Selective diversity

Mosaic artist Sarah Swanlund

Mosaic artist Sarah Swanlund

Diversity is a word that gets thrown around a lot in higher education. And diversity is a big part of JMU. In fact, today in Rose Library, the new diversity mosaic by artist Sarah Swanlund, will be unveiled. It will become a visual representation of the university’s commitment to diversity.

Educators, for the most part, use the word in a positive light. They love diversity. Diversity of thought. Diversity of people. Diversity of cultures and disciplines and perspectives. Others look at diversity as a negative — a cultural dumbing down or the dilution of a pristine gene pool. I hope we’ve moved on from the idea that we all should look alike.

But have we? Have we really? Do we really value diversity in higher education, or do we value diversity when it feels liberating or exploratory. Think of it this way: If you were to design a “diverse” set of friends, would you include the following: a local homeless man? a 66-year-old mentally challenged woman in a health care facility? a “redneck”? a conservative (or liberal)? a handicapped individual? Or would you choose the most interesting and fascinating people you can find?

Some answer, “yes” only to the last question. We in higher education love diversity when it’s exciting and exotic. We might take pity on the mentally challenged woman or the homeless man. We might even tolerate the liberal (or conservative) — but sadly we make a mistake when we assume that while we might benefit them, WE are educated and could never learn anything from them.

It’s a dreadful mistake, and it’s a blind side many people have, even people who profess a love for diversity.

The late Dr. Vida Huber

The late Dr. Vida Huber

I came across a wonderful quote recently by the late Dr. Vida Huber whose vision of inclusivity and community led to the Institute for Innovation in Health and Human Services at JMU. Dr. Huber said, “I deprive myself of valuable lessons and meaning if I limit my interactions to those most like myself.”

She’s right. If diversity is truly a positive force — and we in higher ed tout it as such — then we are obligated to learn from people who are different. It must be far more than academic lip service — which, frankly, it can become. For instance, what about these diversity candidates: pack-a-day cigarette smokers, trash collectors, ugly people, uneducated — even stupid — people, arrogant people. Can they learn from us? And — more importantly — can we learn from them?

The inability to understand that each of us can learn from any other person is nothing more than an egregious demonstration of superiority — and an affront to the noble idea of diversity. It is a bias unto itself. Can the Ph.D. learn from an individual out in the working world? Or a student? Or what about a PQ – professionally qualified — faculty member? Sometimes I’m surprised at the answer.

Educational hubris can be a barrier to diversity. We choose only those whom we identify as having potential. What can we learn from someone deemed otherwise? Often we say, “nothing.” But that’s not true. One of the most influential people in my life is that 66-year-old mentally challenged woman I mentioned. We have few things in common and our lives are vastly different — and yet one of the most important decisions I made in the past decade was largely the result of my friendship with her.

Hubris is perhaps the greatest barrier that educated people face. It’s a subtle and caustic attitude that we have arrived, and that while we may tout we are “always learning,” it is, in reality, a sham in some ways. Our inability to see value in individuals utterly different and unfamiliar to us robs us of some of life’s richest relationships. A diverse community in name only is no better than a closed ivory-towered community of intellectuals who look down on the lesser beings around them — unless those lesser beings rise up and surprise them with their own intellectual ascension. These we celebrate as paragons of our diverse community.

But what about all the others? Do we really value their humanity? Are we truly diverse?

One thing I do love about JMU is the interaction I’ve seen between the students and custodial staff. It’s genuine. Bravo to both groups. Less so sometimes, unfortunately, is the interaction between levels of the academically degreed. The same can be said for the titled managers and their underlings. Big heirarchies exist. And while hierarchy is necessary for organization, it should never hem in the valuable interaction between groups. If that happens on a university campus, diversity loses.

Diversity requires that we not only tolerate those who are different, it demands that we value and learn from them as well. In the world of higher education, my mentally-challenged friend is invisible or perhaps the subject of our experimentation, pity or curiosity, but I’ve learned a lot from her. She truly has enhanced my life.

Last March, during President Alger’s inauguration, one moment has become my favorite. Above all of the rhetoric and scholarship, above all of the pomp and circumstance, one moment stands out. Not only will I never forget it, it shaped my opinion of the president. It was a quiet moment that few saw.

In one lecture hall, the president chatted with a person I have known for a long time. To my knowledge the man is not directly associated with the university, and he has none of the scholastic or monetary credentials that some others in the room had. He wasn’t a student. Just an ordinary citizen, yet the president chose him to chat with. And then — this was the moment — I realized the President Alger chose to sit with him.

Of course, I may be conveying much more to the meeting than there actually was, but the message I took away was clear. We have to be open to diversity. We have to find it, look for it, and we have to exploit it when we have the chance, as President Alger did. And we cannot limit it to those like us, and those we find interesting or appealing or exotic — or full of potential.

If diversity is our mantra — and it should be because few things level humanity more and provide genuine opportunity for learning — then we need to practice it completely. Selective diversity is no more than discrimination with an academic degree.

You can learn more about Dr. Vida Huber, a woman who understood and practiced diversity in remarkable ways, in a feature story by local writer Luanne Austin.


About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

3 Responses to Selective diversity

  1. Jan Gillis says:

    Thanks for reminding me of those wonderful words from Vida Huber: “I deprive myself of valuable lessons and meaning if I limit my interactions to those most like myself.” I was struck by her wisdom the first time I read those words, and it’s always good to be reminded of how we can manifest true humanity.


  2. Anonymous says:

    Wow. Beautifully written and so very true.


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