Ringling College: A Cultural Mosaic

Guest Correspondence

BY DR. LARRY THOMPSON SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY SEP 29, 2018

Just over a month ago, I stood before an audience of incoming students and their families and friends at the Van Wezel for Student Orientation. It was an exciting time, as we explained the many things these new students would be experiencing during their first fall semester and throughout their four years with us. It was also a time to address questions about hurricanes, safety, roommates and all the common concerns of new students and their parents.

There was one question, however, that arose which I had never been asked before in such a setting. It was regarding Ringling College’s values and policies with respect to issues of diversity and inclusion. And while I know the position of the institution, as well as my own personal feelings on the matter, I took a deep breath and did my best to address this important issue openly and honestly. It was something I don’t believe I have ever expressed in such depth: why I believe diversity and inclusion are such important factors for students of today, more important than any other time in our history.

The start of my response stemmed from statistics—the mathematician and lawyer part of me coming through, as I cited our ever-growing percentage of international students and the number of countries represented – 17 percent of the student body and 20 percent of the entering class, coming from 60 different countries. I also described our general population demographics with 16 percent Hispanic, 9 percent Asian, 4.3 percent two or more races non-Hispanic, 3 percent black and 0.3 percent Native American. Roughly 47 percent of our students are Caucasian and as I noted above, 17 percent are international students. What followed moved from the normal focus on the numbers, to my heart-felt feelings. I described what I believe to be the truth of the matter—the ethos of Ringling College and the amazing culture of acceptance that defines us.

The point I wanted to illuminate and emphasize is that the beauty of the students’ experience at Ringling College is they will have the opportunity to intermix and connect with people who are different from them. Because we are a small institution, our community presents a sort of cultural mosaic. Our campus is a vibrant and safe place where we strive to foster global awareness and, of course, creativity day in and day out.

We pride ourselves on preparing our students for the real world so they will know and be ready for what it is like to work with real-world clients and for firms who may have diverse populations and work in cities, countries and markets around the globe. And, in the moment, I reminded them how important it is for us to look to the future of our country. We are increasingly becoming more culturally diverse, and it is imperative we embrace, strive to understand and celebrate how different we all are from one another and how similar we are at the same time. The greatest skills we can instill at Ringling College are acceptance and open-mindedness. This will not only make our students better citizens of the world, but also better candidates and employees in the workplace. Think about it. Employers do not favor members of a team who are unable or unwilling to work with someone who may be from a different culture—someone who might look different, speak differently and think differently. Rather, leaders in the workplace want people who see disparities as an asset, not a divisive weakness.

I then made it clear to our incoming class, as well as families, friends and faculty and staff who attended, that we have a zero tolerance policy on our campus. We will not stand for discrimination, harsh words or disrespectful behavior on our campus. We will not tolerate it among students, faculty or staff. We just plan will not tolerate it. And I am most grateful to my incredible staff and faculty for helping to uphold this protocol, as the safety, well-being, protection and success of our students are paramount.

It is my absolute hope as president that our institution can be a small model within our city, our region, our state and our country, that can shift society to be more accepting and understanding, as well as curious and excited about diversity of thought, culture and background. The ethos of diversity and inclusion is woven within the tapestry of everything we do at Ringling College. As I said to the audience that day: This our culture. This is who we are. We are Ringling. And, at Ringling College, all are welcome.

Dr. Larry Thompson is president of Ringling College of Art & Design.

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