By Catherine Horn, College of Education
At the University of Houston’s recent symposium on the future of arctic drilling, journalist and author Bob Reiss recounted the story of a war games exercise he observed. While gaming the scenario “what if there is a massive oil spill in Barrow, Alaska,” none of the presented solutions accounted for the fact that ice comes to this part of the arctic in October. When finally prompted by a knowledgeable civilian sitting on the sidelines to consider this context, the military participants were stumped.
Reiss went on to say,
“We have spoken about the Eskimos [in Alaska]…related to the environment…we’ve spoken to them as victims. Let’s talk about them as a resource for a second. Because there should have been Eskimos in that room because Eskimos would have known in one second that ice comes in October…. I would suggest to anyone in the audience who is in an oil company or an engineering company or a shipping company or any kind of corporation that will do business in the arctic- don’t ignore the most fabulous resource in the source of knowledge that is up there; it’s the people.”
The moral of Reiss’s story is a critical one substantiated by a robust body of social science research affirming the benefits of diversity on a broad set of outcomes we value such as enhanced critical thinking, civic engagement, the promotion of understanding and the reduction of prejudice to name just a few. His story also reminds us of the intentionality needed to ensure that such diverse environments are created and cultivated. Strong leadership recognizes and implements policies and practices that see difference as an asset (see, for example, UH’s NSF funded Center for ADVANCING UH Faculty Success, Diversifying Top Talent, and Center for Diversity and Inclusion). But, as Reiss’s story emphasizes, we have a long way to go. Women, for example, still only hold one quarter of the STEM jobs in the United States, and that proportion is even lower for people of color.
The country’s economic viability rests squarely on our ability to leverage the educational benefits of diversity in particular to prepare a well-trained workforce ready to take on the complex tasks associated with a global marketplace. Without such efforts, we run the real risk of being stumped by the ice of October.