The Diversity of Diversity

Discussing access to and within higher education often leads us to the issue if diversity. Before we can address questions as targeted measures to increase diversity, we have to talk about diversity itself. What does diversity mean? At North Eastern university, we heard a very interesting speech with a lot of personal passion in it by Professor Neenah Estrella Luna. She told us about her own experience in higher education, being a first generation college student, having a Latino family background. In her opinion, diversity issues in the US focus to a big part on race. This is interesting enough for us Europeans, since race is a category we simply do not think in.

Thus, the perception of diversity in the US seems to be very simple at first glance. Looking deeper into the matter however reveals complexity. Neenah Estrella, for example, pointed out differences in the perception of race groups in California and Massachusetts. While in California people are aware that there is diversity amongst Asian or Latinos, this idea seems not so familiar in Boston. On the other hand, Professor Estrella discovered diversity amongst white when in Boston white people identified themselves as Irish or Jewish. There are so many ways for people to identify themselves: gender, education, sexual orientation, race, religion. Groups do not exist but they are constructed! They are constructed according to normative criteria as the ones mentioned.

Hence, the relevant diversity groups vary according to parameters such as national background and they change over time. From what we learned from Neenah Estrella and later from Joanne Berger-Sweeny, Dean of Arts & Sciences at Tufts University the predominant diversity issues in the US are race, gender and socio-economic status. In Europe, diversity issues almost only focus on gender. I am convinced that the socio-economic background is not as much problematic in Europe than in the US. However, looking closer at this issue, we might discover that our egalitarian perception was too optimistic. This example shows that identifying the relevant diversity groups needs inconvenient debate.

But why do we need diversity at all? Perhaps the most obvious approach to this question would be a liberal individual rights one. However, Neenah Estrella as well as Joanne Berger went further. They both stressed that diversity in research is essential for a university to move on and ask new questions. If research was only done by white wealthy male, some questions would never be asked. To quote Joanne Berger: “There is no excellence without diversity!”