Seventy years ago, Lyman T. Johnson became the first African American student enrolled at the University of Kentucky (UK). He bravely opened doors that were closed to too many for too long.
Earlier this year, in front of 500 community members at the banquet bearing his name, we shared excerpts from his biography, The Rest of the Dream. They are words darkened by adversity, but illuminated by hope:
“When you say if I don’t like this country then why don’t I leave it, then my classic illustration is: if my house is leaking, I don’t get mad at it and leave it. I just get the ladder and get me some tools and I get up on the house and I patch the leak. And that is what I’m going to do for my country — I love it; I like it. And when I see its imperfections, I’m not going to get mad at it and leave. I’m going to get mad at its imperfections.”
[Above: Lyman Johnson, right, and Kentucky State University President R. B. Atwood, leave federal district court in Lexington after the court ruled in favor of Johnson’s admission to the University of Kentucky.]
As we think about our next steps in creating a community of belonging — a place where every voice matters — there is both promise and challenge to be found in Johnson’s admonition. The words apply today as much as they did decades ago when he wrote them.
Today, we still feel the sting of racism; our “differences” — often framed around race, identity, ethnicity, and orientation — too often are used as a wedge between us rather than points of distinction to collectively celebrate.
Tremendous progress has undeniably been made over the last several years at UK. But we’ve also experienced the disappointment of moments where our divisions seem to overwhelm us and where our efforts do not fully yield the results we desire.
Two recent conferences held on our campus reflect both the progress we’ve made as well as the work that remains.
In December 2019, UK served as host for our first Diversity Leadership Summit, sponsored by our Martin Luther King Center and Office of Enrollment Management. More than 500 students from UK, other campuses, and high schools across Kentucky came for a daylong series of conversations.
The mission: empowering students to improve their college experiences and provide prospective students with the opportunity to develop their cultural identity and leadership skills.
Only two weeks later, the Higher E(d)quity Matters Conference, sponsored by the Council on Postsecondary Education, took place on our campus. It featured speakers and sessions designed to help campus leaders cultivate environments of belonging, in part by examining barriers that students, faculty, and staff still face in our shared journey.
These are examples of our collective commitment, across higher education in Kentucky, to ensure that all of our people — from all backgrounds, perspectives, orientations, identities, and ideologies — know that they are valued.
And, indeed, we are proud of the progress we have made at UK:
- For the third consecutive year, UK received INSIGHT Into Diversity’s highest honors — the Diversity Champion and the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Awards.
- UK is ranked among the top 25 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ inclusion and safety by Campus Pride Index.
- We celebrate record six-year graduation rates for both underrepresented students of color and low-income students. Between 2011-2012 and 2019-2020, enrollment of underrepresented students of color increased 4.9 percentage points; for low-income students, there was a 9 percentage point increase.
- A recent study featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education found that UK was among the top public flagship universities in the country in campus diversity.
A more diverse community is, ultimately, a stronger and more vibrant one.
This progress is encouraging, but we always have more work to do. In the words of Lyman T. Johnson, we must “not let the wagon roll back down the hill.”
For example, even as we are investing more money than ever toward hiring minority faculty — a consistent commitment — our results in this important area have been uneven.
Yet we recognize that all students deserve to see people who look like them at the front of the classroom. Such diversity creates an even richer intellectual campus.
Moreover, our students should expect a place that does not tell them what to think, but instead teaches them how to think critically and communicate effectively. They can expect their goals and aspirations to be taken seriously, and they can expect their ideas to be refined, changed, or strengthened.
That’s why conferences like these matter; they underscore our commitment to that work and to candid conversation.
The result will be a campus better equipped to enrich those communities we serve and to uplift those around us. We will work together, not only to keep the wagon from rolling down the hill, but to ensure it continues an inexorable path upward.
Eli Capilouto, DMD, ScD, is president of the University of Kentucky. Sonja Feist-Price, PhD, is vice president for institutional diversity at the University of Kentucky. This article ran in the March 2020 issue.