to learn new skills and absorbing new ideas, creating new knowledge and new insights not only to make a living but to make a difference in the world. The most significant contributions made by the classes of 2017 were made by those of you who ventured outside of your disciplines. By those of you who collaborated with other disciplines to solve society’s grand challenges. Today we find ourselves facing some of the most complex and critical issues in human history. From the challenges posed by global climate change to the desperate need to build sustainable food systems. From the challenge of creating equitable societies to the urgent need to promoting disaster resilience. From overcoming prejudice to providing equal access to health care, the challenges we face are daunting. Solving that will require not only extraordinary disciplinary knowledge and expertise, but knowledge and expertise across disparate disciplines. No one person or one company or one country will solve these challenges alone. 

Consider a challenge like clean water, recently identified by the world economic forum as the number one global threat. Roughly one third of the world’s population now lives in water stressed areas and nearly a billion people still live without access to safe drinking water. Population growth, urban development, farm production and climate change are increasing competition for fresh water and producing shortages. Water management, sanitation and access are inexplicably linked to security, poverty, spread of infectious diseases, political corruption and civil war. Here are just a few steps that experts say that we need to take to address the water crisis. 

We need to educate people to change consumption and lifestyles, invent new water conservation technologies, address population growth, develop and enact better policies and regulations and transfer water project technologies to developing countries. Therefore, solving the world’s grand challenges require among others, anthropologists, civil engineers, political strategists, chemists, linguists, earth scientists, geographers, security technologists, historians, economists, software engineers, journalists, communicators, just to name a few. Fortunately, we have graduates from all those disciplines here with us today. However, it isn’t enough to have disciplinary diversity. Solving these difficult issues also requires multiple perspectives. Even if we assembled a team with all these disciplines represented, the team will struggle to come up with solutions to the global water crisis unless it includes individuals who’ve experienced the global water crisis personally in a variety of ways. People who have grown up on a farm, lived in a desert, have questioned the wisdom of drinking water from a faucet, or who don’t have access to running water and have to hike a distance to a well to attain it. These people will approached the questions about fresh water differently than someone who grew up in the suburbs in the land of 10000 lakes. 

Solving the global water crisis or any number of grand challenges we face, requires that our graduates bring forward not just their own disciplinary expertise and personal perspective but also an ability and desire to connect with and listen to people and view points that are different than their own. Unfortunately, we in the United States are not particularly renowned, especially now, for the ability to connect with people who are different and who have different view points. A study published in the American Sociological review found that since 1985, despite the social media tools now available, Americans have become more socially isolated. The size of their discussion networks has declined, and the diversity of people with whom they discuss important matters has decreased. 

So, that leaves you as graduates at a crossroads where you have to make a choice. Where do you go from here? The easiest path is to work and socialize with people who look, think and act like you. But that’s also the path that’s least likely to lead to major contributions to society. The alternative is to seek out individuals with whom the only thing you share in common is a question that requires an answer, or a challenge that requires a solution. This path is far more difficult but also much more rewarding for you and more beneficial for society. Because its being able to tolerate, accept and learn from those who are different, that will propel forward you into individuals, as leaders, and move us all forward as a planet. Its accepting that with working with people unlike you is not only the civil thing to do, its also the only way we will arrive at an effective solutions to today’s problems. We ignore the snag at our own individual and society’s peril. 

Diversity makes us smarter, produces better results, will help us achieve things that we can never do alone. A study published in Scientific American found that when a disagreement comes from a socially diverse person, we are prompted to work harder. Diversity jolts us into cognitive action in a way that homogeneity does not and will not and cannot. Decades of research have shown that socially diverse groups, those with diversity of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, education and socio-economic backgrounds are more innovative than homogeneous groups. For example, a male and female chemist might have perspectives and insights on a project that diverge even more than between a chemist and an anthropologist. In some situations, a group of ordinary people who are diverse, can out innovate a group of like minded experts. 

In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville warned Americans of our individualistic culture, a fear that Americans would form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagining that their destiny is in their own hands. Tocqueville wrote that citizens would be tempted to withdraw into their circle of family and friends leaving the greater society to look after itself. He feared that we will tend to stick with those who are familiar, at the expense of the nation as a whole. In some ways, as seen over the past few years, he was right. In the United States it can be particularly difficult to recognize the contributions of others especially of those who are different than ourselves. Because we exalt the notion of the individual, of the self made man or woman. Our national folklore, exaggerates the role of the individual heroes or heroines, and minimizes the significance of collective effort. Whether you know it or not, to get where they are today, every person you have encountered is as unique and important as you are with view points held just as strongly as you hold your own. One of the things that I love about being a faculty member and an administrator to this great institution is that I get to interact with the most incredible, enthusiastic and ambitious, optimistic (most of the time) and energetic people that you could ever hope to meet. You, the students. Each of you alone is smart, but the collective knowledge and expertise, backgrounds and experiences have the potential to be brilliant. To be brilliant we need to work together. And to work together we need to be able to get along with each other, to respect each other and, to value our differences. 

I am encouraging you take the more demanding, ultimately the more rewarding path of working with individuals from different disciplines, cultures, backgrounds, ethnicities and nationalities. It is on that path that you will accomplish great things. Again, congratulations and I wish you the very best today and in the years ahead. Thank you.”

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