Welcome to Diverse City

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

E pluribus unum.  Out of many, one.

In 1776, Pierre Eugene du Simitiere proposed this motto to the government committee tasked with developing a seal for the young nation.  The phrase was adopted for the newly created national emblem of the United States and still appears today as a guiding principle on the nation's seal.  In 2012, the expression persists on official documents such as passports, and is ever present on the seals of the President and Vice President of the United States, the U.S. Congress, the House of Representatives, and the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Although the motto originally embodied the notion that from many colonies or states emerges a unified nation, in contemporary times  it has come to stand for the idea of many people of varying and diverse ancestries, races, religions, beliefs, cultures and lifestyles melting together to become a single cohesive nation.  Out of many, one.  In spite of our differences, our aim is unity.

Two hundred and thirty plus years later, America's minty fresh currency is still stamped out with e pluribus unum prominently displayed.  But an old phrase on a new coin is probably a fitting illustration for the modern view of pluralism in our society. The former fife-and-drum song of unity has taken on an edgier beat, to be sure.  Today we sing a little less about "many uniting into one," and a whole lot more about "respecting my differences, man."

There are few communities where the overt push for what is routinely called diversity is more prevalent than public university campuses across our nation. Search the website of any university that comes to mind and you are sure to find that university's statement on diversity.  My institution’s Statement of Diversity and Inclusivity reads as follows:  Eastern Washington University is committed to diversity and inclusivity. We recognize that our success is dependent on how well we value, engage, include, and utilize the rich diversity of our faculty, staff, students, and alumni. We believe that prejudice, oppression, and discrimination are detrimental to human development, and that a vibrant and diverse campus community enhances the learning environment of the populations that we serve. We are committed to treating all with dignity and respect, and to working collectively on an ongoing basis to build and maintain a community that understands, celebrates and promotes diversity, while promoting inclusivity at all levels.

While we applaud that general sentiment, if life was simply a matter of coming up with well-crafted statements of governance, then we are good to go.  Next subject, please.  But regrettably, life isn't that easy.  At one point we have to have the social courage and intellectual honesty to ask, "Hey, is this working?"  Equally regrettable is the reality that few subjects gleam golden as the sacred cow of diversity.  Who among us hasn't quietly thought the noble concept has gone sideways on us? Some of us even share our private questions about diversity initiatives with our closest co-workers over mugs of coffee or pints of ale.  But Heaven and Human Resources forbid that we question the efficacy of the initiative or its implementation in a public forum.  Some of us can probably handle being called a blasphemer when grappling with all manner of dogma, but to experience the ugly label of “racist” or “bigot” being spit upon us when we openly question the effectiveness of our diversity efforts…well, that isn’t a pretty picture.

Into this riptide I wade when I suggest that we are upside down with our diversity efforts on university campuses.  My thesis is straightforward: We have forsaken our priority of the unum because of our hyperactive and imbalanced emphasis on pluribus. 

Before I dive deeper into the tumultuous surf here, let me review the sought-after strengths and results of a diverse and inclusive society, and further define terms.  First, it is believed that:

Diversity enriches the community and educational experience. We position ourselves to learn from those whose beliefs, cultures, experiences and perspectives are different from our own. 

Diversity promotes personal individual growth, and thus a healthier society at large by challenging stereotyped preconceptions and outlooks that are skewed by narrow experiences. It encourages critical thinking while it helps students learn to communicate effectively with people of varied backgrounds.

Education within a diverse setting prepares students to become good citizens in an increasingly complex and global society. It fosters mutual respect and requires teamwork. It helps build communities, workplaces and classrooms where members are judged by the quality of their character and their contributions.

Diversity enhances our country’s economic competitiveness. Sustaining the nation's prosperity in this century and beyond will require us to make effective use of the talents and abilities of all our citizens, in work settings that bring together individuals from diverse backgrounds and cultures.

