When Diversity is Tradition - Higher Education

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When Diversity is Tradition

by Sharon Herzeberger

For most of my professional life in colleges and universities I have worked to recruit a more diverse faculty and student body and to create a salutary environment to assure their success. Then, two years ago, I moved to Whittier College, and I saw first-hand and for the first time what I had been aiming for.

Colleges and universities all over America seek the educational environment that Whittier College provides: an exciting culture of diversity, where students and faculty cross boundaries of race, ethnicity, class, religion and nationality on a daily basis, and develop the skills and confidence to learn from, work with, and ultimately lead others. But what I notice, as a new member of the Whittier community, is that here diversity is background. It is so prevalent that it is woven into the fabric of our institution; it is inseparable from our culture, and herein lies the key to our success.

How did Whittier achieve this environment, and what lessons can we share with others?

First, we benefit from a distinctive educational philosophy framed by our Quaker founders 120 years ago and symbolized in being named after the great abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier. From the beginning, we enrolled a diverse student body that challenged each member to listen to the disparate voices of others and to learn about commonality through difference. Our status today as one of the most diverse, private four-year colleges in America is the deliberate result of long-held values guiding strategic decisions and an unwavering belief in the educational benefits of diversity.

Whittier has a compelling story to tell, and a long history to back it up. If your college or university is not so fortunate, create your story now and build on it. In 10 years, the story will be an important frame for institutional decisions and will continue to drive your success towards building diversity.

Second, for diversity to become background it’s not about offering a good orientation program, and it’s certainly not about fulfilling a course credit or two. Students need to encounter difference everywhere, with almost every discipline and almost any course providing opportunities to explore multiple cultural perspectives.

And numbers count. With over one-third of our faculty being people of color, we provide role models and chances to learn around each corner. Whittier has taken advantage of the generosity of external foundations, early retirement programs, course development funds, and happenstance to build the diversity of our offerings and our faculty today. Look for opportunity and take it.

Third, aim high in seeking a diverse student body. With over 42 percent of our students identifying themselves as people of color, we’re already setting even higher goals and seeking opportunities to diversify our diversity. For example, we are reaching well beyond our California base to recruit Latinos. Not content with our enviable 28 percent Latino population, we are busy recruiting students of Cuban descent from Miami, Puerto Rican descent from New York, and immigrants from anywhere in between. And we won’t be satisfied until students from all backgrounds feel the comfort that comes from a reasonable critical mass. Set high goals and then keep at it until you get there.

Finally, invest the resources to reflect your commitment and invest more than you believe you can afford. Achieving Whittier’s level of diversity has been expensive. If Whittier can afford it, other colleges can too. And the results are worth the cost. They are worth it every time I see students from very different circumstances and backgrounds sitting together in the cafeteria; every time Latinos and other groups graduate at rates equal to or higher than Whites; and every time national surveys affirm that our students have serious conversations with people of other races or ethnicities at rates much higher than do their Carnegie peers elsewhere.

There is nothing like hearing from students’ voices themselves. I told students that I was writing this piece and invited them to share their thoughts. Three responses stood out. After applauding the many cross-cultural dialogues made possible so casually through daily interaction, one student summed it up by saying that Whittier made it “easy to soar thousands of miles without ever leaving the grounds” of our campus. A thoroughly “Americanized” Chinese immigrant reported having the luxury of exploring and being awakened to the rich roots of her own heritage. And another student stated that Whittier provides a constant reminder that we can learn from people of all different backgrounds and count on each other for our success. To him, Whittier College is a great equalizer.

Achieving the aims of diversity is a process. It starts by placing diversity in the foreground, with commitment and with visibility, and ultimately it just becomes a part of what you are.

— Dr. Sharon Herzberger is president of Whittier College in Whittier, Calif.

 

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