During the summer, I read a provocative book by Bill Bishop titled The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded Americans is Tearing Us Apart. His thesis is that “we have built a country where everyone can choose the neighborhood (and Church and news shows) most compatible with his or her lifestyle and belief. And we are living with the consequences of this segregation by way of life: pockets of like-minded citizens that have become so ideologically inbred that we don’t know, can’t understand, and can barely conceive of ‘those people’ who live just a few miles away.” Among the interesting observations he makes that hits closer to home is the following:
Education is presumed to nurture an appreciation of diversity; the more schooling, the greater the respect for works of literature and art, different cultures, and various types of music. Certainly, well-educated Americans see themselves as worldly, nuanced, and comfortable with difference. Education also should make us curious about—even eager to hear—different political points of view. But it doesn’t. The more educated Americans become—and the richer—the less likely they are to discuss politics with those who have different points of view…. Americans who are poor and nonwhite are more likely than those who are rich and white to be exposed to political disagreement. In the United States today, people who haven’t graduated from high school have the most diverse groups of political discussion mates. Those who have suffered through graduate school have the most homogeneous political lives.
If you grant the author this premise and judge his evidence against that of your own experience, then you might well understand why a university—even this university—may, on one hand, publicly proclaim its commitment to diversity, and, at the same time, struggle with conversations about this. In fact, I’ve seen the documents that chronicle sincere efforts to create a more diverse and inclusive community; heard the stories of long-term faculty, administrators, staff, and alumni; and examined my own five years of experience against measurable advances in recruiting and retaining a more diverse student body, faculty, staff, and administration. Since 1990, we have added about 1500 students to our total enrollment and during the same period nearly doubled the percentage of students of color—from 15% to 26%. This suggests real progress and a sincere commitment to the goals and values we proclaim. Yet, I think most would agree that we can do better. On our campus, there are students who continue to be hurt by the insensitive remarks about their race or ethnicity. On our campus, there are students who feel invisible or, worse, ostracized because of their socio-economic condition. On our campus, there are people who are stung by homophobia. On our campus, there are men and women diminished by the glares and sexist comments of others. On our campus, there are faculty harboring resentments and bearing wounds endured years ago by the rejection, disrespect, or worse, indifference of their colleagues. On our campus there are staff and—yes—even administrators who become objectified objects of derision, not for what they do, but for who they are.
If the premise of The Big Sort is correct, we may be neither worse nor better than most groups that seek—consciously or not—to associate primarily with people who agree with us, think like us, live like us, and—consequently—look and speak like us. If we are honest, we must admit some imperfection; if we are committed to the Mission and Values that we proclaim as a University, then we also must be honest about our resolve to live these on our campus more perfectly.
Our effort to develop even more congruity between what we say and what we do informed the language of our first Strategic Direction that we “become more culturally diverse and culturally competent.” To make that concrete faculty, staff, students, and administrators created the Presidential Advisory Board on Inclusion and Diversity. As part of its initial work last academic year, it created a statement that aims high. It begins: “The University of San Diego believes academic excellence requires a learning community that is characterized by inclusive engagement with diverse people and perspectives. The benefits of a rich, diverse learning community are most likely realized when institutions demonstrate high levels of commitment to inclusion and diversity. … “ [from “Presidential Advisory Board on Inclusion and Diversity Statement on Diversity and Inclusion”]
With the start of this new academic year, I join the members of PABID and seek your support for a new initiative called “On Our Campus at USD” or “OOC@USD,” a multifaceted, campus-wide effort that challenges each of us to examine how we, individually and collectively, can be better than we are; how we can meet the challenges of living and working in a diverse and global society. On our campus, one that purports to prepare students for the 21st century, we can do no less.
It is unlikely that this collective of human beings with all its gifts and weaknesses; all its desires and short-comings--will achieve perfection. But, I am convinced that this particular community, given its achievements, its talent, its commitment, and its sheer purpose as a university can progress and, if you will, become the exception to the examples of The Big Sort. To this end, we will spend the up-coming year inviting each of you; in fact, urging each of you to participate in activities sponsored by PABID that are designed to promote awareness and assist each of us in discovering how best we can achieve, on our campus, greater diversity and inclusion.
How will we know ourselves as better than we are, as closer to the ideal community? In my view, there are three commitments that will surely help us along the way.
