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Nancy Cantor Distinguished Lectureship on Intellectual Diversity
Steele to address effects, remedies of 'social identity threats'


The very organization of a setting or institution can cause people to worry about whether they will be disadvantaged because of their race, gender, age or other factors, says Claude Steele, who will give the second annual Nancy Cantor Distinguished Lectureship on Intellectual Diversity April 1.
Steele (Photo courtesy Stanford University)

He offers some examples: a man coming into a room full of women, a minority entering a predominantly white school, or vice-versa. In situations like these, everyone involved—whether in the minority or majority group—may feel a form of "identity threat," he says.

"Whites feel that if they say something it might be perceived as racist, for instance. Minority students will feel people will see them as not belonging there," says Steele, Lucie Stern Professor in the Social Sciences at Stanford University.

This often leads to people in majority and minority groups avoiding situations with people of other ethnicities, races, genders or ages, he says.

His speech will offer some possible ways of creating settings in which people feel more comfortable. Steele notes that when a white professor gives a minority student critical feedback, the student often doesn't know if the feedback relates to the work or to the student's racial identity. If the professor tells the student, "I am using high standards to evaluate your work, and you can meet those standards," the professor can present the same critical information in a more positive and encouraging way.

"You do need to do something extra; you can't treat everyone the same and expect it to work," Steele says.

Another remedy is for leaders of corporations and other institutions to recognize and speak about the importance of diversity, he says. "We've found that minorities are more comfortable at a company when the leadership has acknowledged that diversity is valued," Steele says.

Steele will speak at 10 a.m. April 1 in the Hussey Room of the Michigan League. He was a professor of psychology at U-M from 1987-91, and also served as a research scientist at the Institute for Social Research during his last two years here. Steele's expert report about standardized tests was part of the supporting research used in the University's defense in its two admissions cases, which the U.S. Supreme Court decided last year. He wrote that the tests are unreliable, especially in the way they evaluate minority applicants.

Steele is past president of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology and the Western Psychological Association. He has served on a number of other boards and committees, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Education. He has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences and has won numerous awards.

The lectureship was established to recognize Cantor, who was provost of U-M from 1997-2001. She was the first woman to serve as the University's chief academic officer. Cantor recently was named the next chancellor and president of Syracuse University, after serving as chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign since 2001.

The lectureship is supported by the Office of the Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs in collaboration with the Provost's Faculty Committee on Education for a Diverse Democracy.

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