On April 22, 2016, the Tennessee legislature voted to cut all state appropriations for the Office of Equity and Diversity at the state’s flagship university. This move came as a blow to a university struggling to create a more welcoming gender, religious, and racial environment for students, faculty, and staff in Central Appalachia—a region with a long history of intolerance. Since the April decision, students, faculty, and staff at the University of Tennessee have repeatedly rallied in protest. These campus protests have drawn further attention to the issue of diversity, and they have forced those of us in the Department of Sociology at the University of Tennessee to better articulate the value of diversity to our students. their families, and the press.
An important explanation for why diversity matters in U.S. colleges and universities is that attending a diverse university will better prepare students for the future labor force. Some projections suggest that by 2050 half of all U.S. workers will be people of color, and the percent of Muslim adherents in the U.S. population will double (Stafford and Griffis 2008). Yet children today still grow up in racially segregated and class homogeneous places where they play, go to school, and attend religious services with others who are like them. College is often the first opportunity young people have to interact with people who are different, and these interactions make them worldlier and better prepared for a globalized work force. Research has shown that diversity experiences are associated with increases in civic attitudes (Bowman).
For the university, diversity is also important. Diverse views, which arise from divergent human experiences, stimulate innovation. For most college professors, research is an important component of their work. Organizational researchers have consistently shown that new ideas are better fomented in diverse work teams, so faculty members who are surrounded by a great variety of colleagues with whom they can collaborate often have a creative edge. This is one reason that federal funding agencies like the National Science Foundation put a premium on projects that involve a diverse set of investigators.
Diversity begets diversity.
Minority students and faculty will scrutinize opportunities at less diverse institutions more carefully than opportunities at fully integrated institutions. Taking a faculty position at a college where minority assistant professors are regularly tenured and promoted is less risky than taking a chance at a more homogeneous institution. Thus, colleges and universities with a strong record for attracting and retaining diverse students and faculty may be attracting the best candidates, overall. At the University of Tennessee, cutting funding for the Office of Equity and Diversity sends a message that diversity is not a priority.
Organizational researchers have consistently shown that new ideas are better fomented in diverse work teams, so faculty members who are surrounded by a great variety of colleagues with whom they can collaborate often have a creative edge.
A less common, but equally important argument for the value of diversity in higher education is that there is diversity in diversity. A misguided perception of racial diversity (just one form of diversity), is that people of one race bring a different perspective to an environment than people of another race. While it may be assumed that it is important to have viewpoints from all races, this perspective fails to recognize that, although we can see differences in the averages across groups, individual members of a group are unlikely to be average. Thus, in reality, there is a great diversity of perspectives within members of the same race, the same ethnicity, the same gender orientation, and the same religion. Witnessing these differences is important. Clearly, there is value in learning first hand that all Latinos are not immigrants, all African Americans do not share the same political perspectives, and all gay men do not act alike. Despite the decades that have passed, I vividly remember a freshman year conversation with an African student from Ghana who revealed (quite surprisingly to me) that he felt he had little in common with the African American students on campus. I had assumed that race was a great connector and was surprised that other factors may matter more.
In a diverse college, students who were raised with deep-seated prejudices may learn that they have surprisingly similar beliefs and interests with students who appear, on the surface, different from them. Developing shared understandings among people of different races, religions, gender orientations, and identities goes a long way toward reducing prejudice and increasing tolerance. Reducing hate-related violence by enhancing understanding is a laudable goal of any institution of higher learning, especially in our current era of divisiveness and mistrust.
Universities can be sites for important social change. The historical images of the desegregation of universities in Alabama, Arkansas, and Georgia are iconic reminders that public institutions of higher learning were some of the first sites of U.S. integration. At the same time, universities can reproduce inequalities. Numerous campus protests recently at Princeton, Harvard, Missouri, Brown, Yale, Cincinnati, Tennessee, and elsewhere have drawn attention to the ways in which university conditions can promote fear, injustice, violence, and abuse. At the same time, we can be hopeful that the act of protesting can help to bring attention to and change these environments. Universities can and should foster an atmosphere where tolerance and understanding are generated through safe spaces where interactions between different people are the norm.
Bowman, Nicholas. 2011. Promoting Participation in a Diverse Democracy: A Meta-Analysis of College Diversity Experiences and Civic Engagement. Review of Educational Research, 81(1), 29-68.
Stafford, Darlene E. and Henry S. Griffis. 2008. “A review of millennial genderation characteristics and military workforce implications.” Center for Naval Analysis, http://www.cna.org/documents D 18211.