Almost all colleges and universities seek diversity in their student bodies and their faculty as well as staff. This is often one of two major goals for these institutions, the other of which is academic excellence. But, in my experience, many faculty and some administrators view diversity and academic excellence as competing goals (see this recent example). Moreover, some view concerns about diversity largely as a form of political correctness. Is concern for diversity merely a form of political correctness, or is there really some educational benefit to a diverse student body and faculty such that diversity contributes to rather than competes with academic excellence?
There are three reasons why diversity truly is important in institutions of higher education. Consider each in turn.
First, students learn more from others if the others are different from themselves in significant ways. Imagine, in some strange world, that everyone in a university was a clone of everyone else. Students would learn almost nothing from each other, because they all would be identical to each other. Diversity promotes learning by exposing students to different ways of seeing the world, different points of view, and different assumptions about how the world works. Much of learning is outside the classroom -- it is in the informal curriculum of the university.
One’s learning from friends is as important as one’s learning from books and lectures. And diverse friends expose one to different experiences. When I was a freshman, I had classmates in my hallway from Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Pennsylvania, Texas, Georgia, New York, Calgary (Canada), and other locales. I learned from them in a way that would not have been possible if all were from my home state of New Jersey. At Oklahoma State University, we have the largest number of American Indian undergraduates of any university. These students teach other students about diverse cultures in a way that students of the majority culture could not. In a global world and global economy, we fail to learn about others at our peril.
Second, diversity helps promote understanding that can be lacking when different groups fail, or even refuse, to interact. In 1968, the Flemish and French-speaking factions of the University of Leuven decided that they could not get along, and they split, leaving two universities, Leuven (Flemish-speaking) and Louvain (French-speaking). The repercussions of this and other similar splits can be seen in contemporary Belgium, which has not had a fully functioning government since April 22, 2010. The country has been on the verge of splitting apart because people of different linguistic and cultural groups have failed to work together. The split has hurt the economy and, obviously, the morale of people in the country. South Africa, for many years, had “black” universities and “white” universities, never the twain did meet; the consequences were extremely negative for education and for the country as a whole. Bringing diverse people together creates bridges across cultural, linguistic, racial, and other divides.
Third, diversity helps attract the best students, faculty, and staff. Suppose everyone at a particular university is a member of Group X, whatever group that may be. It is safe to say that no matter what the group, many of the people who could contribute most to the university will be members of other groups. But members of other groups likely will be reluctant to go to a university where they will find no one at all like themselves. The result is that the university will scare away many of the most able potential constituents.
Academic excellence and diversity go hand-in-hand because, to have excellence, you need diversity. Some faculty will argue that increasing diversity will reduce the academic skills of the student body. But this argument is based largely on scores from narrow standardized tests. When we have measured creative, practical, and wisdom-based skills in addition to the memory and analytical skills measured by conventional standardized tests, we have found that group differences, such as among diverse ethnic groups, are greatly reduced or even eliminated at the same time that the predictive power of the measures is increased. In other words, choosing students for diverse talents identifies students who can succeed academically who are not identified as potentially successful by standardized tests. Similar logic applies to faculty and staff.
In sum, diversity is actually not a matter of political correctness (although the concept can be perverted to be just that). It is a way of bringing together people into an organization that helps to ensure that the whole is more, rather than less, than the sum of its parts. Without diversity, true academic excellence is difficult, if not impossible, to attain.
Robert J. Sternberg is provost and senior vice president of Oklahoma State University.