Address  by the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M., to the First Friday Club of Chicago

March 2, 2007

Good afternoon. I'm grateful to Fr. Cusick, Catherine Brokenshire and the members of the First Friday Club for inviting me. There's a danger, of course, in inviting a college president to speak to you. We're shameless creatures when it comes to bragging about our institutions.

I'd usually start a talk bragging that DePaul was named:

  •  The No. 1 training program in clinical psychology in the nation
  • No. 2 in entrepreneurship for our college of Commerce
  • That we sent two groups to two national accounting competitions this, year and DePaul students won first place in both
  • Top 10 Law School specialties
  • Top 10 Theatre program by casting directors
  • Outside evaluators ranked DePaul’s School of Music as No. 3 in the nation, after Julliard and Indiana.
  • Last year, our Computer Science students tied for second place in world competition, alongside MIT and Princeton.
  • DePaul was ranked No. 1 nationally for research productivity for colleges with less than 14 doctoral programs. (Harvard took the award for universities with 15 or more doctoral programs.)​

But don't worry, I won't brag about any of that today. That would be shameless of me. Let me brag about something else.

I have been asked to speak to you today on the idea of making a "Commitment to Diversity." And that makes me happy to be here. DePaul is the largest private university in the Midwest, and the largest Catholic university in the nation. But to properly understand DePaul, you need to understand that there has never been a day in our history when we were only for Catholics. The university’s entire history in Chicago is deeply and consistently intertwined with the idea of diversity.

Our namesake, St. Vincent de Paul, devoted his life and his ministry to serving the poor. He instilled a love of God in his contemporaries by leading them in serving urgent human needs. We are dedicated to serving the city of Chicago, our home. When the university was founded in 1898, the Vincentian fathers and brothers chose to follow Vincent's example by opening a university to provide high-quality education to Chicago's early immigrants and minorities, and women.

DePaul was founded because in the 1890's the University of Chicago and Northwestern would accept only a handful of Catholics and Jews, who comprised the great majority of Chicago’s new immigrants. So DePaul began a university that would never admit students on the basis of religion; a university that would welcome immigrants of all kinds.

We were the first to admit women students for business and law degrees in Chicago. Our early student bodies reflected Chicago's immigrant population at the turn of the 20th century—Irish, Polish, Italian, Czech, Greek—groups that were not welcome at other universities. We were among the early institutions to accept African-Americans in Chicago. These students were for the most part the first in their families to attend college.

DePaul University was diverse before the word "diversity" came to occupy our thoughts as it does today. So, yes, we have had a commitment to diversity for over a century, indeed for our whole existence as a university.

Today, our students are still African-American and Hispanic, but also Turkish, Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, Vietnamese, as well as new generations of Polish, Russian and other white ethnic immigrant students. They are still, in many cases, the first in their families to attend college, and they are still becoming our lawyers, teachers, business people and artists.

DePaul University is a campus where we currently have a two Islamic prayer rooms; a space for Hillel, the Jewish student organization; a place for the Buddhist students to meditate, a place for the Christian organizations to gather, and for the Catholic students to have daily Mass. We teach Islamic Studies, Jewish Studies, Catholic Studies. We have a Multicultural Center, a Center for the Black Diaspora and a thriving Study Abroad program, which sends our students and faculty all over the world.

And so, it wasn't a complete surprise when the Princeton Review this school year ranked DePaul as first in the nation for "Diversity." Certainly, they recognized our long history of being a welcoming place for immigrants and first-generation students. They recognized that 32 percent of the freshmen are students of color, and that we are nationally considered a safe and respectful place for our gay and lesbian students as well.

But the Princeton Review didn’t name us first, merely because so many families send us their children for education. No, this distinction was the result of a survey of more than 115,000 college students nationwide at 361 top schools, and they determined that DePaul faculty and staff make DePaul a welcome place for each one of our students. We strive to be a place where the world's diverse communities are represented and a university where all students, faculty and staff are respected. For DePaul, nothing short of achieving this ideal will suffice.

Like many of your organizations, DePaul's commitment to diversity is rooted in a sense of justice and pure self-interest. "Justice" because Jesus himself regularly welcomed in groups who his own society marginalized, and he took real heat for it. Whether it was the Samaritans, or residents of Tyre (modern-day Lebanon); or other nearby and unfriendly regions; lepers; surrounding himself with the poor; spending time with women and treating them as intellectual equals; Jesus constantly annoyed his own kind by going out of his way to welcome the unwelcome into his circle. All received equal respect and attention. Our Catholic social teaching stems from this, and insists on true human community, respect for all, a priority for the poor— all from Jesus' own actions and teachings while he was alive. There's a sense of justice in our tradition that goes beyond just "righting the wrongs of the past."

While the rest of society votes and files court cases on whether or not universities should continue to consider race in their admissions, Catholics are held to a higher standard. We are asked to keep working for a truly just and equal society until the day that this ideal is reached. We must do more than simply make restitution for the racist sins of some of our ancestors. We must create the truly just society.

But our commitment to diversity is also a strategy at DePaul. It's self-interest. We believe that students are better prepared for their professional lives and for their roles as world citizens if they spend time in a diverse community. We believe their education is enriched if they must study economics with classmates who grew up at the low end of society as well as the high end. We believe they understand better how to lead school systems, and courtrooms and hospital emergency rooms, when they've learned alongside classmates who actually look like the city of Chicago in all its diversity. We’re preparing our students for the world, and it's important to educate them for the real world they'll live in.