First, let us teach our students by what we say and how we act that we honor the uniqueness of every person whom we encounter. By committing to a deep respect for the dignity of each individual, we abandon the tendency to define ourselves or others primarily by categories; immunizing ourselves against the epidemic of “identity politics”. We know the devastating effects when people align themselves or are perceived exclusively by ideology, race, or ethnicity. On a global scale, we witness the savage results of identity politics everyday, most notably the massacre of the people of Dafur, tribal warfare in Kenya, gang warfare just blocks from here. In 1935, Martin Buber encouraged Jews in their resistance to Hitler’s own version of “identity politics.” He argued for a world where the perspectives of each individual would be respected, making the case that the “formation of the person” and the “formation of great communities” grow out of relationship between and among persons. He pointed to the limits of identity politics, to the impasse that occurs when one homogeneous group engages another homogeneous group without regard for the unique, particular perspectives and gifts that give vitality and shape to the community; in this case, the university. Put plainly, our students are more than just “students” or “Latino students” or Black Students” etc.; just as you are more than “the faculty;” or I, merely part of “the administration.” Let’s get over this and get on with the process of engaging more and more in relationships that discover, respect, and appreciate the individuals who together create this university. Does it take more effort? Yes. Is it worth it? Yes.
Second, let us commit to on-going conversations—both in formal and informal settings-- about issues that matter, keeping in mind that words do, indeed, have consequences. We might aim to engage in exchange that is deeper and broader than that to which we’ve become accustomed. This type of communication involves not merely talking with “our own kind,” with those who think like we do. It is dialogue of the highest order, characterized by what Pope Benedict XVI described in his address to Catholic educators last April as “intellectual charity.” This is dialogue that is clear and comprehensible, patient and generous rather than offensive and bitter; it invites trust and leads to friendship which, in turn, seeks the greater good of the individual and, ultimately, of the community. If our mission is, above all, to educate, what better way to prepare our students for the diverse and global societies that need them than by modeling here with and among them conversation, exchange, dialogue marked by “intellectual charity.” If our public and personal discourse proceeds from a genuine interest in the “other” and a respect for his or her ideas, attitudes, experiences, and responsibilities, then we come closer to building a university where the exercise of “academic freedom” implies more than freedom that protects me from coercion or censorship; it is a freedom exercised for the benefit of others, to enhance their growth, development, their contribution to the greater good. As educators, we are called to be ambassadors of hope and optimism. Who better than us to share this with each other, with our students and, through them, with the world?
Finally, we must reckon with the truth “on our campus” that we are more than a group of academics teaching, researching, administering within our own spheres of influence; we are also a “political” community with all that this implies. In this regard, at its best, our respect for each individual, expressed through mutual respect and civil discourse, develops the common and public good. How are we, a university--with our diversity of perspectives, beliefs, and experiences--also a community that not only teaches peace but makes peace? What commitments do we make to eradicate injustice on our campus, heal wounds on our campus, break down barriers of suspicion and mistrust on our campus, develop our own and inspire in others confidence to speak and to be heard with respect and civility? Pope John Paul II urged us toward greater solidarity, suggesting in his encyclical On Social Concerns that a community achieves solidarity when it recognizes that “one’s neighbor…is not only a human being with his or her own rights and a fundamental equality with everyone else, but becomes the living image of God….” Achieving such solidarity, he suggested, is the “path to peace and at the same time to development” Thus, if your desire is as great as mine to achieve greater solidarity on behalf of a greater good, then join me in a self-conscious, intentional commitment to work toward this during the year of “On our Campus at USD.” We can achieve greater solidarity and, as a consequence, greater good for each other, for this university, and for those whom we encounter around the globe.
Let us commit ourselves, during this year of “On Our Campus @ USD” to regard each other as unique and precious gifts to this community. Let us commit to richer conversations with one another, ones marked by ‘intellectual charity.” Let us commit to creating greater solidarity within our university, so that we can serve even more effectively the public good. And let us commit ourselves to this important effort that begins now “On our Campus.”
Bill Bishop, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded Americans is Tearing Us Apart, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008), 286.
Martin Buber, “Education and world-View,” in Maurice Friedman, ed., Pointing the Way: Collected essays by Martin Buber, (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1975), 100-101.
A summary of the Method of Dialogue in Paul VI’s Ecclesiam Suam, (Glen Rock, NJ: Paulist Press, 1964), 83-86.
John Paull II, Sollicitudo Reis Socialis, On Social Concerns, (Boston: St. Paul Books & Media, 1987), 39-40.