Diversity: Isn't it everybody's business?

Even though I'm African-American, I won't lose even one night's sleep should the Supreme Court strike down the University of Michigan's use of affirmative action in its admission policies.

Corporate America's great respect for profits should keep the doors of prestigious colleges open to students of color - one way or another. CEOs understand more than the politicians that the US can't afford to lock students of color out of top institutions because such acts, ultimately, stifle economic growth and reduce our ability to compete in global markets.

That's not me talking, but rather the nation's top CEOs. These visionary executives recognize that America can't retain its economic competitiveness unless this nation provides equal opportunities for students of color. Bernard Milano, a former corporate recruiter and president of the KPMG Foundation, said last week in an interview that these executives came to understand that they either would have to continue to ask the government for visas to hire immigrant talent, or develop that talent at home.

"Given our marketplace, given our labor pool, and given the need for knowledge workers and the skills these workers would need to have, it was evident corporations would be constantly going to the government to bring in talent outside of the US," said Mr. Milano, a creator of the PhD Project, an initiative that is setting up a pipeline of minority doctoral students for the nation's business schools.

So last January, a coalition of America's top corporate CEOs and university presidents, including the CEO of KPMG, released an urgent report spotlighting the nation's ethnic diversity, and stressing the need to turn the growing labor pool into a national asset.

The Business-Higher Education Forum's report, "Investing in People: Developing All of America's Talent on Campus and In the Workplace," concluded that a nation firmly entrenched in the knowledge economy could ill afford to let creative capital to remain idle.

"A large number of the people who will be available to work [in the future] will be minorities - who currently lag behind whites in their training and educational credentials," the report warned. It suggested that unless this nation makes the required investments in improving education for all Americans, tomorrow's workers will not be ready to meet the challenges of a knowledge intensive economy.

That explains why some of the country's more powerful corporations decided to file briefs in 2000 in support of the University of Michigan's affirmative action plan, which recently came under fire by President George Bush.

The corporations filing included the likes of Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, and Microsoft. The brief argued that diverse campuses play a critical role in preparing students for the global economy and that managers and employees who graduated from diverse institutions were better prepared to understand, learn from, and collaborate with others from a variety of racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds; demonstrate creative problem solving; and respond more effectively to the needs of all types of consumers.

In the view of America's CEOs, educating students on diverse campuses fosters excellence and creativity, and that is what drives economic growth. So there you have it: Should the Supreme Court strike down efforts to foster diversity on campus, students of color will not be the only losers. White students, educated in predominantly white primary and secondary schools and colleges, will pay a huge price as well.

Their future employers don't think they will have the balanced skill sets they will need to run a global corporation, so either the companies will have to provide that education and training, or their careers will suffer. Perhaps the day will come when the stars rising to the top of American corporations will be born and bred overseas where diversity and cultural competency are a more integral part of the curriculum.

By 2050, the number of minorities is projected to rise from 1 in every 4 Americans to 1 in every 2. After 2020, the Hispanic population is projected to add more people to the United States every year than all other groups combined.

At a time when we as a nation are evaluating our dependency on foreign oil, should we really be making plans to acquire more and more of the workers by granting more and more visas?

"Diversity is another form of national security," argues Roberts Jones, president of the National Alliance of Business. "As we fight to eradicate terrorism and maintain safety on our shores, we must protect our economic stability by investing in our most valuable resource, our diverse citizenry."

Given these facts, I'm betting that America will decide to educate and empower all its children. And that's why I'm not losing sleep.

Linda S. Wallace, a former journalist, is a cultural coaching consultant in Philadelphia.

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