MLK speaker strongly backs campus diversity


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Dennis Shields spent the first five years of his life in an Iowa orphanage. But with the help of caring volunteers in his community and scholarships from the University of Iowa, Shields was able to reach goals he never thought possible.

Today, he is the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and makes it his daily mission to stress the importance of diversity in higher education.

“Education and training of young people is crucial, and this depends on their access to higher education,” said Shields at the Boyd Law Building Tuesday.

His guest lecture, part of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 2011 Human Rights Week, touched on the troubling indifference of universities toward diversity as well as Dr. Martin Luther King’s inspiring writings, including the Letter from Birmingham Jail.

Though his visit was positive, Shields had critical commentary on higher education’s handling of diversity.

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“Much of the education system is uneven in equality, and the same opportunities aren’t available for everyone,” Shields said.

With his experience in diversifying education, Shields said he wanted to inform UI students of ways to create a more “inclusive environment.”

Georgina Dodge, the UI chief diversity officer and an associate vice president, called Shield’s lecture “wonderful.”

“I really appreciated him including his own personal story to explain the importance of a diversified society,” Dodge said.

A 1982 graduate of the UI College of Law, Shields said he was glad to be back on his old campus.

While working as the dean of admissions for the University of Michigan Law School, Shields defended the school in the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court case Grutter v. Bollinger, in which a white woman said admissions unfairly denied her a spot due to the school’s preference for diversity. In a 5-4 decision, the jury upheld the use of “narrowly tailored” ethnic preferences in admissions decisions.

Shields said the memories of selfless volunteers and their effect on his young life inspired him to give back to students.

Despite his administrative career, he also manages to make time to talk to students at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville a couple hours every week in the residence halls about the importance of becoming more diversified.

“Students today are as segregated as they have ever been,” he said. “Even if campuses are more diverse, [students] haven’t been exposed to the diversity before.”

Marcella David, the UI associate provost for diversity, said social progress can be easier than students think.

“The important thing to realize is that students can do a lot without having to interact with the administration,” she said.

Ultimately, Dodge said, she thinks the UI can spread the message of King’s legacy in small steps.

“[Get] students to go out of their comfort zone, but that doesn’t mean it has to be uncomfortable,” Dodge said.

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