The Diversity Debacle

Professor Ronald Shaiko spoke to The Review about his well-researched but uncommon take on diversity.

Professor Ronald Shaiko (left) spoke to The Review about his well-researched but uncommon take on diversity.

Students of Dartmouth College are more than familiar with the school’s seemingly endless initiatives on diversity. From the ambiguity of OPAL to President Hanlon’s recent (and controversial) initiative on “Inclusive Excellence,” the administration has forced diversity into the thoughts of most students. It is difficult to imagine – with the College’s countless programs dedicated to every type of diversity – that these efforts are not yielding some sort of results. Yet tensions within the student body have recently reached approached a boiling point, culminating in the controversial Black Lives Matter protests in November. With the Administration’s less-than-verbose response to such student strife, we at the Review have reached out to Dartmouth’s own Ronald G. Shaiko, Associate Director for Curricular and Research Programs at The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center, who has recently published on the misguided attempts at diversity so prevalent in the world of higher education today.

Professor Shaiko’s work, particularly his article “Admissions Is Just Part of the Diversity Puzzle” in The Chronicle of Higher Education (he was also quoted in a New York Times editorial entitled “The Lie About College Diversity”), explains the two sides of social engagement prevalent on a campus: bonding and bridging. Bonding, a process undergone naturally by humans as social beings, involves the forming of deeper, personal relationships and friendships and the “deep trust and reciprocity with those whom you know well and care about—think fraternities, sororities, and affinity houses.” Dartmouth is a strong performer in the all three categories of organizations, boasting twenty-seven Greek organizations and over twenty Living Learning Communities (LLCs) in different forms. Unfortunately, this leaves “bridging,” the more important and effective element, according to Shaiko, almost entirely unaddressed. Bridging “involves bringing together different races, ethnicities, […] and sexual orientations in common cause,” and is crucial to developing diversity. The true meaning of diversity involves an exchange of ideas between different groups of students, which is hindered by the studentry “hunkering down” in College-sponsored groups. Shaiko discusses these ideas and offers potential solutions in his writing and in the following interview.


The Dartmouth Review (TDR): In your research, what successful example of “choice architecture,” encouraging students of diverse backgrounds to interact, have you come across?

Ronald Shaiko (RS): Unfortunately there aren’t many models out there. There’s a general pattern out there of having admissions offices basically getting it right, in the sense that they’re trying to create a diverse class. There have to be a set of marching orders being given to the admissions office as to what they’re looking for. My guess is around here it’s ever more diverse – I think every school gets that. But in terms of the social space on campuses, it tends to look very homogenous. So the front end I’m all right with; that’s a necessary, but not sufficient, piece of the puzzle. The collective patting-one’s-self-on-the-back as an admissions office is all well and good, but if it doesn’t get to what Justice [Sandra Day] O’Connor was talking about [putting people in an environment different from their high school experiences and preparing them for the real world], it’s a failure. Total waste of time and effort. The choice architecture that’s in place at most universities is one that facilitates the bonding side – we go out of our way to make people comfortable, give them the opportunity to be with people just like them – and I think that’s just not the way to do it. If you’re serious about the O’Connor doctrine of making it matter and having it be relevant in what we do when we leave college and go into the real world, that is a step in the wrong direction. [The bonding aspect] will happen on its own – you’re going to gravitate toward people like you as a matter of human nature. So why do anything to promote that at the expense of mixing with people that aren’t just like you?

The Yale model of what we’re trying to emulate now with the new house system is a step in the right direction – as long as you don’t give people the opt-out option in that choice architecture. So if it’s going to have eight or nine houses, and you take the 1100 that come here in the fall and you randomly put people into one of those nine places, that would truly get at diversity. That would be the best way to do it. But if you still have the opt-out options of going into any one of the affinity houses, then you’ve diluted the diversity by having that take place, and your experiment fails, or is less impactful than it might have been otherwise. The opt-out option is still there; incoming freshmen in the class of 2020 will still get the option of finding an affinity house and opting out of this process. It hasn’t been implemented yet so we don’t know how it’s going to work, but the fewer opt-outs the better, as far as I’m concerned. The fewer opportunities that students have to revert to sameness, the better off we’re going to be.

When groups go up to COSO and try to get funding through COSO as athletic programs, they’re shut down because they’re built to be “exclusive,” yet they represent a quarter [of the student population]; yet COSO will fund a southeast Asian dance group that that has eight or nine people sign the document. There’s a bit of a disconnect in terms of the choice architecture that exists here on campus. Long answer to an important question, but there’s still more choice architecture that facilitates sameness here and allows you to “get off the hook” as far as I can see. If this place operated optimally, the entire campus would be a comfort zone. You wouldn’t need places to be comfortable. That should be the goal of the administration: to make the entire campus a place where people feel comfortable; rather than facilitating them to have their own spaces, they should be seeking the entire campus to be that space.

