Campus diversity not about statistics, but about people

Column by Taylor Shelton

In just a little over three years at UK, I’m not sure how many times the word “diversity” has been used. Whether it was over the failure of our administration to recruit minority students, or over the numerous racially insensitive remarks that were propagated by our student leadership, diversity has been the catchphrase of my tenure at UK.

The only problem appears to be that most of us fail to see what diversity really means. The university administration’s touting of this year’s record minority recruitment is another example of this misconstrued conception of diversity.

For the most part, our university sees diversity as both a means and an end. Having a higher proportion of minority students makes our administration happy because it means that we get ranked higher in those categories by the likes of the Princeton Review or the U.S. News and World Report. In the quest for the elusive Top 20 Business Plan distinction, what others think about us is surely the most important thing. But in the same way that our university uses its supposed diversity as a recruitment tool, we fall short of taking full advantage of the diversity already present in our community.

Having more black, Asian, Hispanic, female or gay and lesbian students means absolutely nothing if they aren’t made welcome on campus. Similarly, if we stick to our exclusive social groups and avoid learning important lessons from one another, we are missing not only the point of diversity, but also the point of higher education.

Diversity in the university setting is important because it allows us to experience an intellectual environment that isn’t one-sided or one-shaded. It means providing us with more than one voice on any number of issues — from critical studies of race in society to medieval British literature.

And while we are all certainly tempted to give greater importance to our own opinions, we should remember that regardless of skin tone, religion, socio-economic background or political party affiliation, our voices are all important, so long as they reflect the intellectual integrity that should be indicative of a university student.

In a Kernel column on Sept. 3, Karen Lightbourne expressed her discontent that a white person was teaching an African-American Studies course that she is enrolled in. The fact that it may not be so wise to insult the person who gives you your grades based on their skin color aside, her article lacked the kind of understanding of diversity that UK should have. Lightbourne saw this as a smack in the face to diversity at UK.

On the contrary, this is exactly what diversity should be. She wrote that we shouldn’t speak about it — we should be about it. This is, however, the definition of being about it — recognizing that all people, especially those who have dedicated their intellectual and academic careers to a certain subject, have a relevant opinion, regardless of any group distinctions. We shouldn’t limit ourselves by saying that just because an instructor is not white, black, Asian, Hispanic, male, female, gay, straight, urban or rural, that they should be precluded from having any particular set of academic interests.

While this particular African-American Studies instructor may not fully know what it is to be black, to say that they would not have a unique and insightful perspective on the subject, or the simple ability to teach the class successfully, is preposterous.

Likewise, just because someone isn’t a native speaker of Spanish, French or German doesn’t mean that they should be kept from pursuing those academic interests at an undergraduate, graduate or professional level. The same goes for those who study Appalachia, feminism, civil rights or any number of other demographically or temporally specific topics.

What is more important than the color of one’s skin, one’s gender or sexual orientation, or even their field of study, is that we respect one another’s opinions and allow all people, whether students, faculty or staff, to participate equally in the intellectual discussion that should typify a college campus.

Rather than worrying about whether we have reached a quota of minorities or whether an African-American Studies professor is black, we should concern ourselves with answering the larger questions of whether or not we have actually used our status as a supposed beacon of higher education for the betterment of those students who trust that they made the right decision by coming to UK.

As long as we tout our record minority recruitment but continue to have a misguided attitude toward their place in our society, it doesn’t matter who comes to UK — what matters more is who runs UK and how.