OPINION: Why diversity matters (if done properly)

Kansas State students and faculty gather on the Anderson Hall lawn during the KSUnite rally in Manhattan on Nov. 14, 2017. (Archive photo by Justin Wright | Collegian Media Group) Photo credit: Justin Wright

Diversity is alternately praised as the earmark of an inclusive society, criticized for elevating irrelevant identifiers and met with confusion regarding its meaning.

In the university context, debates on affirmative action, campus orthodoxies, curriculum and so on are never-ending. Diversity’s critics and advocates are more keen on gaining ground in the culture war, which invites the question of whether diversity can survive.

The diversity rationale

I think diversity can be saved. Overwhelming empirical evidence has shown that racial, ethnic and cultural diversity benefit universities greatly by following what is broadly considered “the diversity rationale.”

In Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, former U.S. Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell argued that a diverse student body invites more viewpoints and encourages the university to become a place “conducive to speculation, experiment and creation — so essential to the quality of higher education.”

Does this view survive scrutiny? Based on a massive review of the literature, UCLA professor Mitchell Chang concludes: “It is nearly impossible to find a published study grounded in the field of higher education research that rejects Justice Powell’s diversity rationale. Opponents of affirmative action attribute this research anomaly to liberal political leanings. Such charges are misguided because those critics do not have a deep understanding of the literature or fundamentals that guide research in higher education.”

Though Powell’s argument has traction in the scholarly community, it it is not considered a complete defense of diversity. Powell’s rationale seems to imply that merely increasing the number of minorities reaps benefits, which isn’t necessarily true. People can, for example, self-segregate on campus and even find themselves in severe conflicts with those of different cultures.

The view that Chang and others endorse is the “ecological perspective,” which argues that diversity is beneficial not for a singular causal factor but from an array of complex and dynamic social and institutional contexts.

In simpler terms, people benefit from diversity when they meaningfully interact with peers from different backgrounds and when the university encourages such experiences. These experiences range from simple day-to-day interactions to diversity workshops, with the latter producing the most benefits.

Here is just some of the evidence in favor of this perspective.

1. Education scholar Eric Dey’s 1996 and 1997 studies demonstrated that peer interactions and institutional practices affect the perspectives of students.

2. Psychologists Thomas F. Pettigrew and Linda R. Tropp identified over 500 studies showing that “cross-racial interaction significantly reduces prejudice across a wide variety of samples and situations.”

3. Chang lists around 50 studies from 1993 to 2011 which show a general consistency among scholars that cross-racial interaction positively affects student academic skills, academic and social self-concept, personal growth/development, teamwork and leadership skills, prejudice reduction, social distance, perceived exposure to diverse ideas, social agency and civic development, retention, well-being and satisfaction with college.

4. Another study concludes that students actively involved in diverse environments had better cognitive outcomes around critical thinking and problem-solving.

5. A study published in the Harvard Educational Review also found that racially diverse social environments made students more capable of seeing the world from another person’s perspective, more open to having their views challenged, tolerant of others and improved their ability to discuss controversial issues.

Why it matters

The data doesn’t really support the mainstream left or right positions on diversity.

Those on the right, for example, defend the importance of free speech and intellectual discourse on college campuses (although there are plenty of liberals who would say the same). They argue that we must be mature enough to have our ideas questioned, to provide reasons and arguments for our beliefs and to open our minds to different, often challenging viewpoints.

The right goes wrong, however, when it argues that race is irrelevant. Even America’s leading conservative thinker, Robert P. George of Princeton University, realized from his friendship with Cornel West that being “colorblind” is naive. He realized that race, ethnicity and culture really do affect how people see and experience the world, and under the right conditions, diversity increases a university’s pool of knowledge and its ability to articulate ideas across groups.

One common rebuttal is that it is wrong, perhaps racist, to think people and ideas can be associated with one another. There are a few responses to this argument.

The first is that for a great many people, the social constructs of race and culture have affected their experiences, how they have been treated and how they perceive the world.

The second is that there are also many people who find those concepts ultimately irrelevant in their experience and defy them.

Having both of these persons on campus can increase the university’s pool of knowledge. It can simultaneously show that social constructs around identity affect people, and persons who are perceived as occupying that identity group have great variability and individuality.

Some conservatives have argued, for example, that minorities who are Republican and conservative break the diversity rationale. It may break the more radical liberal narrative that seems to suggest all minorities are (or should be) liberals. But diversity, as I have articulated, rejects both that flawed narrative and the popular conservative objection. It says that socially constructed identities affect people in different ways (perhaps not at all), and our pursuit of truth should recognize the implications of that complex reality.

Indeed, the left starts from the valid premise of supporting diversity, but they hamper its benefits by turning the university into an echo chamber. If students cannot practice tolerance, opening their minds to different opinions and using their reasoning faculties towards truth, then the left contradicts its own values.

Respecting academic freedom and the diversity of thought allows for the free movement of knowledge across backgrounds and perspectives. This requires we open dominant narratives for criticism and invite other serious viewpoints to the table. Supporting identity diversity without recognizing these goods is an incomplete endeavor.

Therefore, if you support identity diversity, you should support the diversity of thought. If you support the diversity of thought, you should support identity diversity. Our entire debate is built on a false and misleading dichotomy.

Suan Sonna is a freshman in political science and philosophy. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Collegian. Please send comments to opinion@kstatecollegian.com.