Secondly, regarding terminology, one noteworthy detail is that diversity is not synonymous with Equal Opportunity, although the concepts overlap.  An example of this distinction comes from Eastern Washington University’s Equal Opportunity and Diversity statement which addresses the difference: Equal opportunity and diversity is not the same thing. Equal opportunity relates to the legal and moral demand that opportunities and access be presented to all people -- without discrimination. Discrimination means all forms of discrimination, harassment, and sexual harassment as defined by state and federal anti-discrimination laws. Diversity speaks to the idea that our differences should be appreciated and enjoyed and that they provide an opportunity for learning and understanding.

The merits of Equal Opportunity are inarguable at all levels.  All things being equal, we must be unswerving and passionate about the rights, dignity, and humanity of others.  At the risk of sounding redundant, all things being equal really is the touchstone of Equal Opportunity’s integrity.  We can and actually should dialog about the implementation of Equal Opportunity policy, but the hiring manager or prospective employee who wants to argue about the necessity of Equal Opportunity should not be in a position to hire, or be considered a capable employment candidate, respectively.  In other words, the principle concept of Equal Opportunity is not up for discussion here.

What is up for discussion is whether our passionate promotion of diversity is producing benefits.  Does diversity work, and if so, how well?  Are people being transformed into more open-minded, more tolerant, more inclusive individuals?  Are we properly celebrating the rich, wonderful and strong tapestry of a harmonious community (the one), or are we instead over-compensating in our zeal to be inclusive by routinely singling out the individual threads of the fabric while labeling them as special, unique, or perhaps even preferential (the many)

Research showing the benefits on the subject is mixed at best.  Objectively, the benefits and the hard and soft costs of diversity have yet to be adequately evaluated in light of stated goals or known problems.  Subjectively, our individual experiences might lead us to believe that it is not too far-fetched to wonder if some folks are on board because it is trendy, politically correct, mitigates legal liabilities and, well, just sort of feels good.  Neither view is enough to disband and disperse, but if we only gauge the results based on the number of university webpages that espouse a robust commitment to diversity and inclusion, then the success rate is a dubious 100%.   In the face of the respected tenets of qualitative research, particularly the part about being strict and explicit in design and methodology, most academic institutions, ironically, appear to be more adept at marketing the program rather than actually collecting and analyzing the data, monitoring and measuring success, and adjusting accordingly.

Perhaps more troubling than murky methodology when implementing diversity initiatives, is the casual eye that is cast upon the negative research findings that exist.  For example, one of the noteworthy bodies of research on the subject is the work of psychologists Katherine Williams and Charles O’Reilly.  After their thorough review of 40 years of diversity research in organizations, the authors conclude:  "The preponderance of empirical evidence suggests that diversity is most likely to impede group functioning. Unless steps are taken to actively counteract these effects (emphasis mine), by itself diversity is more likely to have negative than positive effects on group performance.  In our view, these conclusions suggest that diversity is a mixed blessing and requires careful and sustained attention to be a positive force in enhancing performance."

In a 2007 interview with National Public Radio, social and political scientist Dr. Robert Putnam, professor of public policy from Harvard University, responded as follows when discussing his research on diversity:  “It's a benefit.  America will - all of us will, over the long run, benefit from being a more diverse, more heterogeneous place. Places that are more diverse have higher rates of growth on average and they have better cuisine.” 

His findings took a more sober and scholarly tone when he admitted: “But what we discovered in this research, somewhat to our surprise, was that in the short run the more ethnically diverse the neighborhood you live in, the more you - every - all of us tend to hunker down, to pull in. The more diverse - and when I say all of us, I mean all of us. I mean blacks and whites and Asians and Latinos, all of us. The more diverse the group around us, ethnically, in our neighborhood, the less we trust anybody, including people who look like us.”  This begs the question:  Have we gotten to the long run results yet, or more urgently, are we taking the right steps to ensure that the positive long run results will materialize?

