Thank you very much for inviting me to speak with you today. I am delighted to see a program like the Catalyst Awards in full swing here at Iowa. And I congratulate all our awardees, as well as their nominators, all others who were nominated, and everyone who works toward greater diversity at The University of Iowa.
Two of the most important principles of The University of Iowa are opportunity and diversity. I intend to continue supporting those principles vigorously here as President, as they are fundamental to my own beliefs.
Opportunity and diversity are very broad concepts. I embrace them both in their general breadth of meaning and in their many specific meanings. I have often said that I am enthusiastic about the UI’s current strategic plan, “The Iowa Promise.” This plan cuts to the heart of what the University is all about—its promise. I want The University of Iowa to be an institution that inspires as well as educates. Our plan is central to the promise that we make to inspire everyone—to our faculty and staff, our students, and citizens across the state, nation, and world.
The core of that promise is opportunity. We promise opportunity for all who are willing and prepared to attend college—including those who come from underrepresented backgrounds. We promise the opportunity for our faculty and staff to pursue their teaching passions, the areas of inquiry that spark their imagination, and all other University activities that lead to professional fulfillment and accomplishment. We promise the citizens of this state and the society at large that we will provide opportunities for them to benefit from our teaching, research, and service. The opportunities that a university provides depend on diversity. I think it says a lot about this University that our strategic plan has “Diversity” as one of its five major categories.
Primarily, diversity is about good relationships. As a University, one of our primary interests is in relationships between ideas. By definition, a university integrates diverse intellectual perspectives. It’s not a big leap to say that, in order to do so, we must develop the social and cultural diversity of our student body, our faculty, and our staff. And we must infuse our curriculum, our research and creative activities, and our service to the public with the values of diversity. Diversity—in all its manifestations—is not something that we can delegate to an office or an individual. It is something that must be part of the fabric of our everyday work. Again, it is about building good relationships within our University community. We all need to ask ourselves every day what we are doing to improve diversity.
The Catalyst Awards help us recognize those people and groups who have made diversity a daily commitment. I imagine that, in the past, University Presidents who have spoken with you cite some of Iowa’s major accomplishments in diversity. Those are great things to celebrate. But I suspect you may have heard them before. So today I would like to celebrate the University of Iowa’s history of diversity in a different way.
Our greatest institutional impacts on society come from the students we send out into the world and the difference they make in the world. I’d like to share with you three brief stories of former UI students who have made a difference on the advancement of diversity in our state, nation, and world.
I’ve gotten these stories from that remarkable collection here in our University Libraries, the Iowa Women’s Archives. I had a wonderful visit to the Archives recently and was greatly impressed. In case you’re not aware, the Iowa Women's Archives holds more than 900 manuscript collections that chronicle the lives and work of Iowa women, their families, and their communities. Personal papers and organizational records from the 19th century to the present tell the stories of Iowa women’s trials, tribulations, and triumphs.
The Archives were founded by two great Iowa women. Louise Noun was an art collector, historian, social activist, and philanthropist. Mary Louise Smith was a Republican Party activist and the first woman to chair the Republican National Committee, serving from 1974 to 1977. These two prominent Des Moines women established the Archives in 1992. Their initial vision, gifts, and hard work are currently under the skilled stewardship of Kären Mason, Janet Weaver, and a wonderful staff of volunteers and students, both graduate and undergraduate. We of course are also grateful to the generous donors who help keep the Archives strong and growing.
The stories I’ve chosen focus on a theme: writing and literature. As the President of The University of Iowa, I have been delighted to learn and speak about our great heritage as “The Writing University.” This is an especially wonderful year to do so with the 40th anniversary of the International Writing Program and the amazing new exhibit at the Old Capitol Museum, “A Community of Writers: Creative Writing at Iowa.” It is absolutely wonderful to celebrate the Nobel Prize for Literature won by Turkish writer and former IWP participant Orhan Pamuk, or the Pulitzer Prize won by Writers’ Workshop faculty member Marilynne Robinson. But “The Writing University” has a wonderful legacy of former students who have gone on to do great work in the field of writing and literature in their communities and beyond. Here are three African-American women who fit that bill.
Arlene J. Roberts Morris was born on April 7, 1926 and grew up in Moline, Illinois. While a college student, Arlene Roberts appeared on the cover of the first issue of Eyes magazine. This was an early publication relating to African-American life and culture, in 1946. She also served on its staff. Arlene Roberts graduated from The University of Iowa in 1946 and married attorney James B. Morris, Jr., in 1948. James Morris was the son of James Morris, Sr., a long-time publisher of the Iowa State Bystander, an African-American newspaper. Arlene Morris and her husband settled in Des Moines and had three sons.
