In the 1980s, many corporations embraced three fundamental principles: information technology, the importance of quality (remember Ford’s slogan: “Quality is Job 1”?), and the power of diversity.
The launch of the IBM PC in 1981 and the establishment of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award by the U.S. Congress in 1987 had major impacts on business performance. Research in the 1980s showed that a team with gender and racial diversity produces better business results than a homogeneous team.
The Baldrige Award also helped to establish social responsibility as a core value for businesses that act for the benefit of society. In essence, these developments helped to establish “diversity of business mission.”
Today, Apple claims that “diverse teams make innovation possible.” A key to the power of diversity is opinion diversity. It helps to shape the answer to a problem or issue.
While gender and ethnic diversity has evolved from a business imperative to a moral and social imperative, today’s higher education system has been comparatively slow to emphasize the importance of a diverse, multicultural experience.
In the last 15 years, however, higher education has prioritized creating an inclusive climate and valuing the richness of different perspectives. To a large extent, the diversity trend has been driven by colleges to prepare our workforce for multinational understanding, and to recognize the increasing number of women and minorities in positions of power.
These trends emphasize the importance of cultural sensitivity in our higher education system. Having lived in eight countries and having been raised in a bicultural/bilingual environment, I can attest to the power of cultural adaptation.
Not surprisingly, cross-cultural communications and interdisciplinary studies have become essential foundations in the academy. In addition, the current college student generation, molded by the Great Recession, has progressive views on diversity issues such as sexual equality and transgender rights.
It is also instructive to peruse some of the lessons of prior societies, especially the Greeks about 2,400 years ago. Socrates emphasized the Socratic Circles as a method of encouraging students to work as teams and to focus on critical and creative thinking.
Plato, the founder of the first academy in Athens, seemed to understand the power of diversity. By some accounts, most of his students were, intentionally, from outside Athens. Plato also travelled extensively, studying and learning with other philosophers. This “study abroad” experience and global perspective clearly influenced his teachings.
Perhaps the greatest feature of this Greek learning culture was the focus on collaborative dialogue, which has now become prevalent in both U.S. business and higher education.
Progress and intolerance
But there is also a dark side in our current U.S. college culture. There is growing intolerance toward free speech and diversity of opinion. There is a clamor for “safe spaces,” and students demand warnings on events that may expose them to views inconsistent with their own. And sexual misbehavior continues to haunt our student culture.
Worldwide, political and religious rivalries continue to challenge the acceptance of diversity as a human right. But on balance, we have made progress as a human species.
I just wish we didn’t have to repeat the worst lessons of history and had instead assimilated the wisdom of the Greek philosophers. And, yes, we could learn from business, especially Apple’s belief that diversity drives innovation, given that we live in a globally competitive innovation economy.
David Steele-Figueredo is president of Woodbury University in California.