Diversity

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I stumbled across an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education this morning called “Under Fire From Lawmakers, a Flagship Tries to Explain Why Diversity Matters.” Articles at the Chronicle are often behind a paywall, but don’t fret if you can’t get to the article; it didn’t really explain why diversity matters anyway, which is what I was hoping to hear. Likely because of the recency of Scalia’s death, this reminded me of the recent oral arguments at the Supreme Court in Fisher v. University of Texas (an affirmative action case). Scalia’s comment about minorities doing better at lower-ranked schools was pretty awful, but I found myself agreeing with him, or at least sharing his frustration, during a line of questioning by John Roberts. Roberts asked, “What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?…I’m just wondering what the benefits of diversity are in that situation.” The question itself was criticized in the blogosphere, but I don’t think that’s fair. I think it’s actually a great question, and great opportunity to defend affirmative action. What killed me was the answer, what was missing from the answer.

Mr. Garre, arguing the case, simply said that “student body diversity is a compelling interest” and pointed to an earlier case where this was argued and accepted. Scalia jumped in to point out that the earlier arguments weren’t making the case on a class by class basis…and it got a little ugly for Garre.

JUSTICE SCALIA: I’m not sure we said it’s class by class.

MR. GARRE: And we’re not asking ­­–

JUSTICE SCALIA: I’m not sure we said it’s the case class by class.

MR. GARRE: Your Honor, that’s a caricature of the University’s interests here. We made clear in the 2004 proposal and throughout ­­–

JUSTICE SCALIA: It’s a caricature of the argument you’re making.

I’m not one to side with Scalia, but I share the frustration with the inability of Garre to articulate the benefits of diversity, even in a class by class basis. The argument for diversity has long been that it provides different points of view, different perspective. I don’t disagree with this at all, and think it’s a fair argument. But I think that argument breaks down, as Roberts’s questioning revealed, in a class like Introduction to Physics that is based on objective rules of the universe that are not a matter of perspective. Force equals mass times acceleration whether you were born in a corn field, a rain forest, a manhattan hospital, or a refugee camp. In that sense, I think the challenge about the unequal importance of diversity in classes offered by English or Physics Departments is fair.

But, at least from where I sit, that is only a small part of why I care about diversity at the University level. For me, for the most part, it’s not about the individual being hired. It’s not about giving some candidate a break because he or she endured more than I did to get here. Actually, the reason that I want a diverse faculty at my university has little to do with the benefit to those faculty members. Sure, it helps them get a good job, and, if they get tenure, a great job, but for me, it’s about the students. It’s about the next generation. It’s about creating a world where things seem possible for lots of different people. My justification for promoting diversity among the faculty isn’t to help even the playing field for members of disenfranchised groups who are applying for jobs today, it’s about the people who will apply for faculty positions ten or fifteen years from now. It’s about influencing the choices that students make based on their college experiences. A minority student who sees an entirely white faculty might (and I say “might” because I’m not familiar with the science of this, which I’m sure exists) be less likely to picture him/herself as a member of that faculty, and, therefore, less likely to even both pursuing that kind of career.

What I want for us, as a country, is for people to feel that essence of the American Dream: that it doesn’t matter where you came from or who your parents were, if you work hard and capitalize on your talents, you can succeed. If you are a very smart kid born in the worst of circumstances, I want you to have role models. I want you to see people who might look like you, or might have some of the qualities that make you in a minority, in the positions that you can fill.

For me, it’s not about the person getting the job now, it’s about the kid seeing that person getting the job, doing the job, and thinking, hey, that looks like something I could do when I grow up. I wish Garre had articulated that. It makes me sad that he didn’t because that would have been a much better story.

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