Iowa State’s College of Design dean, Luis Rico-Gutierrez, has strong opinions on the
importance of diverse communities. Rico-Gutierrez was born and raised in Mexico. He’s
lived in Europe, on the East Coast, and now in the Midwest. Living among people in so
many different cultures, he says, “makes you appreciate how everybody has a different
perspective on things – and all of those perspectives, on different levels, are very useful.”
Involved not just in his own college but campus-wide in creating inclusive environments
for students and faculty, Rico-Gutierrez has helped facilitate a number of campus initiatives.
“I feel very invested in this because I’ve seen the benefits,” he says. “I mean, I’m
an immigrant myself.”
What follows is an edited discussion with Rico-Gutierrez on the subjects of inclusion, equity, and embracing our differences.
Interview by Carole Gieseke
Q: This is such a complex subject. Let’s start by talking about why diversity and inclusion are important.
A: In design, creativity and innovation are the cornerstones of everything that we do. And the one thing we know about creativity and innovation is that having different perspectives is what makes the process possible. So, yes, we should care about diversity and inclusion from a social perspective; we need to care about it from many different [points of view], but for me the most important one is that if we want to be truly creative and truly innovative it takes all the different perspectives.
So why do you think the discussion of diversity makes people uncomfortable?
There are a couple of reasons. One, you can look at diversity and inclusion as just a numbers game. That’s a self-defeating exercise in a way. Yes, the numbers are a foundation; they allow us as a group to have the right ingredients to make everything happen. But if we just stop there, what happens to quality? What about bringing the right people to the job? [Diversity is more than] just meeting a quota. The numbers are like gathering the ingredients for a recipe, but the magic happens when you put them together.
There is a second step. The first one is building diversity. Th e second is to implement diversity. That’s when people begin to realize why we’re putting the numbers together in the first place. When we implement diversity, we’re really harnessing the power of having all those different points of view and perspectives that allow us to come to a more effective, different, innovative solution.
There are a lot of issues related to social justice that need to be part of the conversation, but ultimately it is about everybody being able to participate and contribute to a common goal that we have as an organization.
What’s the difference between diversity, equity, and inclusion?
Equity and inclusion are two components of the same thing. They’re two ingredients to creativity and innovation and plain and simple collaboration. But equity is not enough. Inclusion is necessary to make sure everybody is able to participate in collaborative work at the same level.
As an organization, we should be able to differentiate and support people where they need additional support. I particularly don’t like the word “diversity” because it refers to all the different groups. What I don’t like about the term is it emphasizes the diff erences, where “inclusion” is something that brings them together. It’s more dynamic. It’s coming together.
How healthy is the culture at ISU?
It’s interesting how many times we [at Iowa State] attribute the [diversity] challenges we have to the part of the country where we live. And there’s something to that. But I used to live in Pittsburgh and the same discussions we had there about why it was so hard to create an inclusive environment were almost verbatim the conversations that we have here. [So] just to say that it’s because we’re in Iowa, that’s not going to fly.
The second thing I would say is that actually if you go outside to the streets of Iowa in all the little towns, we are a pretty diverse place if you know where to look. People coming from other countries is probably the only way that some communities will be viable in the future. People in this state have embraced the “new Iowans” as not just workers but as potential future entrepreneurs. Th ey are the next ones opening stores on Main Street Anytown Iowa. Those things are very encouraging. [I believe that] this university is a welcoming place. Upper administration is very receptive to these issues. We all understand that this is important; but sometimes we (yes, I include myself) take it for granted. We should not take for granted the issues, the problems, the effort that it takes to build an inclusive environment.
Sometimes we feel that because we talk about it that that’s all we have to do. What needs to be improved?
Every time there is a search, we’re looking for the best candidate to fill the position, but at the same time it requires that we look everywhere for the best candidate. We need to look in unusual, non-traditional places for these candidates. [We need] to make sure that we recognize and emphasize that our diff erences are what make us stronger as a group and ask people to be mindful of that.
I’ll be hard pressed to think of anybody here that has a negative attitude about issues of diversity, but … diversity is a question each generation in every culture has had to confront. Even if we all have the best intentions in talking about these issues or demonstrating how we feel about them, different communication styles can result in communication breakdowns. We need to make extra effort in working together to understand each other.
Do you think we need to change our policies?
I think the burden is on us as administrators to think about this as an important subject all the time. The levels of excellence that we aspire to can only be reached if we work together in this. And, to be completely honest, if we all think the same way, if in the team everybody contributes the same way and has the same perspective, we’re not going to go very far. So the wider the net we cast to bring new perspectives, the better we’re going to be.
We need to constantly talk about these issues, and there has been a lot of discussion about issues of freedom of expression. Freedom of expression should have a purpose; just shouting whatever comes to our mind in the middle of the desert is not very useful. We should shout and engage in discussions with each other, as intense as they have to be but with the purpose of achieving that level of excellence. Also, freedom of expression shouldn’t be used as a way of hushing people. (“OK, OK, that’s fine, that’s your opinion, ut let me just keep saying what I was saying and let me ignore you.”)
Under your leadership, the College of Design has become a truly inclusive community. Could you give us some specifics?
My first priority is to create an amazing academic experience for our students and nurture the careers of our faculty, and a diverse environment goes a long way in achieving that. We have mentorship programs at the student level to help students of any background, but we make an emphasis on diverse populations to be successful in their careers.
In going to different places with our Hometown Design Program, we always take into consideration the diverse composition of each community. It is the first task of the students and of the faculty to make sure everybody has a voice in the process. Afterwards our students will become ambassadors of this practice wherever they go. It’s going to be under their skin – they will understand how diverse contributions make the process better and hopefully in their future businesses and organizations they will embrace this form of collaboration that we need to see all over the world.
Speaking about the world, one of the things we are trying to emphasize is in our international programs. For example, we have the Rome program, and going over there opens the eyes of our students to diversity in a pretty in-your-face kind of way. They meet people who think very differently and approach life very differently.
This is what we hope students can experience abroad and in the classroom. Diversity and cross-cultural engagement broadens their perspectives and deepens their understanding as designers and, overall, human beings.