Why Diversity Is a Hard Problem in the University

Any American university’s website contains a section on the virtues of diversity and the diversity of its students. We’ve all read the many arguments in favor of diversity in college. It broadens our understanding of the world and equips us with skills required in a global society. But none of this happens without serious engagement with the diverse people/viewpoints on campus.

In my four years here, I’ve been involved with a self-selective group of people who consciously seek diverse viewpoints; I’ve rarely had to interact at length with students who are not part of this bubble. In my European Philosophy class last week, I distinctly saw the bubbles we create here.

We had been reading Marx’s economic theory. In discussion, one student presented his observation that in modern capitalism, the working class is far better off than it was in Marx’s time. Blue collar jobs, he noted, pay more than a subsistence wage and exploitation does not occur as it did in early days of industrialization. No matter what class one belongs to, there is also opportunity for financial and social mobility, he added. Some American students in our class contested this claim with the argument that minimum wage is barely subsistence wage and that America offers equal opportunity to all more in rhetoric than in practice. A sensible discussion ensued, but was limited to the American national boundary.

I pointed out that nearly all production and manufacturing is outsourced to industrializing Asian countries. Capital is concentrated in post-industrial western nations, but labor is concentrated in the newly-industrializing global south. Marx’s portrayal continues to represent the condition of laborers in these countries.

The garment industry is frequently in the news for dismal working conditions and wages. In 2013, an 8-story garment factory building in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over a 1000 wage laborers. The building’s precarious condition had been ignored for months, despite repeated complaints from workers. Three years later, there is no evidence of improvement. Documentary film-makers and long-form journalists  continue to find substantial work in documenting these conditions. When capital and labor are geographically separated, a fair evaluation of the state of capitalism cannot be limited to national boundaries; the global nature of modern capitalism is essential to it.

What seemed like a simple and relevant argument to me, was completely ignored by my classmates. Without acknowledgement, they continued discussing whether the affordability of cars is a sign of progress, whether the working class in America wants some form of socialistic democracy and so on. In a discussion, mainly among students from developed nations, my “developing-world” contribution was unheard by classmates who were either unable to engage because of their ignorance, or consciously unwilling to engage with marginal viewpoints (marginal in that classroom).

It’s not enough to bring diverse students to campus, the University also needs to tackle the hard problem of facilitating meaningful engagement among these diverse groups. It’s hard because students will treat any mandatory or explicit “diversity activities” mechanically – to be checked off the graduation requirement list.

1 thought on “Why Diversity Is a Hard Problem in the University

  1. I had a similar experience to the one you wrote about while attending a seminar discussion at the Yale Young Global Scholars Program. As a student from an African country, it seemed that my suggestions and opinions were almost immediately dismissed or ignored predominantly by my American and European peers.

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