Op-Ed

Diversity on campus sparks protest? It's a sign of progress.

Show of hands: you work side-by-side with people who are much poorer or wealthier than you — and you share your living space with someone from a religion, race, nation or sexual orientation other than your own.

We suspect few adults have their hands in the air. The vast majority of Americans live and work primarily with people much like themselves.

The clearest exception to this demographic homogeneity occurs in academe. It wasn’t long ago that students at our nation’s colleges and universities were predominately white, male and from affluent families. Today, only 44% of college students are men, and 52% are white. Fully 39% of undergraduates come from families with incomes low enough to qualify for Pell Grants. Especially notable, the most selective schools — those with applicant pools large enough to fill their classes many times over — have transformed their student bodies, going from among the least diverse to among the most.

In light of all that, no one should be surprised that student unrest has rocked campus after campus over the past year. What began at the University of Missouri quickly spread across the country. Whether public or private, large or small, urban or rural, few were immune.

Were diversity and inclusion easy, other sectors of society might have already succeeded at it. Apartment buildings and suburban enclaves, corporate work teams and boardrooms, the U.S. House and Senate — all would be appreciably more diverse.

The young adults moving onto college campuses over the coming weeks arrive from communities and K-12 systems that are largely segregated by race and by income; they may graduate into jobs and neighborhoods that remain so as well. But while on campus, a daughter of a hedge fund parent may share a room with the daughter of a migrant worker; a straight Republican may room with a gay Bernie Sanders supporter. Everyone is here, and everyone lives together, if not in perfect harmony. Still, for four precious years they share classrooms, bathrooms and, for most, an abiding affection for their future alma mater.

They are part of an ambitious experiment in diverse populations living together. Unlike experiments in medicine or engineering, however, there is little empirical research to guide anyone and no controlling for conditions. On the contrary, the participants have no interest in being controlled or viewed as subjects.

If this academic year is anything like the last, some students will proclaim loudly what a terrible job college administrations are doing to create an inclusive community and will demand change. Others will work with one another and with faculty and administrators to advance diversity and facilitate better mutual understanding. Some will do both. Still others will quietly decline to participate by self-segregating or even dropping out.

As college presidents ourselves, of course it is our preference that students collaborate with faculty and administrators rather than occupy offices, shut themselves off from fellow students with whom they disagree, or leave school. But we recognize and accept that these students are coming of age in a time of political, social and economic turbulence unseen in a generation. This year’s presidential election rhetoric only makes things more volatile.

We have less patience with pundits and politicians who opine from gated communities and segregated offices about campus incidents that, for all their notoriety, are utterly unrepresentative of the main points of tension on campuses. For every student who complained about inauthentic ethnic food in the cafeteria, to cite one well-publicized example, exponentially more Asian and Asian American students endured insults and snubs based on jealousy, stereotypes or outright hatred. Likewise, for every example of students demanding safe places or trigger warnings so as to avoid material they consider offensive or upsetting, innumerable LGBT students and students of color found themselves in situations where they were affronted or physically threatened.

Social experiments often fail, as any baby boomer who joined a commune in the 1960s can attest. But the efforts currently underway on college campuses to enact the American ideals of opportunity, diversity and unity are noble, and the participants deserve respect for trying to achieve them.

The surprise isn’t that there’s friction on campus these days, but how well this unique experiment actually works.

Barry Glassner is president and professor of sociology at Lewis & Clark College. Morton Schapiro is president and professor of economics at Northwestern University.

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