Why diversity matters

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.

As Swarthmore College emeritus professor of philosophy Hugh Lacey once wrote: “Truth remains incomplete whenever there are persons whose identities, concrete conditions of life, and possibilities for living fulfilled lives are not informed by it, for then it does not reflect our shared humanity.”

In a world fraught with tensions and strife among and within ethnic and racial groups, and between the powerful and the powerless, the future of our democracy depends upon our ability to create inclusive and equitable communities to which everyone is invited to contribute their ideas, gifts and enthusiasms.

Campuses such as ours must ensure that all who live and work here — whatever their ethnic, racial or socioeconomic background, gender, sexual orientation, religious or political beliefs — feel that their experiences and perspectives are valued and respected. We will never agree on everything, but all of us must learn from one another how to express dissent, to acknowledge and navigate conflict, and to work alongside those with whom we might vehemently disagree. For true engagement to occur, not only must we respect and value difference but we must allow ourselves to be changed in the encounter with it.

All students should feel that they have the freedom to discover the passions, values and relationships that will guide the choices they make throughout their lives. They must be free to learn about themselves, to make mistakes, to develop their resiliency and to try new experiences.

Here, we must help them to develop the confidence and the habits of mind that will make them lifelong learners, that will empower them to live lives that matter to the common good, and that will prepare them for the challenges they will confront. We have a unique opportunity to encourage them to develop the practice of reflection, to discover the value of observing and lingering in the present.

When they graduate from college, we want them to be able to affirm, in the words of the feminist theorist Gloria Anzaldua, that “knowledge opened the locked places in me and taught me first how to survive and then how to soar.”

Valerie Smith is the 15th president and first African-American to lead Swarthmore College. This essay was excerpted from her Oct. 3 inaugural address and published in The Philadelphia Inquirer.