Year of Diversity: Getting Comfortable with Differences

Issue Date: 
September 19, 2016

Larry Davis confronted the tough issues of race and prejudice as he wrote his recent book, Why Are They Angry With Us? The Pitt School of Social Work dean pushed through the book’s deeply personal storytelling, he said, because he wanted to spur a conversation on race and racism that would be accessible to everyday Americans—not just academics.

That conversation is also under way on Pitt’s five campuses, energized by the launch of the University’s Year of Diversity for the 2016-17 academic year. And the book by Davis—the Donald M. Henderson School of Social Work Professor and director of Pitt’s Center on Race and Social Problems—will have a role in the early discussion. His work, which draws on his own family history to highlight questions and theories about race and explore racial injustice, is the first text being discussed in a new book club created as part of the Year of Diversity.

Patricia E. BeesonIn response to suggestions from the University Senate and many others across the University, Pitt Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Patricia E. Beeson selected this academic year’s theme, and the Provost's Office has offered matching funds of as much as $5,000 per project to support Year of Diversity lectures, workshops, and other events. Proposals may be submitted at Programs or events that do not require funding, but that sponsors would like to be officially recognized as Year of Diversity events and included in promotional materials, should contact Year of Diversity Coordinator Lydia Heyliger at

A Year of Diversity steering committee, consisting of faculty, staff, and students, has been formed and continues to review event proposals, which may be submitted by anyone in the Pitt community. The committee is co-chaired by Kacey Marra, an associate professor of plastic surgery and bioengineering at the University, and Waverly Duck, a sociology professor who teaches urban ethnography and race relations.

Kacey MarraAn event that will bring the University community together to celebrate the Year of Diversity is planned for 4-6 p.m. Oct. 10 at the William Pitt Union Bigelow Patio and Lawn. It will feature Chancellor Patrick Gallagher, Beeson, and steering committee representatives.

The Year will focus on the importance of difference in building learning communities and preparing students to value experiences that are unlike their own. This includes differences across race, gender expression, veterans status, disability status, politics, ethnicity, and religion, but it also more broadly includes the differences attached to social inequality and social status inequality, said steering committee co-chair Marra.

Beeson noted there are three key goals: to recognize and appreciate the full range of differences among us; to reflect on the value of diversity and how it strengthens systems and communities; and to understand that different ideas and perspectives are fundamental to the advancement of knowledge.

“We hope we can model for our students how we engage with difference,” said Beeson. “There have been lots of disruptions on campuses as people confront ideas that are different from their own. Where there is tension, it should be a positive tension that moves us forward. Engaging with people who have different views than you can be a positive.”

Waverly DuckEmphasizing a special theme year is not a new frontier for Pitt. The University has had successful academic years devoted to sustainability and the humanities. These unifying themes are chosen by the provost’s office to foster debate, research, and celebration among faculty and students. But diversity—because of its connections to difference, personal identity, and division—can be a more challenging, though bolder, frontier to navigate.

Diversity and inclusion are core values at Pitt and, as advanced by Chancellor Gallagher’s vision, are central to the University’s strategic efforts to ensure that the Pitt community is engaged in exploration and understanding of others' ideas, viewpoints, and experiences.

The Year of Diversity seeks to build a community where everyone feels acknowledged, respected, and valued. This happens, said Pam Connelly, associate vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion and a member of the steering committee, with intentional work.

Part of the year, she said, “is going to be helping people to learn skills to communicate and navigate through very difficult waters.”

Pam ConnellyCountering a person’s opposing views, Connelly said, needs to be done in a civil and respectful way. Educating and empowering people to be able to do that will be part of this year’s focus as well.

“Part of diversity is thriving through discomfort,” Connelly added. “It’s not easy, but it is only through hearing and understanding opposing viewpoints that your own perspectives can be tested, refined, and improved. It can be challenging, but ultimately empowering.”

Vice Provost and Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner, speaking to parents of new students during orientation week last month, reassured his audience that Pitt wants to keep students safe from violence and other threats. But at the same time, he said, the University wants to challenge students, to “make them uncomfortable” and to have them learn to be unafraid to listen and properly respond to ideas and viewpoints that are dissimilar to their own.

Bonner says diversity is enriched when students can begin to appreciate a person’s “head and heart” and try to understand why an individual acts, speaks, thinks, and behaves the way they do. “We’re asking students to walk in someone else’s shoes and to think about their beliefs and why they have them.”

Steering committee co-chair Duck said Pitt is a trailblazer in launching the Year of Diversity and is, in many ways, advancing what is already unfolding on campus. Diversity and inclusion are pillars of the University’s strategic plan. And, Duck said, Pitt is a campus where “dynamic identities” such as race, class, age, and behaviors of gender expression are being engaged as people become more aware of different identities as well as their strengths and differences. 

Having all of these differences is our strength,” Duck said. One question, he added, is “What will this campus or most campuses look like two decades from now?”

Children being born today will grow up in an era where the world is their neighborhood —full of different cultures, ideas, and expressions of identity. Pitt is building an environment to prepare for this change—and to welcome it.