The Climate Is in Your Head

Susan Herbst reflects on the mixed record of campus efforts to promote diversity.

December 10, 2010

“This is my favorite Jewish joke of all time and I share it with you…. In this Jewish restaurant in New York in the Lower East Side, on a very humid summer’s evening, one of the diners, a rather loud and not entirely civilized individual, schlepps the waiter over and says: 'Waiter, it’s too hot in here. Put the air conditioning on.' The waiter goes out and comes back a few minutes later. Ten minutes later he says: 'Waiter, it’s now too cold. Turn the air conditioning off.' The waiter goes out. A few minutes later he calls him over for a third time: 'Waiter, it’s too hot again. Turn the air conditioning back on.' As the waiter is about to go out for the third time, a man just by the door says: 'Waiter, I feel so sorry for you. This man must be driving you mad' and the waiter says: 'Well no, actually, I’m driving him mad. You see, there is no air conditioning.' This joke was enough to tell me that sometimes the climate in your head matters as much as the climate out there."

--The Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks of England, June 2010

For the second consecutive year, we have held a diversity "summit" for all 35 institutions in the state of Georgia. Our system is a large one, with over 311,000 students, and the faculty, staff, facilities, leaders, and communities it takes to serve them well. So an institution as sizable as ours can't help but capture the human diversity that is America – by race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, political party, country of origin, physical capability, and of course, ideas. At our first summit, in the fall of 2009, we tackled the chronic challenges most all colleges and universities face: faculty hiring, diversity plans, staff shortages in disability services, the relationship of diversity to state economic development, and various infrastructure and policy issues that are vital if not always scintillating.

This year, we decided to focus on the interpersonal dynamics of conversation about difference – what the Ford Foundation has labeled "difficult dialogues" and we called "courageous conversations." The goal was to put aside the structural matters, like hiring and setting up the right administrative arrangements, and get to the more emotional, fraught dimensions of diversity. To that end, our invited speakers -- academics, consultants, and students -- focused on the psychological and sociological aspects of difference and tolerance, with a great emphasis on the elusive stuff that is so hard to measure. I realize, now that our meetings have ended, that Rabbi Sacks’ notion of the "climate in your head" best fits what we were trying to tackle – all 200 of us faculty and administrators, gathered in the same room for dinner, breakfast, lunch, and conversation.

While everyone in attendance was game for some tough dialogue, and more important, learning how to introduce hard conversations onto campuses, few of us were prepared to do any introspection. After all, we already believe in diversity, which is why we organized the event, took two days out of our schedules to be there, and -- for many in attendance -- even hold positions with "diversity" in the title. While the sorts of leaders who head up diversity and inclusion efforts are as cynical as everyone else in America is right now, we are generally the upbeat types who do see civility and multiculturalism as central to what we do.

Three very different speakers – a historian (Tom Sugrue of the University of Pennsylvania), a psychologist (Layli Maparyan of Georgia State University), and a high-powered educational consultant (Glenn Singleton) all told us the same thing, in the most non-touchy-feely of ways: Don’t try to teach inclusion or lecture others about diversity unless you feel it in your gut. Do you? If you don’t, forget trying to be effective on your own campus. They were not asking us to go to church, or synagogue, or mosque, or the woods for perfunctory meditation to confirm with our own selves that we are in fact without prejudice. They asked more than that, urging us to evaluate our own attitudes in a rigorous, systematic way and, in Singleton’s words, "experience discomfort" and "expect/accept non-closure."

It wasn’t squishy at all -- far from it -- and our speakers gave us a variety of tools to conduct the introspection, and to pass on to others. But it was not the only practical advice we received, since we learned as much from each other during two magical days of thinking, reflecting, and no ringing cell phones. Maybe it is old wine in new bottles, but many hardened attendees, who had been to 20 and 30 years worth of diversity events, were inspired by, or at least reminded of, these notions:

There is the surface and then what lies beneath. Staying with the rabbi’s joke, and adding a distinction from my own field of public opinion research: It really is about climate and not about weather. Weather is the fleeting opinions of a person or nation, while climate is our underlying values and deeply-held beliefs. With diversity, the good and bad stuff that happens in a particular instance – the terrific MLK day event, a religious unity forum, or the flinging of some hate speech toward minority students – tends to be weather. Those are events, moments in time, and signify very little about your fundamental campus dynamics. They are distracting, time-consuming, and even frightening, but in many ways they don’t matter: I have been on many campuses with horrendous racial dynamics that managed to stage some pretty great diversity events. Alternatively, some of the campuses with the most harmony and diversity have very little programming or high-profile events, and just live tolerance, day-to-day. What goes on under the surface at your place, and have you made the distinction between climate and weather?

That said, while diversity programming may indeed be weather, and not indicative of climate, it must go on. I’ve become somewhat skeptical about events that celebrate diversity, because I am not sure they solve our problems or overcome all those anxieties. But I reversed myself at our summit, after hearing from our students. Just because we’ve been at hundreds of great events does not mean they have: a blind student from a sparsely populated rural area can find a lecture series about the struggles and triumphs of physically-challenged Americans life-changing and life-affirming. They are legitimated, they meet friends, they meet faculty, they are inspired.

