Today I attended New Faculty Orientation. This was a good thing as I was previously quite disoriented. I kept walking into walls and everything. Now I am fully oriented to my surroundings.
Having been through different versions of these events at two institutions in my short career, I have concluded that they exist more for the symbolism of welcoming faculty rather than providing any actual information. Everything really important and useful that you will need to know (how to make copies, where to order books, how much you can penalize students for absenteeism, where the men’s room is located, etc.) come from your department (most likely your department’s clerical and administrative staff).
Universities are usually much too large to create an orientation that would be as beneficial to a chemist as it would be for a historian. Our research needs are quite distinct. Indeed, I remember sitting through a very long session at my old Texas institution’s orientation entitled “How To Obtain Permits for an Off Shore Drilling Facility.” While I am sure the two new petroleum engineering professors were riveted, I found it a bit boring. Fortunately my new university has more sense than to even try such foolishness.
As I sat through today’s sessions, though, several things occurred to me. The first is that undergraduates seem a lot younger than I remember them. The college invited in two students to give their perspective on teaching. How long have I been out of the classroom? I felt ancient. Actually, all the junior faculty also seemed really young to me. I am not old (a mere 33), but life in Texas really aged me.
The other main thought that I had centered on the way “diversity” got so much play from the various speakers. Don’t get me wrong – I am not knocking the use of the term exactly. Indeed, I applaud my new institution for fighting to maintain diversity even as enemies of the university seek to dismantle the little diversity that exists.
Still, “diversity” has become accepted as a convenient short hand for something that does not get much real discussion. If you ask almost any university administrator in the nation about their long-term goals for the students and faculty of their institution, they will likely include “increasing diversity” somewhere between “Becoming Number One in U.S. News and World Report” and “Ending the Great Urinal Cake Shortage.”
Universities aren’t the only place where the ambiguous “diversity” gets props, either. I hear many people express a desire to live (or actually do live) in an urban city like Boston, New York, Los Angeles, etc because they “want to be near diversity.” Those who live in small towns likewise complain about the lack of diversity in their locale. By “diversity,” I always assumed that they mean a wider variety of racial backgrounds and (sometimes) more queer people. They don’t often specify what they actually do mean.
The reality of the nation is not at all reflective of all this “celebration of diversity.” The United States, as I have mentioned previously, is more segregated today than it was twenty years ago. What are the most segregated areas? Urban centers, like my dear Boston.
Moreover, individuals, especially whites, are not likely to have serious friendships or relationships with people outside of their own racial group. So, while people want to live near the “diversity,” they seemingly don’t want that diversity in their house. To be honest, I am deeply suspicious of anybody who has never had a meaningful friendship outside of their own racial group (regardless of which group they identity with themselves).
For both universities and people’s individual lives, I think diversity is irreplaceable. Modern universities need the experience and intellectual inquiry that comes from multiple perspectives to function. As an individual human, the greater the number of people that you meet and with whom you can engage, the better off you will be.
Diversity, though, can be an allusive thing to determine. Tomorrow, for instance, I am hosting a cocktail party. By some measures, the guest list is quite diverse. People of white heritage, Latinos, people of Jewish ancestry, and African Americans will be represented. There will be citizens of the U.S. and citizens of several other nations.
By other measures, though, the guest list is quite homogenous (emphasis on the “homo”). We are all queer, have attained the highest level of formal education possible, and live comfortable middle-class lives. Depending on perspective, this same group is both diverse and insular.
It therefore makes me nervous when the term “diversity” becomes untethered from any type of intellectual grounding. It, instead, implies a hollow sense of universality and shared understanding (that I don’t think really exists). We “all know” what diversity means, but I am not sure that we actually agree.
For some, living in urban areas that are deemed appropriately diverse has become an acknowledged sign of an individual’s status and even a certain type of wealth. Yet, that same uncritical approach to diversity also ignores the material poverty that often hinders non-white “diversity” in this nation. Racial diversity, in that case, implies access to different types of restaurants with zesty spices, but not meaningful relationships.
Living near “queer diversity,” likewise, implies new trendy clubs and snappy fashion quips. It ignores, though, the real violence that occurs against queer people in our cities daily.
If universities are serious about diversity, than we need to reframe the way that we talk about it. Most universities provide little institutional support despite their aspirations for a more diverse campus. In Texas, for instance, both the University of Texas and Texas A&M University, the state’s two flagship institutions, failed to even come close to reflecting the state’s non-white majority population. The few people of color who joined the faculty and the few students who attended those universities, moreover, were often isolated. The existing administration seemed unwilling or unable to change the climate on either of those campuses.
Universities should aspire to reflect the reality of the nation’s population in both their student bodies and faculty. Rather than “celebrating" it, diversity should be the state of affairs.