In College and Life, Greater Diversity Makes Us Better

Valerie Smith

Philadelphia Inquirer: In college and life, greater diversity makes us better

Historically, institutions of higher education have been known for transforming the minds, perspectives, and aspirations of those who enter them.

Residential liberal arts colleges provide students with the life-altering experience of working closely with dedicated faculty members and of living in community with other students. They learn within the classrooms and studios and labs; they learn from those with different life and cultural experiences; they learn through athletic, performance, and other co-curricular experiences; they learn through engagement with the communities where our institutions are located; and they learn by developing the habit of reflection and contemplation.

From the 1970s onwards, and especially within the past decade or so, colleges and universities have embraced the power of our institutions to serve as engines of social mobility and have placed a heightened emphasis on recruiting students from underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds, those who will be the first in their families to go to college, and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and underperforming schools. Our goal has been the noble one of transforming the lives of all students, and especially these students, by providing them access to the resources of our institutions.

But these students are not the only ones whose lives will change as we create increasingly diverse communities. We do not commit to diversifying our institutions out of a charitable impulse to uplift the underserved. Certainly, opening our institutions to students from underrepresented communities will improve their life choices and inspire others to follow in their footsteps. The process of change goes both ways. When we commit to diversifying our institutions, we improve our institutions as well.

How does greater diversity make us better? Our ability to discover and communicate new knowledge; to find solutions to intractable problems in science and technology, public policy, and the social sciences; and to analyze, contextualize, and express the highest ideals of the human spirit through the humanities and the arts — are all enhanced when we earnestly engage with others whose perspectives and experiences differ from our own.

Read Smith's full essay, excerpted from her Oct. 3 inaugural address, at the Philadelphia Inquirer.