'Our Compelling Interests'

In new collection of essays, scholars make the case for diversity as essential to higher education and society generally.

October 4, 2016

This summer, advocates for diversity in American higher education won a major victory when the Supreme Court upheld the right of colleges to consider race and ethnicity in admissions. This fall, American colleges have experienced numerous racist incidents, leaving many minority students angry and feeling unwelcome.

In this environment, leading scholars on race and the economy have contributed essays to a new collection, Our Compelling Interests: The Value of Diversity for Democracy and a Prosperous Society (Princeton University Press). Contributors include Marta Tienda of Princeton University, Kwame Anthony Appiah of New York University and Anthony P. Carnevale of Georgetown University.

The editors of the volume (who are also contributors) are Earl Lewis, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Rutgers University at Newark. The collaborated on answers to questions about the collection and its themes.

Q: What is your aim with this collection of essays?

A: This is the inaugural volume of a multiyear book series mounted by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to explore the value of our growing diversity for the American democratic project -- the enactment of individual and civil rights, the social and civic connections that unite a diverse polity into one (e pluribus unum), and the realization of full participation in the economy, in educational systems, in voting and the law and politics more generally, that undergirds prosperity and the legitimacy of our institutions. While there is little doubt that diversity is here and growing (America will, for example, be a majority nonwhite nation by midcentury) and that many dimensions of difference (racial, ethnic, cultural heritage, class, regional, language, indigeneity, sexuality) characterize this diversity, there is reason to question at this ostensibly highly polarized time whether America can rise to the task of leveraging this diversity to meet our compelling interests to spur creativity, productivity and prosperity, as Kwame Anthony Appiah notes in his commentary. Numbers alone will not suffice to turn the tide; it will take concerted dialogue, thoughtful analysis from many directions, honest questions and questioning, to move us as a nation toward envisioning our diversity as an opportunity, rather than as a threat to be managed. In this inaugural volume, the essays set the table, so to speak, for this much-needed dialogue, placing both our diversity and our compelling interests in context -- demographic, historical, social and economic. As important, the volume queries our readiness to empathize as a nation with the value and dimensions of that diversity, as well as asks, are we prepared to commit the “social” work to be done and the human capital investment required? Through such questions the inaugural volume paves the way for future volumes on religion, the arts, educational access and testing, organizational productivity, and much more.

Q: Leaders of American higher education (and much of American society) say they embrace diversity. Yet campuses are full of racial incidents and our political discourse is full of stereotype and denigration of minority groups. How do you explain this?

A: What we see on college campuses is precisely the paradoxical landscape that makes this dialogue so pressing for America (and the world). On one hand, our “exploding diversity,” as one essay calls it, reflects a complex, nuanced, intersectional identity map, and yet we live with the accumulated impact on our psyches, our daily life practices, our policies and our laws, of decades, if not centuries, of the rigid and yet pervasive architecture of segregation, and the “hibernating bigotry,” as Rupert Nacoste poetically labels it, that results when we don’t live together, go to school together, find jobs together, share our faiths, our dreams and our aspirations. It should not surprise us, even as it calls us to reflection and to action, that that hibernating bigotry is awakening even on college campuses in the face of what we see happening on every street corner, in every community -- urban and rural alike -- on every news channel, in tortured relations between police and community, in the dashed dreams of so many youth disconnected from educational attainment and so many adults coming head-on against economic dead ends. Now, if ever there was a time, is the time for universities to build bridging ties that erode boundaries -- first by honest conversation, then by the good hard work of inclusion, seeing talent expansively, empathizing with each other rather than turning our backs, and making the investments that our students and communities alike are asking us to undertake.

Q: Many critics of traditional definitions of diversity (race and gender) say that the real measure should be economics -- an emphasis on inclusion of those from low-income backgrounds. How do you respond?

A: As the essays in this inaugural volume clearly trace, the divide-and-conquer approach to race (or gender) versus class will never suffice to either describe the patterning of what Charles Tilly called “durable inequalities” -- consider, as Tom Sugrue does in his essay, the nuances of residential and educational segregation and economic status for blacks and Hispanics over the last many decades -- or to chart the way for the kinds of bridging ties that Danielle Allen urges us to learn to create as we aspire to a more socially connected society, not to mention more inclusive college and university environments. Reductionism when it comes to diversity doesn’t bode well for social change, for pragmatic policies and practices to move the needle on opportunity, whether one focuses on race or class, and it can distract us from the real work ahead.

Q: The essays place the emphasis on the benefits of diversity for all (not just those who are from various groups that might make an institution more diverse). How do you define that benefit?

A: The benefits are both individual and collective. Working across difference can make each of us better at what we do, better able to see things from different perspectives, better able to empathize with our fellow citizens and participate in public problem solving, as our series contributor Patricia Gurin has demonstrated in extensive longitudinal data on intergroup dialogue courses at nine colleges and universities. Moreover, as our colleague Scott Page has demonstrated so vividly, and will write about in the next volume in this Our Compelling Interests series, working across difference also benefits us collectively because we are more likely to arrive at better solutions to complex problems when we harness a diversity of talents in assembling teams.

Q: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the way Americans consider the issue of diversity?

A: As we noted in our introductory essay in this volume, we draw our optimism from the voices, dreams and commitments of this next broadly diverse and talented generation of students in our very midst. Hailing, as they do, from so many cultures, faiths, backgrounds, neighborhoods, their sense of self is highly nuanced, as are their identities and aspirations to change the course of opportunity for so many others they have known and will meet. Will this be hard work, for them and for us, no question it will be. Yet optimism comes because they have already achieved so much and done so much hard work to scale the walls of inequality, indifference and divisiveness that our authors document in this volume, and that they know so well on the ground. This next generation of change makers will tell us if our faith has proven rightfully placed, and we bet on it being so, because we bet on them to make the corrections in real time that may be required.


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