The Importance of True Diversity

On March 31, 2016, the Dartmouth Admissions Office released admissions decisions for the class of 2020, this year’s freshman class. The press release from their website, like it does every year, trumpeted the fact that the class of 2020, my class, is “a socioeconomically, culturally, and geographically diverse group.” This year was no different. While the admissions decisions for regular decision have yet to be announced, a December 14, 2016 announcement boasted that those “admitted early decision to the Class of 2021 make up one of the most intellectually engaged and diverse groups Dartmouth has ever accepted.” I took the liberty of reading the “acceptance announcements” stretching back to the class of 2017, this year’s seniors. Each announcement seems to follow a very specific format. Each is roughly 650 words (coincidentally the length of a Common Application essay), heavy with statistics such as test scores, class ranks, and financial aid, and ends with a plug for Dimensions. What is particularly interesting, however, is the opening “hook;” Each announcement proclaims the racial and ethnic diversity of the incoming class. For 2020, it was the percentage of students of color. In 2017, the percentage of Native Americans and Asian Americans, and so on.

Suffice to say, every year, the admissions office pats itself on the back for creating a “diverse” class. But in reality, how diverse is Dartmouth? My argument is not enough, but not for the reasons held by those who occupied Parkhurst to demand a “Freedom Budget.” It is not that we are not diverse because we do not have enough people from specific racial or socioeconomic or geographic groups. That may be true, but that is not the main problem. The problem is that we treat diversity wrong. The prevailing sentiment views diversity as a function of things we do not control: such as race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or birthplace. While this technically counts as diversity on paper, the diversity that truly drives learning, growth, scholarship, and debate is something different. The diversity that matters is diversity of opinion.

For example, take a look at Dartmouth’s core values, set out on the mission statement page of its website. According to the site, “Dartmouth embraces diversity with the knowledge that it significantly enhances the quality of a Dartmouth education.” Dartmouth also, according to our core values, “supports the vigorous and open debate of ideas within a community marked by mutual respect.”

In a typical Writing 5 class, a requirement of all first-year students, how does each type of diversity contribute to the quality of the education a student receives, or the breadth of different ideas vigorously debated in class discussions? Imagine a discussion where a student disagrees with one of his peers and argues that the United States should continue to support NAFTA. Does it matter whether he is Black, White, or Asian? Does it matter whether he grew up a few miles away or halfway around the globe? Does it matter how much money his family has? I sincerely hope not. I would hope that we have reached a place, as a society and as scholars, where we evaluate people based on their ideas and actions and not based on biographical facts. Here at Dartmouth, biographical diversity (race, hometown, socioeconomic status, etc.) does not and should not determine one’s value to a discussion.

Is it a tale of two diversities at Dartmouth? (Photograph courtesy of Shutterstock)

Is there a tale of two diversities at Dartmouth? (Photograph courtesy of Shutterstock)

Instead, let us look at a conversation from the angle of diversity of opinion. In that same Writing 5 class, the professor decides to talk about NAFTA. Does it matter whether the whole class supports NAFTA or whether there is disagreement? Does it matter whether the class is made up entirely of supporters of one economic system or whether some students in the class believe in capitalism, while others are socialists? Does it matter whether everyone in the class cares about the economic impacts of free trade or whether some students are more concerned with diplomacy, the agreement’s constitutionality, or its environmental effects? Absolutely. These differences form the crux of scholarly debate. This is diversity of opinion. This is the diversity that “significantly enhances the quality of a Dartmouth education” and “supports the vigorous and open debate of ideas within a community marked by mutual respect.” This is the type of diversity that makes Dartmouth a better place.

I am in no way arguing that racial, geographic, socioeconomic (etc.) experiences do not affect how we perceive the world. On the contrary, these cornerstones of our socialization have a significant impact on how we think, how we feel, and how we react to the world around us. That being said, there are plenty of other aspects of our lives that racial or ethnic diversity fails to account for and can be just as important to forming our opinions. These range from political affiliations and employment experience, to how and with whom free time is spent.

The point is this: biographical diversity is not a good metric for measuring the Dartmouth community. There is data to prove this assertion. The College’s web site reports that about 40% of undergraduates are students of color. If whether or not a student is “of color” is a defining factor in his or her opinions, then Dartmouth Pulse Data should reflect a significant disparity between opinions of the minority of students who are “of color” and the opinions of the general student body. However, this disparity is not reflected in the data. In the Pulse Survey entitled Politics (January), 90% of students “of color” disapproved of President Trump, compared to 87% of the total population – a very similar statistic. 71% of nonwhites approved of President Obama, compared to 72% of the total population. Again, little variation. In the flag burning survey, 66% of students “of color” opposed an amendment banning flag burning, the same as the general Dartmouth student body. This trend of sameness continues. It shows an equal and overwhelming preference for Morano Gelato over other off-campus desserts, a lack of excitement for Valentine’s Day, and around 90% satisfaction with individual undergraduate experiences. This recent Pulse data proves two things. First, racial diversity is not a good metric for measuring the truly important kind of diversity (the diversity of opinion) on campus. Second, the Dartmouth community seems to have a real dearth of diversity of opinion.

If you take anything away from the editorial, I hope that you start to rethink how you look at diversity in your daily life. I hope that you start to think about the ways in which many of us think and act the same. I hope you think about and compare the two diversities in your classes, friend groups, sports teams, and clubs. Most of all, I hope you seek out people who think differently than you do, especially if you do not regularly interact with them. Having new experiences and encountering new opinions is what college is all about.

If you happen to respectfully disagree with me, please feel free to send me an email. I would love to talk—because I wholeheartedly value the diversity of opinion.