TDR: To what extent does the “bonding” type of social capital facilitate the “bridging” type of social capital? Does it? What kind of role does it play?

RS: It actually inhibits it. The examples that are in the article, Beirut and Baghdad, they’re highly bonded cities, terribly unbridged, and unfortunately more campuses look more like Baghdad and Beirut than like really integrated types of campuses. Bonding is important, don’t get me wrong, but for most of us, that’s going to happen anyway. Even if you didn’t know a soul when you got to campus, in a matter of weeks, you’ve developed your bonding social capital. Could be on your floor, could have been on the DOC trips; also a perfect example of bridging social capital. Throw twelve people who don’t know each other together and see what happens. That’s sort of the fascinating thing at Commencement, that the DOC trip groups get back together and take photos four years after the fact. So it does have some sort of meaningfulness to people. I wish there were more examples of that, where you just throw a group of people together, and see what happens. There’s very little that’s being done on campus to make that a norm. And yet, come to COSO with a group of people all alike and they’ll fund you. Again, the choice architecture is in the reverse of what it should be.

TDR: How, if at all, can the desire for safe-spaces be reconciled with the true goal of diversity?

RS: In many ways it seems to be admitting failure that you have to have safe spaces on campus. It’s saying that the campus is not comfortable enough for people of all walks of life to take part in without feeling some pain or some fear. When I was an undergrad, I wasn’t comfortable, and I was thrown into a very different environment than I grew up in. But as I said, I never felt like I ever needed to be treated any differently than any other kind of student, that I needed a special place for myself. And so the concept of safe space is one that I can understand, and I think that to the point that that’s a response to being fearful of what exists on a campus, there’s a validity to that claim, but the notion that I would have needed a place for myself and people like me on the campus that I went to college on, would have been a foreign notion. I simply didn’t need that. And I don’t perceive this campus to be that much different. So the notion of requiring that to be a part of your experience is really a mark against the institution, that there’s a need felt by a critical mass of people that they have to have a space that’s their own, and that no one else but them can take advantage of that space. Multiply that by whatever number of constituents needs safe spaces, that’s the ultimate definition of bonding. That’s the little Beiruts and the little Baghdads of the world, and it’s unfortunate when colleges and university campuses feel the need to have such spaces. I want administrations to decide that’s what needs to be fixed. We have to create an environment where that’s not necessary and, rather than accommodating those needs, fix the damn campus. Fix the environment to make them not necessary. The extent that administrations are bending over in a direction that supports and facilitates that, in the end, it’s not going to be terribly beneficial. It’s just not going to solve the problem. “Oh, in addition to our fourteen affinity houses, we have twenty-seven safe spaces.” That wouldn’t attract me to Dartmouth College. My first response: I thought this was Dartmouth College, why do you even need those things? So the response needs to be a much more holistic one in terms of dealing with the campus environment, and not group-specific. I think that just continues the same pattern of response by administrations to students. And I don’t think that’s the healthiest way to deal with campus environment. By isolating and carving out pieces and doing those types of things, you never are well served when that’s the end product. Again, the housing system is a step in the right direction. They finally got the right idea, so build on that. Make every one of those houses “safe spaces.” Then you’re doing it right.

TDR: There’s this metaphor that exists about park rangers vs. zookeepers when it comes to diversity. Can you elaborate on that?

RS: All you’d have to do is listen to the tours that come through: they go around and it’s almost like traveling through a zoo, where they’re pointing out, “This is where the lions live, this is where the bears live, this is where…” and the campus looks like we’ve got self-contained units for various types of students. We are league leaders in number of affinity houses that we have for a campus of our size. The deans reflect that. There’s deans for every one of those groups that serve the various places and facilitates and advocate for them in the administration. That’s not serving the general good in a way that would make diversity matter here on campus. What I want to see is park rangers: it’s an entire wildlife refuge here, and those who administer that are keeping a watchful eye on all of the component parts, not just the bears, not just the lions, but everyone. I’d rather see a deanery that reflects that, making sure that habitat is vital and nurturing rather than having zookeepers making sure the bears are okay and making sure the lions are okay. I can see that there’s an efficacy to that, in that the care and feeding of each of those groups is important in and of itself, but I think there are ways that you can do it in a more inclusive way, in a way where everyone matters to each other. How do the bears get to know the lions if they don’t even come into contact with one another? The downside is they might tear each other apart, but that’s what the park rangers are there for: establishing the entire habitat’s set of rules and norms. Part of that as well are the campus wide norms and values that everyone should be adhering to. How much are they enforced or are they reinforced by the administration, to say, regardless of who you are, “You’re not being a good citizen, or that group isn’t being collectively good citizens.” That is something that’s fair, from an administration point of view, to call people out on. I don’t think we get enough of that. Yes, you’re all adults, [but] you’re not quite ready to have a rule free environment. We ought to be imposing something on you, or at least giving you cues about what’s acceptable and what’s not. And it has nothing to do with race or ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation or anything, it’s just: “You’re a Dartmouth student, behave like one.” You would get that more in this environment where you’re not drawing demarcation lines between various groups and allowing for behaviors to be unevenly regulated.

