What is Diversity Good For?
In public debate, treating diverse people fairly is sometimes portrayed as an unmixed burden. It does seem to require effort - many people in cosmopolitan environments often congregate in homogeneous groups and report that they feel more comfortable there. (So comfortable that "self-segregation" is a recurring issue.) But there is growing evidence that in addition to the requirements of justice, the effort in creating and managing diversity is worth it - at least in our neck of the woods.
Ever since the invention of cities, scholars, artists, writers, inventors, and other innovators have gone there, and not just because that's where the money and power is. It is also where the other scholars, artists, writers, inventors are, and scholarship, art, literature, and invention requires people to talk with, argue with, and exchange ideas with. Recently, sociologists have been reconstructing networks of innovators and found major innovators in the midst of connections.
During the 1990s, a research thread suggested that a heterogeneous group, assigned a task, would be more creative and productive than a homogeneous one. But, as one early study observed, the homogeneous groups might feel better about themselves. These observations have entered the mainstream, and business and science magazines are now advising us that diversity is the mother of creativity, that diverse teams are creative, that diversity makes us smarter and is vital for innovation, etc. Diversity presents participants with the challenge of interacting with different points of view, which makes it the ideal antidote to groupthink, and in larger groups may function as an deterrent to popular hysteria.
(Of course, it's not that simple. As that early study above observed, diverse groups cannot simply be created and then left to fend for themselves; sometimes they have to be managed in order to avoid disorders like failure to get anywhere.)
One argument for heterogeneity could go like this. Imagine hunting for treasure on a large island, a treasure with many obscure clues to its location. (And suppose that there were many distracting doubloons and jewels scattered about.) Each treasure-hunter has their own ideas about where the treasure is. If each treasure-hunter went out alone, no treasure-hunter would collect more than a single clue or two, and would be lucky to get a doubloon. A homogeneous group of treasure-hunters would gather up and share several clues, but they would interpret them the same way, and spend all their time digging up one particular hill, and perhaps be rewarded with a fistful of jewels. (But at least they would be able to tell off-color jokes without offending anyone.) A heterogeneous group would have many more arguments, but being exposed to more possibilities arising from their varying points of view, they would stand a better chance of finding that old cedar chest with Captain Kidd's name on it.
The value of diversity is one aspect of the Wisdom of the Crowd, and of diversity Aristotle wrote (in Politics 3.11) that, "...the many are better judges than a single man of music and poetry; for some understand one part, and some another, and among them they understand the whole. There is a similar combination of qualities in good men..." The wisdom of the crowd, and the value of diversity in the crowd in assuring that the crowd consider a wide range of options, has recently been popularized by public intellectuals like James Surowiecki and Scott Page.
In addition, in an age of globalization - at an institution with a signal effort to graduate global citizens - we are looking forward to a heterogeneous future. We should make the most of it.
Despite Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's claim, "...that nothing great in the World has been accomplished without passion," it may be more true that nothing great has been accomplished without a lot of hard work. "Managing diversity" almost certainly involves hard work, and that has become a popular subject in management.
Preparation seems to be a major part of diversity management. Montana State University recently adjusted its hiring process, and in the last four years, half of its new hires for tenure-track positions in STEM fields have been women. MSU did this with a program - backed by a $ 3.4 million NSF grant - to train hiring committees how to recruit diverse candidates. "The most common question I hear is, If I could do one thing to achieve gender diversity on the faculty, what would it be?" said the principal investigator on the NSF grant. "But itís a process. It takes very careful, strategic planning."
Another problem is interacting with people with different backgrounds. As Ric Masten once observed, there's a hundred million miles across the table that we share. We inadvertently step on each others' toes and then wonder what is wrong with them. For example, consider micro-aggressions, which can range from the sort of bullying we see in Victorian novels to simple miscommunication. Dealing with these jarring interactions on an ad hoc basis can start the pendulum swinging between denial and panicky over-reactions. Some advance education - which again means careful, strategic planning - may be helpful.
Focus Magazine in the Chronicle of Higher Education recently produced an issue on Creating a Diverse Faculty - which turns out to also mean a diverse body of graduate students (which means a diverse body of undergraduates, which means...). Such resources may prove useful, for with all of our good intentions, proceeding on an ad hoc basis is not the best way to accomplish a large and complex task.