Frank Bruni: Colleges Need to Examine Student Diversity Within Their Walls!

Dear Commons Community,

For the past week and especially in light of the comments made by Justice Antonin Scalia, we have been following the Supreme Court deliberations regarding affirmative action at the University of Texas.  Frank Bruni, in his New York Times column yesterday, reminded us that affirmative action for admissions is just a first step in a process for building diverse student bodies that truly interact and engage with each other.  He points out:

“So even if a school succeeds in using its admissions process to put together a diverse student body, it often fails at the more important goal that this diversity ideally serves: meaningful interactions between people from different backgrounds, with different scars and different ways of looking at the world.

A given college may be a heterogeneous archipelago. But most of its students spend the bulk of their time on one of many homogeneous islands.

That’s consistent with the splintered state of America today, but it’s a betrayal of education’s mission to challenge ingrained assumptions, disrupt entrenched thinking, broaden the frame of reference.

In that sense it’s a betrayal as well of affirmative action, which isn’t merely a matter of cultural and economic redress and isn’t just about social mobility (though those are plenty worthy aims). It’s about an optimal learning environment for all students: white as well as black, privileged as well as underprivileged.

That environment hinges on what happens after admissions.”

Bruni also quotes Ronald Shaiko, a senior fellow at Dartmouth College’s Nelson A. Rockefeller Center, who wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2013, “The benefits of diversity do not spontaneously arise merely from the presence of a varied student body.”

Shaiko professed amazement at so much toil “to create diverse incoming classes” but so little to “nudge students into interactions outside of their comfort zones.”

“Without such nudges, students will default to sameness,” he concluded. That’s the human way. We’re clannish. Tribal.”

Bruni and Shaiko are making valid commentary.  Colleges and universities cannot just cheer on diversity at admissions but need to do a good deal more to promote it once students are admitted and to develop genuine cultures of diversity within their walls.


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