I think the response from campuses from the 1970s to the 2010s has been much more dramatic, becoming much more diverse, but at the same time basically allowing for this facilitation of bonding to take place in a much more dramatic way. The explosion of the administrations of these universities is all addressing, however poorly, this diversity question. There are more jobs for deans for diversity and inclusion out there than any other job on the administrator side. Again, they’ve got the marching orders all wrong, because the general thrust of that literature and of those people who are serving in those positions facilitate sameness – give comfort to every X group that’s available on campus – and I think that’s missing the point entirely. I’m not sure how you get around it, because they’re doing it for symbolic reasons. It’s not as though they’ve overlooked that position for 180 years, and we finally realized we needed that job filled. No, it’s symbolic representation; it’s a way of diversifying your administration just as you’re diversifying your student body. And the pushback that our faculty isn’t diverse, it’s absolutely true. But what are we going to do about that? What’s the job of Dartmouth College to fix that? Well at this point, were at the receiving end of what the marketplace bears in terms of producing faculty members in any of our departments that would meet the standards of any of our departments, but it seems to me that we should be partly responsible for filling that pool of diverse students who would become faculty members at Dartmouth college. What programs are in place to do that here? None whatsoever. Why aren’t we making a “Pipeline to PhD” program? Of all the positives that I’ve seen in fifteen years of being at Dartmouth, one of the downsides is that we do not do a very good job of nudging students into academia. Perhaps it’s because the degree is so worthwhile in the marketplace that why would you “waste it” on becoming an academic? It’s just not an avenue that’s pursued very much by Dartmouth undergrads. That could be fixed. So how do you change that? We could have a role in that. As Dartmouth College, that’s not one that’s yet been put on the books as a longer-term solution to the problem. Why don’t we grow our own? Not much talk about that. How can you incentivize that process? That’s something that the College has to step up and respond to.

TDR: We see this as sort of “faux-diversity,” meaning “on paper, not in practice,” through the admissions practices not really being on the same page as the administration. What sort of a role is this playing?

RS: All the metrics that are used are the admissions metrics. They picked 1,100 people that are really diverse. But to what end? This campus is not diverse simply because the 4,400 that currently occupy this place meet these demographic characteristics. If they don’t interact with each other and build off each other’s strengths, then there’s no reason to do that in the first place. If that’s the diversity plan for Dartmouth College – just simply get a diverse group of people, throw them on campus together, and hope everything works out – that’s not a strategy. To what end did you just bring these people together? You denied entry to some people and you allowed some people to come in, why was that so? Is it just, “We don’t care, we just hope things happen and we’re not going to do much to make that happen, and in fact, we’re going to make things even more difficult by facilitating bonding?” They’re working across purposes; why do one if you’re not going to fulfill the real value of having a diverse campus? Otherwise, it doesn’t matter. It’s a waste of time. True, campuses today are more diverse than they’ve ever been. That’s not a lie.   But it’s what you’ve done with it that’s a half-truth. Where’s the evidence-based research that says that it means anything for Dartmouth College, or any university, to have diverse people coming on to your campus? I want to see the data there. I would be far more impressed with that data than the data saying, “Here’s what the class looks like.”

