Diversity is a catalyst for strength. There is a great deal of discussion at our university, as there is on other campuses, about diversity and its importance to the campus culture. This dialog is usually viewed through the lens of ethnic, racial, and gender diversity. Other manifestations of the human condition provide important perspectives as well.
One dimension of diversity is derived solely from intellectual curiosity. Diversity of this dimension comes from holding a particular intellectual stance. In contemporary society this is a chosen trait rather than a distinctiveness that we inherit or are born with, although birth and family, or residence in a particular locale, certainly impact thinking.
If any university was populated with people who come from within fifty miles of the campus, there would be a sameness of view and a parochialness that could undermine its strength. If everyone who taught at Columbia University came from metropolitan New York, it would make Columbia narrow-minded. This is true for any university in any locale.
Multiple perspectives, absent anything else, create learning opportunity. That is why people travel. Travel from the Middle English word travailen (“to toil”), from the Anglo-French word travailler (“travail”) means work.
Without multiple perspectives,intellectual featurelessness leads to an austere thought environment.
The purpose of the university is to bring people from many perspectives together to generate new views that have value to a culture. Environments that support intellectual nepotism will not reach their full learning potential. Nepotism usually refers to active pursuit – hiring friend or family – rather than a passive one – hiring those who know a place because they happen to be available. Both are equally noxious to a good university.
Nepotism of the kind that undermines academic excellence and inquisitiveness is not usually intentional. Comfort with the challenges offered by varied perspectives is a necessary quality at a successful university. Settling for the comfortable will lead to a false sense of security that will eventually undercut the purpose of the university as well as its quality.
As a society, we have come to categorize legitimate and healthy differences of view as narrow-minded in some cases, or so broad as to be boundless in others.
It seems fear and hatred reside at the end of both roads.
This fear of expression has a chilling effect on diversity of thought and action equal to the chilling effects addressed in a number of Supreme Court cases beginning in the early fifties but given special attention by the late William Joseph Brennan, Jr., Associate Justice of the Court regarding the more general but related concept of free speech.
Powerful ideas sometimes create awkwardness when expressed out of our fear of offending others. While decorum is an important part of the social fabric, it must not be allowed to stifle legitimate discourse at a university. I’m not advocating an intellectual free-for-all, but, rather, the notion that openness and variety of views creates insight, by avoiding the blind spots that a narrow view will create.
Walter Bagehot, the English social scientist, understood the challenge of negotiating different viewpoints and the true purpose of the university. “One of the greatest pains to human nature is the pain of a new idea.”
At our university we should shield no one from the process that births new ideas.