A New Definition of Diversity

With the ongoing tumult in America following the campaign and election of a president who frequently uses divisive language, the issue of diversity has been a pressing one on college campuses. Boston College has, to various degrees, attempted to address concerns by supporting diversity in its student body, faculty, and curriculum. While this is a notable step toward progress, I believe that the University and students alike should also posses a true understanding of what it means to be a diverse campus.  

The Core Curriculum is a major aspect of the BC academic experience, allowing students to take courses outside of their personal disciplines of study and to discover new ways of thinking. One of the requirements for the Core is cultural diversity, which I decided to fulfill this semester. My introduction to my African World Perspectives class was unexpectedly transfixing. I returned to my dorm after the first lecture feeling a desperate urge to tell my roommate about everything I had learned, and tried to make sense of why I felt enlightenment tinged with unshakeable frustration.

I had been groomed to believe that Europe and Africa existed in separate vacuums, mingling only when slavery was introduced. But that simply is not the case. Africa is diverse, vibrant, dynamic, and an invaluable part of the formation of what is considered western culture. One thing that my African World Perspective professor made clear to me is that many in college, myself included, have an understanding of cultural diversity that is somewhat flawed. The fact that every student must fulfill a “cultural diversity” requirement suggests a separation in academia between what is and is not diverse. This creates a problematic educational standard, in which pockets of “diversity” exist on the periphery, mere satellites revolving around a pure core of knowledge. This isn’t true diversity. Such a structure implies that there is a semi-permeable bubble that surrounds our “Western Cultural Tradition” academia, which occasionally allows for aspects of “diversity.”

The perception of diversity as an extra requirement undermines BC’s commitment to diversity itself. Diversity isn’t about taking one course to fulfill a requirement—it is about cohesion and celebrating the differences that exist within a greater whole. The misconstruing of the meaning of diversity is a nationwide problem. In a recent Atlantic article, Christopher Torres, a faculty member at the Ohio State University at Mansfield, says, “Basically being a person of color, you’re by default working in diversity and doing service.” The word “default” suggests that there is something uniform or assumed about the role of faculty members of color. The perception of diversity as somewhat periphery or implied demotes the importance of the often-unrecognized work done by these professors and administrators.  

Faculty of color often engage in what is referred to as “invisible labor,” meaning the mentorship and support that they provide to students of color. This work is evident, but institutions don’t acknowledge it in the same ways they normally recognize faculty work, such as with reappointment, tenure, or promotion. Patricia A. Matthew, an associate professor of English at Montclair State University who talks about this “invisible labor” also draws attention to the notion that there is a silent imbalance, or an extra burden on faculty of color due to their services. In a recent BC Faculty-Staff Experience Survey, some faculty expressed frustration and questioned the uneven distribution of service and responsibilities. Notably, female and AHANA faculty stated that they received a disproportionate amount of requests to serve on committees. I suspect that this sense of burden is inextricably tied to the idea that the work that these professors do is overlooked and categorized under the misconstrued definition of diversity that BC maintains.

While I do not think BC’s support for faculty of color has decreased an extreme amount, Matthew calls attention to the idea that “the academy is structurally hostile to meaningful diversity.” The key word in her statement is “meaningful,” demonstrating that the issues that faculty of color face are rooted in misguided ideological interpretations and definitions at universities across the country.

The University shouldn’t be focused on fulfilling some sort of diversity quota, but instead committed to recognizing the contributions made by faculty members of color, and adequately providing for and supporting these contributions. For their work to no longer be seen as “invisible labor,” a “default,” or in any way marginal, we must change the way we perceive diversity.

Upon waking up on Monday morning, I could already see change in the fundamental roots of our ideology. As I read the letter to the BC community from University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J., addressing President Donald Trump’s executive order, a particular line caught my attention: “This Order undermines a key strength of our higher education system, as it turns away talented faculty and students who seek to immigrate to the United States.” I believe that he speaks for most of us in this community as he highlights the notion that diversity is central to the identity of our institution, but only if we understand diversity in the correct way.

Featured Image by Meg Dolan / Heights Staff