S. Abu Turab Rizvi
Provost and Professor of Economics
Remarks given at the first faculty meeting of the academic year
For all of us the repose and focus we hope to find in summer – the chance to have, in Andrew Marvell’s words, “a green thought in a green shade” – were disturbed by the troubling events of the past few months, which showed the many ways in which people from different backgrounds and experiences can clash with one another, in this country and abroad. It was difficult, to refer to Marvell’s poem again, to “annihilate all that’s made,” or in our parlance, to tune out the news. Yet if our summers were disturbed, other people’s lives were devastated. The responsible institutions of society are asking themselves what they can do in order to help the situation. What can we in higher education do and, in particular what can we at Lafayette do? We have much progress to celebrate and good work that makes us proud. On our own campus, President Byerly’s main initiative, begun last year, and developed in partnership with the faculty, bolsters financial resources to allow the best students from any background to attend Lafayette. Still, as we have realized all along diversity, numerical diversity, is one thing; inclusion, the feeling of being fully a part of an institution, is another. And so our year begins, as President Byerly has pointed out, on the heels of last year’s student protests on racial and social justice at over 60 colleges and universities, which focused precisely on inclusion. Our long, difficult summer promises to extend past Labor Day.
My remarks today will be on inclusion and how to promote it. Regarding specific steps, Dean Rinehart, who is also our chief diversity officer, and from whom you will hear shortly, and President Byerly will send a letter in the next few days outlining those steps. By the next faculty meeting at the latest we will communicate a plan to promote diversity in hiring for faculty members who will begin next year. But this is not only a task for administration. Everyone who can help to build a more inclusive academic enterprise is in the room today. It’s up to all of us. So I’ll offer some thoughts about inclusion, in the hope that they might lead to further conversation and allow us to undertake this work more clearsightedly and with dispatch.
I mentioned significant, notable progress on college campuses. Our own More Than Mizzou conversations last year were illuminating and productive. Even so, we are not yet where we need to be in order to serve our students as well as we would like. Marvell, in the poem I’ve been referring to, “The Garden,” asks us to use our imaginations, to use our minds to conceive of “far other worlds, other seas.” We are now in colleges that have changed their student compositions markedly since the seventies. Women are now nearly on every U.S. campus a majority, many traditionally white campuses now have a fifth, a quarter or more students of color, as we do, and a tenth international students, with diverse religions, sexualities, and socioeconomic backgrounds among them all. So let’s use our imaginations. If we had free rein to design a campus with this population in mind, what would it look like? Whose pictures would be on the walls, who would be teaching and mentoring in them, what would the staff and administration look like, what would be taught, what traditions, rituals, and social life would there be, what sense of belonging would be enjoyed and by whom, and what sense of security? The results of our thought experiment will surely differ from our reality. It’s not hard to see why many students on our actual campuses might sense themselves as not fully belonging, even sense themselves as being impostors; and not hard to see, either, why stereotype threat – poorer performance occasioned by reminders of personal characteristics that are stereotypically associated with poor performance – that stereotype threat might be triggered in them. For these reasons our campuses have only unevenly caught up with the students who populate them.
We can hold this thought while being justifiably proud of our histories, traditions, and progress to date. To proceed further, though, we need to think through a number of issues. I will focus on three today: freedom of expression, the rationale for faculty diversity, and how students learn to get along with people who are different from them. And do this all, Mr. Clerk, in the next ten minutes.
It is often said that the freedom of expression is primary and that paying attention to a safe and inclusive environment coddles our students and doesn’t subject them to the discomfort and clash of views that are essential to education. The strongest proponents of the freedom of expression have long been associated with the University of Chicago, whether we consider William Rainey Harper in 1902 or a letter from its dean of students to incoming students of a few days ago. It is easy to agree with the statement in the University’s Stone Report of two years ago that we have “a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.” But the authors of the Stone report also recognize exceptions, those you might expect, and also those that in their words, are “incompatible with the functioning of the University.” This exception is broader than they think since they rely on a naïve or incomplete model of learning. When on the way to an exam a student reads or sees or hears something that heightens her consciousness of her race, particularly when it calls up negative stereotypes, this reminder of her race even when it operates beneath her conscious thinking, may lead to poorer performance, that is, it may trigger stereotype threat. Thus some sorts of free expression can impede learning. We have to become better at identifying the tension between the admirable goal of free expression and that of creating a good learning environment. In colleges and universities, we don’t just express; we also learn, and it’s harder to learn when we are in the surround of certain forms of expression. There will of course need to be plenty of times and places for students to confront clashes of views and experience the discomfort of challenges to their ways of thinking, but for them to learn from these they need to first of all to feel secure in their setting. We must champion free expression but also realize that some forms of it impede the very learning it is supposed to promote.