The causal arrow isn’t pointing in any particular direction when you get them all here. It’s a random crapshoot as to what’s going to happen when you bring 1,100 people to the same place at the same time. That’s the interesting thing: so much social engineering goes into the admissions process, and then they just stop. Other than the DOC trips: that’s social engineering. That’s saying that we’re going to make something interesting here. We’re going to take twelve people who don’t know each other and put them in a group. Then send them off into the woods and see what happens. So at the initial point, we’re better than most. And look how many schools have adopted the DOC trip model, because we’ve been doing it for forever. So people understand that that’s a good way to get things started, but we drop the ball after that. We basically completely draw to a stop when you get back on campus your freshman year. Again, the house system – the McLaughlin cluster is a perfect space to do a great experiment of putting just a random group of people into the building, and they’re going to mess it up by wasting it on affinity housing. But I’m giving them positive marks for making this step. This is the way you would fix it. This is the beginning of a way to make diversity matter in a much more meaningful way than the current model we’re operating under. You force people into freshmen housing, and that happens everywhere, but as soon as you lift that lid, everyone dashes to find their friends and their close-bonding social capital. And the diversity is rarely evident in those groups. Sometimes, you’ll get it, and that’s good, but most times you won’t. It’s going to be Asian students living together. It’s going to be white suburban kids living together, and men, and women, and so forth. And that’s not really what you’re looking for.

TDR: What role does the Greek system, being so strong here on campus, play in this?

RS: Actually, I hesitate to use the word “impressed” but, the Greeks and the secret societies have at least tried to make their take on diversity. Doing it in a hyper illegal way, by having quotas or having tap-lines, but, at least they’re doing it. So they recognize reality as well by saying, “We need to do something to make ourselves more diverse.” Is every fraternity a microcosm of male campus? No. But it’s certainly better than fifteen years ago when I got here. I’ve seen that difference occur. I’ve seen secret societies that were all white male that are no longer so. It’s [achieved through] quota, but I don’t care. It’s a step in the right direction. They’ve taken it upon themselves to figure out how they’re going to do it. Whether it’s legal or not from a constitutional perspective is a question that, to me, is irrelevant. After all, they are secret societies and no one should know about them anyway. But the notion that they’ve tried is a step in the right direction. [Nowadays] there’s a lot more ways you can see diversity on this campus in a much more tangible way. I’ve seen both on the sorority and the fraternity side an attempt to diversify. Are they leaders? Perhaps not, but they’ve at least tried. They’ve taken it upon themselves because I don’t think there’s been any pressure from the administration to say “you’re in danger of losing your charter or recognition if you don’t get more diverse.” I’ve never heard those words being uttered by any administration official here. So I give them credit for taking it upon themselves to diversify on their own. But it’s not the solution to this problem.

TDR: What does a solution to these issues look like?

RS: It should involve students disproportionately, and I don’t really feel like there’s a critical mass, other than individual groups having leaders, willing to take that step. I think that the administration has to serve as the facilitator of all this, and there could be stronger leadership at the top from the administrative side. I think students would take cues from someone if they were given clear messages, and this isn’t a specific critique of President Hanlon, because I think in general he’s got the right idea. I think there were a couple of missed opportunities where I would have been more far forceful on actions taken on campus, in calling people out, in handling things in a little bit of a different way, but I think in general he gets the problem. Students are looking for that leadership and are ready to be led in a direction. But I also think that a significant part your campus, in a bridging way, need to come forth and say this is what we would expect of the campus as well as what is expected of us, and I haven’t seen that appear yet, and I’m not sure the mechanisms in place will allow that. Whenever you get a committee that’s got students, faculty, and staff on it, it’s not clear that the students are going to be primary players in that model. So I would have been just as interested, if not more interested, in committees that are all student based, and socially engineered in such a way that they can’t be stacked in any particular way. We’re moving in the right direction, but there’s a lot of work to do.

I think there’s a lot that still needs to be done to get to a point where there’s no need for safe places and this “hunkered down” notion. That’s happened in the last five or six years; this was not a “hunker-down” campus ten years ago, and now it is. People are afraid to talk outside their comfort groups, their bonding groups. I’ve overheard conversations up in the gym: two sorority sisters talking, “Oh you don’t say anything, don’t talk to people.” Everyone’s afraid to say what he feels, and that’s terrible, that’s not a way for a university to operate, and so we’re in a tough position, where we can’t even be honest with each other. That to me is the crux of the problem. We’re not even to the point where we can have communication in an adult, rational, honest way. We can’t even articulate our own views in an honest fashion without feeling like we’re going to get our heads chopped off. And part of it could be, “Oh, this too shall pass,” because in four years from now none of you will be here; we’ll have 4,500 different students here. Maybe it’s just the confluence of this 4,500 students that just didn’t click and it never will, but we’ll outgrow it.

