Senior staff discusses applications of diversity

Senior administrators expressed support for a concept of diversity that sees differences in demographics like geography, race, cultural background, socioeconomic class, religious affiliation and political beliefs as integral to the College’s educational mission.

When asked about the College’s long-term goals in terms of creating a diverse community, President Schapiro, Dean Roseman and Tom Kohut, dean of the faculty, emphasized the stimulating effects of diversity on students’ personal experiences in the College community and intellectual discussions both in and out of the classroom.

Schapiro highlighted the increasing diversification of society as a key reason to value a concept of distinct personal experiences in constructing the College community. “It is critical that we prepare our students for the world they are about to enter,” he said. “That world demands understanding of and respect for people from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences.”

As an example of historical trends towards a less homogenous society, Schapiro cited statistics that indicate that the non-white component of the American population has increased from one-tenth to one-third of the population over the past 100 years. Schapiro also said that the increasingly global society makes it much more likely that individuals of vastly different backgrounds and experiences will come into contact. “Revolutions in transportation and communication have made all aspects of society more global, from art to education, to law to business,” he said. “We are making progress in diversifying our student body, faculty and staff, but have a long way to go.”

Schapiro’s views on the importance of providing community members with opportunities to interact with people with differing life experiences dovetailed with Kohut and Roseman’s sentiments on the value of diversity in the context of the College community.

As dean of the College, Roseman framed her perspective on diversity in terms of its impact on student life. “I see diversity very broadly with the Williams community,” she said, mentioning demographics such as cultural background, race and religious affiliation, among other attributes that positively impact the quality of a student’s experience at Williams. “The College’s philosophy towards building a diverse community is reflected in every new first-year class. The interactions and discourse which occur as a result of adding over 500 new and unique individuals to this community every year should be an intrinsic part of every community member’s experience,” she said.

In practice, the Dean’s Office impacts the diversity of ideas present in the campus discourse by funding various events, such as lectures and performances. In this way, Roseman said, she attempts to maximize the spectrum of ideas presented on campus. “I fund just about anything and everything,” she said. “Funding does not mean I endorse anything, and I know sometimes students are confused by this. Requests from across the spectrum of campus groups with greatly varying interests and agendas are [funded] by my office.”

Kohut complemented Roseman’s view of diversity in student life by discussing the value of diversity in academic and intellectual pursuits. “One of the most important intellectual abilities that a liberal arts college can develop in students is the ability to understand – the ability to understand oneself and understand others,” he said.

He emphasized that understanding oneself requires introspection, whereas understanding others requires empathy, which arises only when one takes into account the many circumstantial forces that contribute to the development of an individual’s character.

“To develop understanding, a liberal arts curriculum must present students with a diversity of human experience,” Kohut said. He cited his experience as a history professor as an example of how pursuing different experiences positively impacts the mind. “We teach our students how to think their way inside the experience of. . .people [of other cultures and times] so as to make them and the worlds they inhabited seem less foreign and more familiar, even as their differences from us are acknowledged and respected.”

Kohut emphasized that while having a student body and faculty of vastly differing experiences would be ideal, considerations such as privacy and an equitable hiring and admissions practices mitigate the potential for over-engineering the College community.

“Since so much learning takes place outside of the classroom, the faculty and student body must also be diverse – culturally, regionally, ethnically and in other ways,” he said. “Nonetheless, there are some obvious limits to our ability to engineer a diverse faculty and student body, for, in addition to wanting to create a diverse public sphere at Williams, we need to preserve people’s privacy. Hence in recruiting faculty and in admitting students we cannot inquire about someone’s personal life (politics, tastes, sexual orientation, etc.) in attempting to increase diversity.”

In both the hiring and admissions cycle, candidates can usually indicate only ethnicity or race – other demographics are not traditionally indicated in either of the processes.

Kohut and Schapiro cited race, socio-economic status and international geography as specific examples of which diversity-related demographics are most pertinent to the College community.

Kohut said racial diversity makes the community more comfortable for students of all ancestries, and that the general “whiteness” of American society makes it easy for white Americans to underestimate the importance of racial identity for those belonging to racial minorities.

He also suggested that racial identity and consciousness generally develop when one is in the racial minority. “If one is a non-white in the United States, one is racially self-conscious in a way white people generally are not, and it is a self-consciousness that has a particular valence given the discrimination that non-whites have experienced in this country and continue to experience today,” Kohut said. “Self-consciousness can take the form of self-awareness or of the potentially oppressive consciousness of oneself as being different from most everyone else. Having a racially diverse faculty and student body reduces self-consciousness as alienation and increases self-consciousness as awareness.”

In considering the future of diversifying the College community, President Schapiro said he agreed “that having students and faculty with varying life experiences is a very important aspect to diversifying our community.” When asked if the College was pursuing specific demographics in its attempt to bring individuals with varying experiences to campus, Schapiro said that “recent increases in both the number of international students and in the overall socio-economic diversity of our student body are examples of steps in the right direction.”

Kohut emphasized that diversity is an integral part of helping students gain intellectual and social understanding for differing points of view. “The presence of diversity at Williams College makes understanding possible, both as an essential way of knowing and as an appreciation of human connectedness. A diverse faculty and student body presents us with difference and renders difference familiar, expanding what we can know about others and about ourselves,” he said.

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