Diversity Benefits Everyone on Campus

By: Eileen Kugler

The Supreme Court is currently considering the issue of race and ethnicity in college admissions. While headlines are calling this an Affirmative Action case, it is that and much more. It will impact every student on campus.

It’s hard to dispute the research that shows that a diverse campus is better both academically and socially for all the students. In classrooms, students learn to think deeper, question more, and move beyond simplistic assumptions when they are challenged by peers with different life experiences and different perspectives. New research confirms that everyone who is a part of a diverse group is more creative and makes better decisions.  It only makes sense – if you are surrounded by people who aren’t limited by a common frame of reference, you see multiple ways to solve problems. There isn’t just one right answer to a complex problem.

On a social level, students aren’t just learning how to “celebrate” diversity on a superficial level of clothes and food. They learn to dialogue about critical issues, seeing nuances, not just polarizing extremes. They know what it takes to collaborate with people who act different, who think different than they do. They learn to be comfortable not just with those who are like them; but they develop a comfort with difference because they recognize that is when they are most vibrant.

Do colleges look beyond grades as they decide on who to admit? Of course they do. Does the band need some clarinets? Lucky Amelia for playing clarinet in the State Band. Are there lots of applicants from New Jersey, but few from South Dakota? For a college that touts having students from all over the country, the qualified applicant from South Dakota looks real good. Of course there are the spots for the legacy students, even if their grades aren’t up to dad’s or mom’s. And let’s not even go into preferences shown for someone with a great free throw or a record-breaking catch on the football field.

So where are the high-profile court cases about the student who didn’t get accepted because the spot was filled by an athlete? That’s just something we accept because there is a holistic view of what benefits the entire university. College athlete = winning teams = alumni donations and more applicants. Don’t whine if you don’t get in on grades alone because “everybody wins” when the team wins.

So why should race and ethnicity be out of the picture for a college that understands the value of a diverse campus? Why should colleges have to defend themselves from creating a diverse environment that benefits every student every day?

As the Supreme Court again looks at the value of admissions policies that consider race, the stakes are even higher than earlier reviews. I’ve been hearing from college officials for years who tell me something like this:  “We just had a racial incident on campus, something we’ve never seen before at this level. We’re not sure what to do.” In most cases, they did very little. Today, we are seeing the pot boiling over on campuses across the U.S. where students of color are no longer willing to feel unwelcome and unvalued on their own campus.

Professor Liliana M. Garces of Pennsylvania State University notes that a decision by the Court that limits universities’ ability to increase diversity on campus can increase the concerns that students of color are raising today.

“…declines in racial student body diversity can isolate and stigmatize students of color who are admitted and make it more difficult for institutions to create a welcoming campus environment for students of color.

It is not in the interest of our nation to force colleges to take a step backward and deprive their students of the lessons that can only be learned in a diverse setting. Without the benefit of diversity in their educational environment, students will be ill-prepared for the diverse workplaces that await them, particularly as our economy increases in global interconnections. Most important, do we want to deprive them the lessons of appreciation, respecting, and learning from a broad spectrum of fellow students? Let’s hope the justices can see this is an issue impacting every student, and our nation as a whole.

Eileen Kugler is a speaker, trainer and author strengthening diverse schools and communities.  An earlier version of this blogpost appeared in February 2013.