Leaders, get out there for real. Those of us who are senior administrators are going to have to go spend quality time, not chatty superficial cocktail-hour-type time, with non-administrators. You are not off the hook by attending celebratory diversity events, or engaging in the bizarrely named non-management technique of "management by walking around." You actually should go have some meaningful conversations with faculty, staff, and students. Many campus leaders think that if they have a few minority fellow-leaders, they do have a circle for conversation. All set! But it’s just not good enough and it's too much pressure on your minority colleagues; they can’t represent all their many diverse peoples. Plunge into the late night dorm lounges – students are much more loquacious in these places after around 9 p.m. And if you want to get the most nuanced understanding of tolerance and intolerance on your campus, spend some time with a group of the more senior secretarial staff. They see and hear it all, and they can give you an understanding of climate that you will not just stumble into on your usual rounds or capture in a "climate study."

Rhetoric. Learn some language to use, to articulate what you mean by diversity and inclusion. One of the most difficult parts of starting courageous conversations is gathering the rhetorical tools for it. Most of us don’t have them, and did not pick them up in our chosen scholarly disciplines. This is not a secret jargon, just the words that really do describe how people feel in fraught situations – discomfort, fear, silence, intimidation, tension, anxiety. "Anxiety" is probably the overriding emotion, when it comes to difficult talk about difference, and it works on so many levels: we feel anxious ourselves, we see others struggle with it, and there is a broader social anxiety present in political discourse on television. Understanding its many manifestations and modes puts one a long way toward articulating diversity and challenges to it.

Diverse peoples, but also diverse ideas. It is about the diversity of ideas, in part. This is a tough one for many academics, but those who criticize higher education from the right are correct about the narrow conversation we enable. Of course the academy is dominated by liberals; it is an empirical reality. This demands we recognize what we know in our scholarly disciplines: that there is always diversity of thought, and it matters as much as the optical diversity we discuss so often – skin color, gender, dress. Enabling conservatives their place on campus is part of inclusion. Welcome it, encourage it, always work to tolerate any ideology that irks you. As long as it is not hate speech, and the ground rules are based in openness and civility, all ideologies get to occupy the legitimate level playing field, with all the other people and ideas.

Dating, sex, and maybe even love (occasionally?). You can turn red here because you are reading this alone. If you are over 30, faculty or administrator, you must face the fact that your understanding of students’ social world is deficient and most likely, near zero. You don’t get it. And don’t think that having teenagers at home yourself is educative, because they aren’t living in dorms yet. Students’ habits and approaches to relationships are foreign to us but very much about diversity: Who is doing what with whom? Who won’t do what with whom? Who talks about who does what and why? All the dalliances and what they mean are confusing. But don’t underestimate the centrality and hurtfulness of everyday sexual life to our students, as the awful suicide case of Rutger’s student Tyler Clementi underscored so dramatically. Diversity is conflated with sexuality in multiple ways, and while you are unlikely to understand it fully, you need to try.

Obviously, you cannot – although students have led me there on occasion – go around and initiate delicate discussions of sexuality and diversity yourself. You need a student mentor or guide through the jungle, and they are happy to help. It is more than fine, on this topic at least, to be led by your students and follow their lead with regard to both planning discussions and holding them. After the first or second immersion, it’s easier and you may even be able to lead yourself, giving the preface that your own days of youthful partnering are long past! They will think you are very cool, but most of all, that you care enough to try and understand them.

Technology is overrated. We are turning to technology wherever we can – to save money, reach students through distance learning, improve contact in large lecture courses through "clickers," and the like. But when it comes to difficult conversations about diversity and inclusion, it is best to approach communication in the old-fashioned way. Individual uses of the Internet for comfort and advice are rampant and our students know precisely how to mine the web for ideas and data about race, ethnicity, and difference. But Internet advice and even online relationships are no replacement for face-to-face discussion on campus, where the students actually live. They do not live online, and we all know it. They live with other human beings in confined spaces, and the online world has not prepared and will not prepare them for the complexity of being with physical others. While web discussions are helpful, they are no substitute for courageous in-person conversations, and nearly every student I have raised this with agrees. They are, in fact, starved for difficult conversation on understaffed campuses, where everyone tells them to just "go look online" to solve their problems or get help.

Are women still part of “diversity”? One of the most interesting moments of our summit was hearing from a female student, on a panel of racially and ethnically diverse students. She argued that women's issues are lost in the rush to celebrate all cultures, and was baffled as to why. It is still, as it always has been, difficult to interest male students in "Take Back the Night" rallies or discussions of gender inequality. Women students and faculty note a common view on their campuses that issues of female equality and oppression are old hat, and should take a back seat to other struggles for justice. Can't women pretty much do what they want, with some hard work, tenacity, and flair? Look at Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin or any number of women leaders in corporate America, in the media, and in the higher reaches of sports management. Well, the great equality hasn’t reached that far, when only 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and only 14 percent of research university presidents are women. Keep the "woman conversation" front and center in the discussion of diversity, and you will be addressing the ambitions of well over half the students in American higher education today.

At the end of the summit, we left feeling inspired and engaged, in part because of the fellowship and because the last panel was composed of students. We were so proud of them – their courage and their leadership. We don’t rely on them enough to teach us, and they are the ones who make us more sophisticated about difference. Students also underscore the nature of the work ahead, work that seems harder than ever because the last few miles are more complex to tread. Outright discrimination is fading, and hatred is more subtle and nuanced, as so many social scientists have demonstrated. We can tackle it still, and improve both weather and climate, but not unless we make the time for introspection and conversation, between the summits.


Susan Herbst is chief academic officer for the University System of Georgia and professor of public policy at Georgia Tech.


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