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The Dueling Missions of the Diversity and Inclusion Office

Should diversity officers focus on helping underrepresented students thrive on a campus, or fostering conversations between conflicting viewpoints?

February 21, 2018
 
 

Let’s say you are a college president of a non-flagship public university in the Midwest. You have finally convinced your board to give you the budget to create an Office of Diversity and Inclusion. You did this by consistently reminding them of two of the core purposes of American higher education:

  1. To teach the knowledge, skills and habits that help people establish themselves in the middle class;
  2. To be a place of considerate conversation between diverse points of view, a model of a diverse democracy.

You have actually become quite adept at making this two-fold case. The first part you make largely quantitatively. You point out that the graduation rates for certain segments of your student population – black, Latino and first-generation – lag far behind the graduation rates for other segments. The way that campuses are organized clearly advantage people who come in knowing how to navigate them, and with supports to fall back on when things go wrong. That’s the definition of privilege. The diversity office will help those who have considerably less of it.

The second reason to launch a diversity office is to inch towards the civic good of social cohesion, especially important in this era of gotcha politics and rabid polarization. You’ve been quoting the Jesuit political philosopher John Courtney Murray to your board about this:

“By pluralism I mean the coexistence within the one political community of groups who hold divergent and incompatible views … Pluralism therefore implies disagreement and dissension within the community. But it also implies a community within which there must be agreement and consensus.”

We can do that, you tell your board excitedly. There are kids walking around our campus wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts and kids wearing NYPD t-shirts. We have “Make America Great” types and we have “I’m with Her” activists. We’ve got white kids from factory towns that have lost their factories and black kids from urban areas that never had factories to begin with. Unique among American institutions, the college campus is a community that gathers people from different life experiences and perspectives to learn from each other.

But now that you have a budget for this Office of Diversity and Inclusion, and you are thinking through what its core activities should be, how to measure its effectiveness, what the job description of its leader should highlight, you are realizing just how hard it is to accomplish both goals you originally set out.     

For example, if the priority is to help more African-American students graduate, shouldn’t this office prioritize spaces where they feel empowered and comfortable. How does a set of programs that bring the Black Lives Matter group together with the supporters of the NYPD help more black kids graduate?

On the other hand, if the office chooses to prioritize helping certain student populations, then doesn’t it signal to the rest of the campus that this is hostile territory for them? How will you ever get the “Make America Great” again population to come to programs if you’ve done three speaker series in a row featuring #MeToo activists, every single one of whom called out President Trump by name in the first five minutes?

So, do you have to choose one direction or the other? Which one should you choose? Who will you ask to help you decide? 

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