Is There Too Much, Too Little or Just the Right Attention to Diversity
on College and University Campuses?
When 54 people gathered to discuss diversity, 54 voices were heard,
54 perspectives were shared. Sometimes, it seemed that more questions
arose than were resolved, but that's likely to be expected with a topic
that has as many facets to it as this one, and a topic whose very nature
evolves as each of us understands it better.
A glance at the attendance rosters shows alumni from the 1940s through
the 1990s, women and men, graduates or parents of color, people from
cities and farming communities, people who define their perspective
as liberal, others who relate to the more conservative point of view.
They had little in common except for the desire to learn from one another,
and to help St. Lawrence continue productively the conversations about
Trustees Marion Roach Smith '77 and Barry Phelps '69 accepted the
roles of discussion facilitators, urging people to ask questions of
one another, to listen to one another, in the liberal arts model. To
jump-start the conversations, Smith and Phelps asked the participants
to cluster in small groups for the first 15 minutes, making sure all
voices were heard. Each group talked about questions inspired by the
readings (see box), what questions they had regarding diversity at
St. Lawrence, and what they felt were the key issues related to diversity.
After 15 minutes elapsed, Smith and Phelps called upon a spokesperson
from each conversation cluster to summarize. Would themes emerge?
Vice President of Finance and Treasurer Kathy Mullaney served as spokesperson
for the first group. Participants, she said, stressed that “We need
to attend to diversity of ideas. It can be a challenge at times for
different ideas to be heard. We need St. Lawrence to be welcoming of
diversity. That is the key to maintaining diversity, and we have a
long tradition of being welcoming. The best diversity is a harmonious
A participant in another cluster, Ann Goodwin Elmer M'81, noted that
her group had some of the same ideas: “It's really key to diversity
to have everyone who comes here feel free to speak [his or her] mind.
(All conversations) are an opportunity to learn something. Whether
we agree with them or not, it's important to consider all voices.”
Other members of Elmer's cluster offered that alumni wonder what the
faculty role could be, or should be, in introducing diversity to students,
through curricular choice, through ideological perspective in the classroom
or, as Joe Richardson '63, president of the Alumni Executive Council,
asked, through selection of new colleagues or assistance in the evaluation
of prospective students.
Friend of the University George Vollmuth recognized that so far, the
participants had not agreed on a definition of diversity. He asked,
for example, whether geography and economic status contributed to a
college's sense of diversity.
Vollmuth's question opened a new area of inquiry, whether a college
should recruit prospective students who, as they arrive, represent
aspects of diversity, or whether a college should focus on introducing
students to differences through course options or cultural programming,
for example. Patricia Fenstermacher May '63 and Christine L. Koski
'79 spoke to these ideas, as did Mary Ann Fuller, attending with husband
W. Kent Fuller'65. She observed that for an 18-year-old student to
leave home and join a new community requires guidance and advising,
not just educationally but socially as well. Another participant added
that the University's goal for all students is success, however each
student defines success.
“Diversity is not just the University's responsibility,” said Judy
Diegor P'01, who identified herself as a member of a minority group.
Her daughter, she said, always felt welcomed and supported at St. Lawrence,
perhaps because she grew up with parents who evinced their own strong
sense of identity.
Other comments were thrown rapidly into the mix:
- “Everyone brings some kind of diversity to the campus. You can't
just look at gender or ethnicity as the definition of diversity.”
- “When I think of diversity, I think of race. I never have really
considered other issues, so the reading and this discussion have been
really good for me in helping me to understand what the University
is dealing with.”
-“The language we use [on this topic] in itself separates us.”
As might be expected, much of the group's discussion concerned what
is considered "diverse" at St. Lawrence – is it primarily
a question of race, or are such attributes as gender, religious affiliation,
ethnicity, geography, sexual preference and socioeconomic background
considered part of the mix? Ultimately, that question became one of
the central two posed to President Sullivan:
How does St. Lawrence University define diversity?
One participant pointed out that knowing how the University defines
diversity is crucial, because the goals could be very different, from,
for example, the diversity goals of the University of Chicago .
The reading assigned to the group addressed research that has shown
that, in addition to serving a social policy goal, diversity on college
campuses has also been proven to enhance the actual educational experience
of students. In addition, many in the group noted that in order for
the University to prepare students fully to participate in society
upon graduation, they must be able to work and live in an increasingly
That discussion led to the development of the second, multi-part,
question to be posed to President Sullivan:
What is the University's goal regarding diversity, how are
you trying to reach the goal and how is progress toward the goal
Reported by Macreena Doyle
Coordinator of Media Relations
Lisa Cania M'82
Associate Vice President of University Relations
At the plenary:
Time allowed Trustee Phelps to ask the first question: How does St.
Lawrence University define diversity?
President Sullivan: “We respect and admire the wide-ranging types
of diversity, each of which contributes to students' educational outcomes.
These include political ideology, class, geography, nationality, ethnicity
and more. I have noted [in the Summer/Fall issue of the St. Lawrence
magazine], that I believe diversity education is about the hard task
of bringing multiple and sometime conflicting perspectives to bear
I order to help students both understand how different the world looks
depending on where you stand…and how class, race, gender and other
social differentiations privilege some while disadvantaging others.
That said, while we recognize and celebrate all aspects of diversity,
we ultimately work hardest to connect to St. Lawrence those who are
least represented among our students, faculty and staff.”
(On the Web at www.stlawu.edu/csl/forums.html ;
click on title)
-"Diversity Works: The Emerging Picture of How Students Benefit," from
the series "American Commitments: Diversity, Democracy and Liberal
Learning" (American Association of Colleges and Universities)