Let me turn to the second idea, relating to faculty hiring. It can be hard for students to imagine a future in a field in which people from their particular backgrounds are underrepresented, and they typically encounter stereotype threat in studying for those fields. We observe every day students who feel that particular subject matters are not for them. It has long been this way. One of the most moving examples of this sense of disbarment and the wish to transcend it, is in W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903), in which he composes a dreamlike, almost hallucinatory, passage, which begins: “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas.” Students need mentors who can convincingly show them why certain disciplines can be entered into without the wince Du Bois mentions. They need role models and exemplars to do this. It therefore makes sense to have faculty populations that are similar in composition to the student population at or desired by a college. At Lafayette this means that we in particular need to increase the number of faculty members from domestic underrepresented minority groups and of women in the physical sciences, mathematics, computer science, and engineering. I justify this rationale for faculty diversity educationally, though it’s compatible with other arguments for it. For if our ideal of learning were simply information transmission, it wouldn’t matter who was transmitting it. But if we want students to learn not just about engineering or poetry, but to become an engineer, to become a poet, that is, to join a community of practice, they have to see a path between their situations now and actual poets and engineers. They need to catch glimpses of their futures in their mentors who are successful in those fields. This means that we should pursue faculty diversity even in fields whose subject matters have nothing to do with race and gender if we want students of different backgrounds to engage them. That is what would allow us to offer educational opportunities that are more nearly equal. Faculty diversity for this purpose is not an added criterion that advantages certain candidates unduly – a thumb on the scale, if you will – since it is a criterion that addresses an educational need that our students have, just as we have needs for good teaching and good research.
My concluding point is about how students learn to get along with one another, across lines of difference, which is something we surely wish to do in a residential college, certainly at this time. Our tendency in college, when we have a need for something, is to teach it. But although greater knowledge plays a role here, an important one, it is not the only thing, and may not even be primary. Take an example that may seem far afield. When you first meet your spouse-to-be you don’t make progress on your relationship simply by learning a lot about each other (even though that will happen). You make progress by doing things together, even insignificant things. In fact, you begin with insignificant things and see how matters develop. Your relationship deepens even more when you come to share goals and work together to advance them. You consequently come to understand, trust, appreciate, and love each other. That’s how voluntary human relationships, such as intimate partnerships and even friendship, work. You come to understand, appreciate, and value each other not through learning about each other, solely, but by doing things together. You may think that this is just my folksy and – I hope you will agree – charming view of life. But the importance of actual contact, of working and contributing toward shared goals in promoting good relations across difference was theorized over 60 years ago by Gordon Allport in a book called The Nature of Prejudice. The contact hypothesis, or intergroup contact theory, has received very strong empirical support ever since. These activities should have certain characteristics, which I don’t have time to discuss today. Suffice it to say we can overestimate the effectiveness of better information about difference in promoting good relations. Information is important, but true attitudinal change, which operates at a deeper level, requires something more. It requires people to get to know one another as people, to see each other as sharing a common humanity and purpose, as ‘we’ rather than ‘us versus them.’ They learn to see each other as ‘we’ when they do things together. Thus we can underestimate the power of experiential and group activities, such as working in groups, taking study trips together, participating in clubs, taking part in sports and other competitions, being on research teams, putting on performances, and so on. Note that these activities may but often have nothing at all to do with diversity themes, yet they are 7 still effective in bridging difference. They do need to be as inclusive as possible. These experiences abound at Lafayette and help to explain the unusual effectiveness of liberal arts colleges in this realm.
So we can do much to advance inclusion on our campus. I’ve argued that a concern for free expression need not sidetrack us. We should recognize the educational benefits of faculty diversity and therefore pursue it wholeheartedly. And we should continue to think of a deeper and more inclusive set of experiential activities to complement our curricular offerings in order to build the sense of affiliation and common purpose our societies so deeply require. Doing all of this is not coddling, a political stance, or special pleading. It is part of our educational mission so that we can offer all our students, the ones we have now and the ones we wish to have, the same opportunities. By doing all of this we can do our part to redeem the troubles of this summer so that we wake up one day not too far from now having reached “other worlds, other seas.” All my best wishes for the beginning of the year.