Dr. Putnam's mention of the decline in trust is related to what all research on diversity indicates in one form or another—increased conflict.  Studies indicate that conflict is inevitable in diverse populations, but oddly, the costs associated with conflict—in time, performance and money—are routinely downplayed or neglected. 

Margaret Neale is the John G McCoy-Banc One Corporation professor of Organizations and Dispute Resolution at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.  Dr. Neale and her colleagues have developed an extensive body of research on diversity in the workplace.  She also affirms the reality of conflict in diverse settings when she says: “The kind of group conflict that exists and how the team handles the conflict will determine whether this diversity is effective in increasing or reducing performance.”  In other words, conflict is a given, but if diversity is aimed at increased performance, this is contingent upon the resources and effort dedicated to managing the conflict.  It is not a reach or unwarranted, then, to concern ourselves with how universities are managing and measuring the necessary guidance and governance of diversity initiatives to ensure that its conflict is not detrimental.

Certainly more research is needed and more analysis of the findings is required.  And if Dr. Putnam is correct, more time will tell.  However, even more disquieting to me than the somewhat predictable findings of research on diversity—trust issues, conflict, and cost of governance—is the often unspoken concern about the actual application of diversity initiatives on university campuses.  In our efforts to be unflagging in our accommodation to all, are we overreaching to the point that all things being equal has unsuspectingly become some people are really more equal than others?  Has our passion and eagerness to give everybody a fair shake resulted in preferential treatment for some at the expense of others?  Or similarly, has our fear of not appearing inclusive forced us to overcorrect in our admissions and hiring practices? If any of that is true, even just once, the sacred foundation of the diversity initiative begins to crack under the weight of paradoxical practices.

Is it really any mystery why conflict exists in diverse environments?  Has anyone else ever wondered why the contemporary movement is referred to as a diversity initiative rather than a unity initiative? Could it be that we have seriously miscalculated the risks of focusing on our differences rather than our sameness?  I contend that the tension in our social relationships, and in some cases the destruction of these relationships, flows from the Glorification of Me.  If my highest priority in life is my unique identity, my group, my beliefs, and my culture, then I will naturally place my interests above the interests of all others.  If I get my very identity and self-worth from, for example, how many degrees I have, then education is not really about education, it is about me.  The incessant focusing on the parts provides no way out of this conflict conundrum of in the whole.  The more we love and identify deeply with our race, our gender, our religion, our class, our customs, our social status, or whatever, the harder it is to not feel superior in some cases, or victimized in others.  Either way, it is a recipe for cooking up a good old fashioned pot of hostility:  arrogance, resentment, jealousy, injustice, racism, cultural imperialism, etc.

Before I am accused of Anglo insensitivity, or intolerance, or even blamed for stirring up the intrinsic conflict that comes with diversity, hear me out.  To the proponents of diversity:  I challenge you to be diligent in your convictions, upright in your practices, and intellectually honest in your self-awareness.  To the provincially minded and feet-draggers on diversity:  Get over yourselves.  You are stuck with an increasingly globalized society that the calendar will not turn back, so figure out how to make it work for the benefit of all. To the administrative stewards of diversity initiatives on university campuses:  Please quit making it so much about policy, process, and procedure, and get a little more human with it. To everybody:  Stop with the relentless over-emphasis on the parts rather than the whole.  Abstain from self-serving identity politicking when referring the needs of any given person or group.  Refrain from grandstanding about race, or gender, or any other distinction when admitting a qualified student or hiring a competent employee.  And for unity’s sake, be tireless about promoting diversity’s benefit, strength, and hope for the complete array of humanity, rather than just a handful of select threads in the tapestry.

To paraphrase a hackneyed coaching exhortation in sports: There is no ‘me’ in Team…unless you screw around with the rightful order of things.

Welcome to Diverse City – A Planned Community of Partnership and Promise.  Population – Unum.

—Tim Szymanowski is the Director of Development for Eastern Washington University.