At DePaul, I frequently tell people that diversity means more than just a recruiting exercise. It’s more than saying that our faculty, and staff, and senior leadership, and board membership—all in addition to our student body— reflect the diversity of Chicago and the world around us. And it’s more than creating moments to celebrate the diversity of our community by eating each other’s foods, listening to each other’s music and celebrating each other’s heroes. Important as all that is—for Catholics (and I think for everyone) —true diversity means creating true community.

I used to work at a university that was highly diverse on paper—nearly 50 percent of the students were students of color, with over 60 different languages spoken in their homes. But at the university, the real truth could be seen in our cafeteria. People ate with people who looked like themselves. People walked across campus in subgroups that looked like themselves. That's not DIVERSITY. That's PROXIMITY.

Diversity is more than numbers of diverse students. Diversity for followers of Jesus Christ must always refer to relationship and community.

At a university, there’s a chance that our students can learn from one another, and that’s our most important objective. We actively encourage our students to interact with each other, and this process should continue for a student’s entire time at our institution. And that’s how we achieved the No. 1 ranking from Princeton Review. They interviewed 115,000 students across 270 colleges nationally, and determined that at DePaul, the communities met one another, enjoyed one another, worked together.

I'm grateful for those who would work for TOLERANCE and RESPECT. But true diversity isn't TOLERANCE or even RESPECT. It's COMMUNITY. And community is ultimately intentional. You only meet your neighbors by walking across the street or across the hallway to say hello to them. Community happens because someone makes the first step to say hello and build a relationship. Large organizations build true diversity when they assist these relationships to flourish.

There's a problem with that though. The truth about diversity is that it's messy and sometimes difficult to achieve. Conversation can lead to conflict. When we bring all these disparate student groups together in Lincoln Park or the Loop they don't always get along with each other as well as we would like, just as in our greater American society we don't always get along either. The most important thing about diversity is not "keeping the peace." Diversity is not about being polite so that no one says anything that offends anyone else, like being at a Thanksgiving table with a family that's trying to avoid fighting. No, diversity is about helping members of our organizations learn from their disagreements.

In the past two years, we have had to confront some contentious and disturbing incidents at DePaul: protests surrounding an exhibit of Palestinian art and its accompanying historical texts; an "Affirmative Action" bake sale sponsored by an organization that opposed affirmative action and was insulting to our African-American students; swastikas and anti-Semitic symbols painted on the walls of dorms and campus buildings. Every university experiences these kinds of things from time to time. What's important to us at DePaul is that we move swiftly to restate our values about true human community and to offer our students a chance to learn from this.

In fact when this last incident occurred, I broke off my New York trip and returned to campus in order to conduct town meetings, and dormitory meetings, and a prayer vigil with our students, faculty and staff, and to meet with the police as they began their investigation. Diversity can bring conflict, but it also offers teachable moments when conversations on important matters can be fostered, and when we can model how to engage difficult dialogues and rebuild fractured community.

There are sometimes profound differences in worldview, morality and social mores that can often mystify, challenge, anger and therefore separate us. Committing to a diverse organization means a commitment to help members of the organization manage these differences and misunderstandings when they occur. It's the price of our ideals.

I want DePaul University to be diverse, but I want us to go beyond statistics and numbers and aspire to real understanding and respect for differences. I want to prepare our students to go out into the world when they graduate and have the ability to go deeper to explore and if necessary overcome the differences of religious belief, and racial and cultural identity that they will inevitably encounter among their fellow human beings.

James Baldwin, arguably the finest writer of the Harlem Renaissance, described in his first novel— the powerful, "Go Tell it on the Mountain" —what it was like to walk down the streets of Manhattan as a young black teenager. He wrote of a young man named John, who observed the people as he walked through midtown Manhattan, "whose eyes held no love for him. And he thought of their feet so swift and brutal, and the dark gray clothes they wore, and how when they passed they did not see him, or, if they saw him, they smirked. And how their lights, unceasing crashed on and off above him, and how he was a stranger there."

A page later in the novel, though, John climbed a snowy hill in Central Park, tumbled down in the snow for the sheer fun of it. "At the bottom of the hill, where the ground abruptly leveled off onto a gravel path, he nearly knocked down an old white man with a white beard, who was walking very slowly and leaning on his cane. They both stopped, astonished, and looked at one another. John struggled to catch his breath and apologize, but the old man smiled. John smiled back. It was as though he and the old man had between them a great secret; and the old man moved on."

That point of contact. That relationship. That's the goal. Not proximity, not tolerance, not even respect. COMMUNITY. Our society talks quite a bit about diversity, equal opportunity, the global village, doing business internationally. But synagogues are still vandalized, people don't want mosques in their communities, racial profiling exists and our best instincts toward acceptance and understanding are challenged by religious extremism, racial and ethnic violence, and civic dialogue that is anything but civil. I think our students need to be prepared for that and they need to have the tools and the desire to try to change it.

We're Catholics. We shape our lives and our vision of the world on the teachings and life of Jesus Christ. We live with high ideals even as we acknowledge our own sinfulness. Diversity lives within that full range between ideals and sinfulness. May God bless us with open hearts and the courage to build true human community in whatever corner of the world we find ourselves.

Thank you for inviting me to join you today. God bless you.​​