Diversity for the sake of diverse learning spaces

In 2003 (Grutter v. Bollinger), the United States Supreme Court ruled that the affirmative action policies of the University of Michigan Law School were not unconstitutional. In the dissent, Justice Rehnquist noted that school administrators cited the need for a diverse student body to “ensure that these minority students do not feel isolated or like spokespersons for their race; to provide adequate opportunities for the type of interaction upon which the educational benefits of diversity depend; and to challenge all students to think critically and reexamine stereotypes.” Similarly, the ruling (authored by Justice O’Connor) stated that the Constitution “does not prohibit the law school’s narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.”

This justification is also used here at my own institution, as per the academic strategic plan: “Diversity, in the broadest sense of the term, is absolutely critical to ensuring excellence in our core missions of discovery and learning. The human condition is fundamentally shaped by the context in which we have lived, learned, and now reside. A university offers an exceptional opportunity to bring together people from different personal and scholastic backgrounds in the name of higher learning. The experience of being an African-American is different from that of being a Hispanic. The same is true for gender, ethnic groups, social class, place of origin, sexual orientation, and countless other genetic, cultural and environmental parameters. It is also true that engineers have different perspectives than lawyers, as well as classicists compared to chemists. At one level, all such claims are obvious. The human condition, and human lives, is shaped by these different experiences, and they give rise to very different prisms by which each individual thinks about problems and opportunities and then approaches solutions.”

There are parts of these notes with which I sympathize, and parts that make me deeply uncomfortable. This discomfort isn’t because I think the statements are incorrect; there are various pieces of evidence circulating (especially recently) that cite the benefits that diverse student bodies bring to academic spaces. Nor do I think that there’s any particular problem with stating these benefits, since I do think it highlights the value of perspectives from historically excluded and marginalized populations.

My problem is when this is the only justification provided. In short, it’s not my job as a person of color or as a gay man to enhance your academic experience.

This isn’t to say that I don’t also benefit from a diverse learning space. My undergraduate institution was very diverse in many ways, and I think it really contributed to a healthier environment to the extent that I did not particularly feel isolated, and I did learn a great deal from those with backgrounds different from mine.

For me, though, the most important reason to include more “diverse” populations (in quotes to acknowledge the possible oddity of calling any particular population diverse) is not because of what it brings to others, nor is it particularly because those people will benefit from having more “diverse” colleagues. The most important reason is related to the fact that persons of color (speaking from my own identifications) have historically been excluded from quality institutions of higher learning, which is something (I assume) we agree is morally wrong.

Briefly, I’d add that my feelings here extend beyond academia. The same justification is often used elsewhere, especially in community development. Throughout my life, I’ve seen various news reports about the extent to which, for example, having gay men move into a neighborhood benefits the entire community. While I appreciate the magical powers that these reports have assigned to me in terms of my queer ability to raise the property values of my neighbors’ homes, it still feels tokenizing, as if they need me as a gentrifier (which has its own problems) more than I deserve the right to live in a safe community.

My overall point is that the compelling reasons for diversity should not primarily be because of its ability to increase the excellence of an institution. It should be because that institution has a commitment to upholding justice.

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