[Robert Putnam’s E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century, 2007] could have been far more impactful on social science in the United States than it is, because he buried it. If that book had come out the way he wanted it to come out – if those findings had come out the way he wanted them to come out – that would have been just been just as much of a bestseller as Bowling Alone was. He didn’t publish it because it showed that diversity doesn’t work: the chief finding was this stuff is hard to do, and if you apply it to colleges it will never happen, that the only kind of diversity that works is long-term diversity, it’s multi-generational, it’s living with people over a long period of time, getting to know them, and then it all works out. Well, if you turn a campus over every four years, it’s not going to happen the way he was looking for it, the way he defined diversity (as mattering in this community or society). It’s only been referenced twice that I can see in academic literature, relating to higher education, and both times they discount it: “He’s writing about communities. So that doesn’t apply to Dartmouth or any other college.” That’s nonsense. What are these other than communities? They’re gated communities, in fact. They’ve been self-selected communities. If this doesn’t apply to this place, then where does it apply? That was a multi-million-dollar study and to get one publication out of it, in a Swedish journal, is really telling. And that’s why I phrased it in the way I did. Sandwiched between two best sellers was a project that was equally impactful but got buried because the results weren’t what he wanted to find.

So it’s not easy. Creating diverse campuses is probably the hardest thing to do because there’s no long term. You get four years to make a diverse campus. But again, I think that the architects of these diversity movements didn’t think about that. They just said all we need to do is find people that are diverse and bring them to campuses and that’s all that matters. No. Far more than that matters. That’s a necessary condition and can be the most detrimental part of your success. The more diversity you get, the harder it’s going to be to be a diverse campus. So we’ve set ourselves up for failure in that sense. If the academic literature that’s relevant to what we’re talking about here says it rarely happens in the short term, it sometimes happens in the middle term, and eventually it might happen in the long-term, and we’re on a four-year cycle, what does that bode for us? Other than having hunkered down campuses, and everyone bonding in their little groups, and then we could go back to just having lily white campuses, where everyone’s just alike, because that’s what we’ve got anyway. What we really have is fourteen different colleges going on and they just share the same faculty. I don’t think that’s what people had in mind [with regards to creating] more diverse campuses. I wouldn’t want to walk a mile in Hanlon’s boots; it’s a tough job, and I bet it keeps him up at night. “How do I fix this? How do I make this work?” Part of it is, he’s got an architecture in place that’s working against his goal. Everything that has been set up over the last twenty years is counter-productive to making it a diverse campus, And so to try to dismantle the administration and rebuild it: I wish him luck, because that’s not easy.

  • Observer70

    First, I think there is an argument to be made that the proliferation of separate spaces does not simply defeat true diversity but actively promotes behavior that destroys it. That is, the lack of “bridging” contributes to an “us against them” mentality that paves the way for would-be leaders to seek prestige and approval by styling themselves as heroic champions struggling against oppression by the College and their fellow students. Unfortunately, such melodramatic, over-the-top diatribes create and exacerbate tension. There is naturally resentment when students like the sorority sisters mentioned above feel they cannot speak their minds for fear of retribution.
    Second, calls for ever more safe spaces appear to me to be a sign of the times, as much as an indication that the current approach is a failure. Not only are safe spaces and microaggressions fashionable, but also students have learned that administrators can be bullied and manipulated by such rhetoric; hence the supply of rhetoric increases. And the more safe spaces you create, the more bureaucrats you have whose jobs depend on defending their turf (which apparently often includes praising destructive and divisive behavior).

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  • Vox_Clams

    Back in the 70’s, we called it integration, and virtually everyone favored it. Integration efforts yielded mix results (eg., dorms and sports teams were integrated pretty well; Thayer less so as evidenced by Line 1 v Line 4), but for the most part, the direction was positive. Students went out of their way to embrace the opportunity to become friends with someone from a different ethnic group. Integration, of course, was facilitated by the fact that the only color that mattered was Dartmouth Green.

    Now we have “diversity,” which has turned into a euphemism for segregation. Not surprisingly, with all this emphasis on “diversity,” segregation has made a comeback that the most avid racist of the 1950’s would envy. There is a movement afoot at Dartmouth and elsewhere for residences where only “people of color” are welcome. I fail to see the distinction between marking those “affinity houses” and marking the drinking fountains “colored.”

    Separate but superior is no less invidious (to use one of Professor Starzinger’s terms) than separate but equal.

    As Chief Justice Warren wrote in Brown v Board of Education, “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

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  • piper60

    Perhaps the writer touches on the obvious solution. If being a “secret society” or more likely, a “society with secrets” attracts the ire of the moral Olympus in Parkhurst, perhaps students should adopt the solution of their predecessors the 1830’s and go invisible, be secret in fact as well as in name, like the French Resistance. If the Polish Boy Scouts could survive the active persecution of the SS and the Communist Party, surely the fraternities and sororities can foil the little tin Gods of Student Life Controllers?!