Diversity and the liberal arts

This weekend, pre-frosh descended upon campus to get a sampling of the college experience Williams offers its students. Williams will (with my help as a tour guide) present itself as a shining example of a quality liberal arts college, a place for students to learn not only what facts they should know, what theories to consider, but also how to analyze these facts and debunk or support these theories. And in general, Williams presents a very accurate picture of life here.

This picture, however, conveniently overlooks some major failings of this school. Our curriculum, our faculty, and our student body (though outpacing both the curriculum and faculty) are all pretty homogeneous. The western canon is our guidebook, with only occasional ventures into alternative theories and facts. This is not to critique the western canon as a bad piece of education, but rather to acknowledge it as just that: a piece of our education, not its entirety or even an overwhelming majority.

In that vein of thought, Kevin Koernig’s op-ed piece (“Faculty diversity misunderstood”) in last week’s Record misses some critical aspects of the concern of students, faculty, and administrators about the diversity of the faculty and curriculum. As the faculty is about to expand dramatically, Williams is poised, as President Schapiro describes the situation, either for a jump in academic excellence or an unfortunate fall from its current heights. Let me assure Koernig that the assumption behind any and every comment about improved diversity in the faculty is that all hires will be top-level teachers and top-level researchers. At the same time, if Williams does not succeed in diversifying its faculty and curriculum through this hiring phase, Williams will have failed in its quest to be a paragon of liberal arts education.

Koernig’s article, though well-articulated, sadly appears to me as an exercise in sophistry. Improved faculty diversity should not be compared to racial profiling, but rather affirmative action and ensuring a well-rounded and diverse student body. Williams believes that in order for every Williams student to have a quality educational experience, diversity (in every sense of the word) of the student body is absolutely necessary. The same is true of faculty. Further, in the Zogby poll, ethnic diversity may be secondary to intellectual diversity and academic standards in importance to college students, but this finding is due to flawed reasoning. Zogby’s analysis assumes we are playing a zero sum game when, in fact, we are doing the opposite. Creating a culturally diverse and vibrant faculty only improves faculty intellectual diversity and academic ability. The push for curricular diversity is by its nature also a push at Williams for intellectual diversity and high academic standards.

Certainly professors have an ability to teach outside of personal experience, but when looking at the faculty as a single body, the backgrounds of our wonderful faculty do not include much diversity of experiences and academic specialties. All people connected to this campus community should be able to agree that homogeneity in an academic institution creates an unfortunate environment for challenging learning.

Further, right now, not only is our faculty relatively homogeneous (even in comparison to a homogeneous student body), but the curriculum lacks a sustainable program in most ethnic studies programs (many of which, such as Asian-American and Latino studies, Williams currently does not even have, to the shame of the College). A liberal arts education is supposed to present its students with the knowledge of a diverse range of issues, from biology to European history to African-American sociology. Right now, the curriculum has unacceptable gaps in its offerings, holes that the administration appropriately has begun to attempt to fill.

Remember that when President Schapiro referred to “a greatly disproportionate number [of hires] who are Caucasian,” he was not saying that we must hire minority faculty alone to the detriment of quality Caucasian professors. What the administration (somewhat belatedly) has recognized is the need for our faculty to be representative of the wide range of experiences and backgrounds available in the pool of academia.

Further, the administration has acknowledged that a diverse faculty (as researchers, teachers, deans, advisors and role models) is a belated attempt to create the multicultural liberal arts college Williams wants and professes to be. Multiculturalism and pluralism is the future of the academic institution and society as a whole. Williams is simply embracing that fact (and to be perfectly blunt, I’d prefer that this acceptance of multiculturalism had happened decades ago, but I’ll gladly take it now).

The issue of a comprehensive and diverse faculty and curriculum is critical to our success as students, to our success as members of society, and for the success of our institution. To any who are interested in this topic, I invite you to a conference on the issue on April 27 at 10 a.m., sponsored by the Minority Coalition.This will be a community discussion about the diversity of our current curriculum and faculty and its continuation down the path towards the optimally diverse liberal arts college we can envision.