Dartmouth's Diversity Obsession
Dartmouth sells itself on a few primary slogans, one of which is "diversity." Without doubting for a second the great value of diversity itself, I ask: Is Dartmouth's public relations emphasis on diversity too great?
Let me explain. Dartmouth is obsessed with diversity. There are two aspects to this obsession. One, Dartmouth is obsessed with becoming more diverse. It fulfills this part of the obsession by reaching out to potential minority applicants, by recruiting women and minority faculty and arguably by favoring minorities in admissions.
Two, Dartmouth is obsessed with convincing itself and the world that it is diverse. It does this by sponsoring diversity presentations during freshman orientation, by holding a "Diversity Panel" to fill positions in the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity and the Office of Pluralism and Leadership ("Diversity Panel Aims to Fill Positions," Oct. 24), and by including a clause affirming that Dartmouth is "a diverse community" in its Mission statement. President Wright stressed the diversity of Dartmouth's community on Monday in both his Community Letter, sent via BlitzMail to the entire campus, and his annual "State of the College" address to the general faculty, a highly visible public relations event.
I applaud the first diversity obsession. Diversity in a community should be cherished for the enrichment it brings. But I question the use of the second. If Dartmouth is so diverse, why does it seem to have to convince itself of that fact? Is it afraid it is not diverse enough? And why should it try to convince outsiders?
Perhaps the idea is that the more diverse a university appears, the more attractive it is to prospective applicants. Though there is no proof of this, I agree it is plausible. Even so, diversity is but one of many factors that raise a university's appeal, and it is probably one of the more difficult to advertise. Photographs of diverse groups tend to appear posed, and verbal claims of diversity tend to be taken with a grain of salt.
And diversity is certainly not exclusive to Dartmouth. According to the official statistics released by the admissions offices of the eight Ivy League institutions, Dartmouth is the least racially-diverse school in the League, with 27.4 percent of its undergraduates characterized as "Students of Color." At Columbia and Harvard, the most diverse members of the League, minority students comprise over 40 percent of undergraduates. So why spend so much energy trying to advertise Dartmouth's diversity? Diversity as a concept is difficult to advertise, and Dartmouth is not winning the diversity race among its peers -- it is not even close. On ethnic diversity, it places dead last in the Ivy League.
Much of the energy that the Office of Public Relations spends on diversity could be better spent. By no means do I advocate silence on the issue, but I do believe it would be wise to quiet down. The College has other important qualities that are, if not marginalized, certainly not given their fair share of attention.
For example, Dartmouth's campus is spectacularly beautiful, and beauty sells itself. The opening photographs in the College viewbook already capitalize on this, but the College could scream it louder. Still more important, as Wright rightly recognized in his statements Monday, are Dartmouth's contagious school spirit and close-knit campus community. These qualities make Dartmouth what it is: Our small, cohesive, undergraduate-focused community is what substantively distinguishes the College from many of its peer institutions, especially those in the Ivy League.
But when I was looking at colleges, I found that every school I considered claimed an "undergraduate focus"-- including several large and distinctly research-oriented universities -- and Dartmouth's claim was no more convincing than the rest. This is a serious failure of advertising. If Dartmouth fails to convince applicants of what is arguably its defining quality, what business does it have talking about more peripheral concerns?
Ultimately, Dartmouth should advertise its assets. Diversity is certainly an asset, so it should not be neglected. But the focus on diversity is disproportionate both to its ability to attract applicants and to its centrality to Dartmouth's identity as an institution. Let's put more energy into advertising the factors that will improve our desirability and those that define Dartmouth. By these standards, "diversity" should be rather low on the public relations priority list.