Diversity on Campus: How does it matter?

3 Dec

Background

I started this blog in mid-November and got busy…now it is the end of the semester. I hope you are ending your semester nicely and have some time to read my entry below.

This theme of “Diversity on Campus” is not directly related to ecological research. But it is a major issue on many Liberal Arts campuses. Our campuses are not exceptional. Diversity Indices from U.S. News for our campuses are 0.38 for Millikin, 0.32 for Allegheny, and 0.29 for Bucknell. In contrast, top 5 Liberal Arts colleges are Pine Manor College, MA (0.77), Pacific Union College, CA (0.75), University of Hawaii-Hilo, HI (0.75), SUNY College-Old Westbury, NY, and Agnes Scott College, GA (0.68). It is interesting that the geographic distribution of these colleges with high diversity is not necessarily linked with the geographic distribution of ethnic diversity in this country.

Here’s the explanation for this Diversity Index from U.S. News.

“Our formula produces a diversity index that ranges from 0 to 1. The closer a school’s diversity index number is to 1, the more diverse the student population. In other words, the closer the number is to 1, the more likely it is for students to run into others from a different ethnic group. Conversely, the farther away from 1 a school’s diversity index is, the more likely it is that any student that another student meets will be of the same ethnic group.”

This means that not only predominantly White but also predominantly Asian, Black, or Hispanic colleges have lower Diversity Index, which makes sense.

Diversity among Students

Last week, I attended a dinner event with an underrepresented group of ~100 senior high school students from various regions who are considering coming to Bucknell. This was part of an overnight event called “Journey to Bucknell”. It was my second time to attend this dinner event, and quite honestly, I was baffled for the first time by the way the event was set up. All the students were students of color, mostly Black and Hispanic and some Asian. A few black staff members welcomed all of us and faculty members invited to the event were mostly either faculty of color or foreign faculty members. It was very odd to see the artificially condensed diversity in one room on this predominantly white campus. But I became aware of and appreciative about the effort that the University has made to promote diversity on campus. Indeed, I very much enjoyed the event this year as I knew what to expect. My conversations with the students this year were all positive and made me think that this campus actually may change in the near future.

From an ecological standpoint, diversity at any level should be good. What about diversity on campus or in college classroom? We assume they are all good too. I personally think it is neat and exciting to see diverse classroom. But I’ve been wondering whether and how diversity in science classroom benefits students’ learning. In humanities classroom, I can see how diverse background of students can enrich learning experiences. In contrast, for example in math class, would diversity among students enrich learning experience? What about ecology-related classes? I do not doubt that learning any subject in a diverse classroom setting would have profoundly positive effects on students’ perceptions of the world and the way they interact with people with different background. But does diversity have proximate positive effects on learning in a science classroom?

Once I taught an upper level course “Conservation Genetics” in which 5 out of 15 students were non-white or had international background. This was as high as diversity in classroom can get in my department. The diversity made discussions and presentations very interesting with some accents and unique comments/ideas. Meanwhile, the diversity created some challenges. Some international students became very shy about speaking out. I totally understand how they feel as I was an international student. Another trend was that variation in quality of presentations and papers became much larger in the class. It was difficult to grade anything without having any biases; understanding and accepting cultural and language challenges are important but how much of the environmental factor should we take into student’s performance? I remember the interesting comment raised by a professor at one of the Teaching/Learning sessions: some students with different cultural background lack sense of plagiarism.

Diversity among Faculty

The same argument can be applicable to “diversity among faculty”. If I am teaching courses related to Japan or Asia, my background would be an asset to me as a teacher. In fact, I was invited to a “Religion in Japan” course as a live Japanese specimen (my friend who is American teaches this course). Of course, I am not an expert in the field. But I lived in Japan for 27 years until I came to the US. So my experiences and opinions were invaluable to the class. Does my background help me teach biology courses? Probably no. Can my background negatively affect my teaching? Probably yes. My English will never reach at the native speaker level. My perception of the world is not culturally tuned to the American standard and will never be. On my teaching evaluation last year, one student commented that I criticized Americans too much when we discussed ecological footprint, resource consumption, and CO2 emission. It was shocking to read this comment as our discussions were based on the data. Then, I realized that this student might have felt that (s)he was attacked by this foreign professor.

Well, I still don’t always get American jokes. I still lack some of the common senses (e.g., I recently found that I can’t read kid’s books in English). I am sure that I misinterpret subtleness of some student’s comments. These are presumably some of the reasons why we have less diverse faculty members in science departments than in humanities at Bucknell and probably at other liberal arts colleges that prioritize teaching. I am sure that applicant pool is quite different between science and humanities too.

I do want to think that unique background of science faculty members strengths their teaching so that it offsets possible disadvantages. But I don’t have evidence, and thus I am not convinced so far. When our focus is on individual faculty, the issue becomes difference but not diversity. So student’s learning experience may become more enriched by a department with more diverse faculty members even in science, which however is difficult to be assessed.

Summary

My assessment above is far from comprehensive, neutral, and organized. This US News article lists 8 reasons why diversity matters at college, with which I agree. But my point is that diversity may function differently at a different level in different fields. An automatic acceptance of stereotypical positive effects of diversity may deprive us of chances of appreciating what diversity really does to our classroom, department, and college. Or maybe diversity is not an issue of good or bad but rather of fairness. In any case, this issue of diversity has interested me and made me think, especially about how I can make a unique contribution to the department and the university.

MT

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