From 1960 to 1967, Morris participated on the Know Your Neighbor Panel. The panel traveled around Iowa, as well as to several other states and Washington D.C., speaking about tolerance among races and religions. It consisted of women from different racial backgrounds—African-American, Japanese-American, and Caucasian—and women of different religious backgrounds—Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish.
Despite the important presence of writing in her life, Arlene Morris did not earn her living in the literary or journalistic world. She was a trained psychologist, practicing at Broadlawns Medical Center. Notably, she was the first African-American woman psychologist to be licensed by the Iowa State Board of Psychology. During the 1980s, Morris served on the Iowa Advisory Committee of the United States Civil Rights Commission for more than three years.
Another great Iowa African-American literary figure was born in 1926: Esther Jean Walls. Esther Walls was a librarian, administrator, and educator, born on May 1, 1926 in Mason City, Iowa. In 1944, she graduated from Mason City High School, the valedictorian of her class. She attended Mason City Junior College before transferring to The University of Iowa. Here at Iowa, she majored in romance languages with a minor in education.
Esther Walls was the first African-American female student at Iowa to be elected to the Alpha of Iowa Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. She was also a member of Phi Sigma Iota, an honorary Romance Languages fraternity. Esther Walls graduated summa cum laude in 1948 with a B.A.
She first worked at the Mason City Public Library. Later she went on to attend Columbia University, where she received an M.S. in Library Science in 1951. Walls began working for the New York Public Library in 1950 and held various professional assignments, including director of the North Manhattan Library Project and head of the Countee Cullen Regional Library. From 1965 to 1970, she worked for the non-profit international publishing organization Franklin Book Programs, Inc. She served as program officer, supervising and administering activities in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. She also served as director of Book and Library Services, assistant director for Africa, and director of Adult New Literates Project.
Esther Walls was elected director of the United States Secretariat for the International Book Year 1972. In this capacity, she coordinated the activities of the U.S. Secretariat, an agency established to promote the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)-sponsored year. During this year, all member states of UNESCO focused on the role of books and related materials. Walls’ other duties included lecturing, writing, and stimulating interest in the International Book Year through education, promotion, and publicity.
In 1973, Esther Walls became head of the Teachers Central Laboratory at Hunter College, City University of New York (CUNY). She served as associate director of Libraries at the State University of New York (SUNY) in Stony Brook from 1974 until her retirement in 1988. She served as chairperson of the International Relations Committee of the American Library Association (ALA) and as a commissioner and member of the executive board of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO. She also served as vice president of the United States Committee for United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). Esther Walls traveled extensively in Africa, Asia, and Latin America as a consultant on books, libraries, and women’s activities. She also lectured to business, professional, and educational groups. Throughout her career, she focused on issues pertaining to youth literacy. Her interest in this topic focused both on the urban environment in the U.S. and on African nations.
Writer, mother, activist, and lesbian, Cherry Muhanji embodied the term ‘non-traditional’ student. Jeannette Cherry Muhanji grew up in Detroit, Michigan where she married at nineteen. She mothered four sons and spent eighteen years working for the phone company. She later married a second time.
Cherry Muhanji began her formal education in 1985 at the age of forty-six, entering The University of Iowa as an undergraduate. After earning her BS in General Studies, she went on to earn an MA from the African-American World Studies Program. In 1997, she earned an Interdisciplinary PhD with a focus on English, African American Studies and Anthropology. All of her degrees are from The University of Iowa.
Muhanji’s first book, Tight Spaces (1987), was co-authored with her niece and their friend. A personal exchange that focused on what Muhanji called “the family laundry,” Tight Spaces won the 1988 Before Columbus American Book Award. The last chapter of Tight Spaces laid the groundwork for Muhanji’s next book, the novel Her (1990). This book won two 1991 Lambda Literary Awards: the Lesbian Debut category and the Ferro-Grumley Award for outstanding works of fiction on lesbian and gay life.
After earning her PhD in 1997, Cherry Muhanji taught at several institutions, including the University of Minnesota and Goddard College in Vermont. Noticing a lack of writing and thinking skills in her college pupils, Muhanji later earned a certificate so she could also teach and mentor students in junior high and high school.
Iowa has a great literary tradition, past and present. I’ve shared with you just a few stories of some people who have not only spread that legacy, but also have fostered diversity in our society at large. They may or may not have ended up in our museum exhibition. But these Iowa alumnae certainly have made a big impact on the world. I’m sure that all of our colleges, departments, and units are full of stories of students who have gone on to create a better world—a better world thanks to their professional talents, and a better world thanks to their commitments to diversity.
Today, as we celebrate the catalysts of diversity here on our campus, I salute you for making our University a more diverse institution. And I thank you all for passing on the values of diversity to our students. Their lives and their work after they leave us are the greatest catalysts for diversity in our society.
Thank you again for inviting me to speak with you, and congratulations on another great year for the Catalyst Awards.