Why Is Diversity so Important?

In my nearly 25-year career as a faculty member and advocate for diversity—racial, gender, or otherwise—at Columbia, I have had the opportunity to be involved in many memorable moments on campus. This semester, which has been marked by a number of high-profile scholarly events in addition to the usual vigorous conversations around diversity and inclusion, has been particularly memorable.

Dennis A. Mitchell
March 02, 2017

The campus has been abuzz with these activities, including the launch of the Awakening Our Democracy series led by the burgeoning Office of University Life, a University lecture featuring diversity thought leader Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, and the multidisciplinary Women Mobilizing Memory and Staging Africans conferences coordinated under the leadership of Jean Howard (Columbia's inaugural vice provost for Diversity Initiatives) and her colleagues. Two recent events—a panel moderated by University Provost John Coatsworth and a lecture by University President Lee Bollinger on the medical center campus—highlighted the University's commitment to diversity.

Awakening Our Democracy

Columbia's conversation series on the social disparities and criminal justice issues at the forefront of the University's and the nation's consciousness.

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The Oct. 13 panel \"Being the Change, Leading the Charge\" brought the topic of diversity in higher education to center stage. Our panelists shared a common history as agents of change in disciplines where diversity has been particularly difficult to achieve—namely business, STEM fields, and classical music. The discussion covered many of the challenges to and benefits of achieving diversity. Professor Marcel Agüeros noted the significant investments needed to plug the leaky STEM pipeline. In the same vein, City College Engineering Dean Gilda Barabino traced her successes back to her undergraduate institution promoting a sense of belonging, in conjunction with high expectations and accountability. Senior Vice Dean Katherine Phillips pointed to the need to innovate and be open to change in order to actually accrue diversity's benefits. These benefits are significant: University of Michigan Dean Aaron Dworkin made an impassioned case for diversity in classical music, pointing to improved educational outcomes for underrepresented students exposed to an arts-rich curriculum. College of Physicians and Surgeons Vice Dean Anne Taylor noted that increasing diversity among health-care professionals has been shown to improve health outcomes for patients—health-care research is often driven by those most personally invested, so a diverse set of decision-makers is critical.

On Oct. 20, one week after the panel, President Bollinger delivered a historic lecture on the medical center campus. From his unique perspective as the named defendant of two seminal Supreme Court cases on affirmative action, Bollinger laid out a case for diversity in education as both a scholar and advocate. He called for deeper discourse and highlighted the need for diverse voices in campus dialogue. Through our work to foster a climate of inclusiveness on our campus, my office, the Office of the Vice Provost for Faculty Diversity and Inclusion, seeks to provide a platform for scholarly voices to engage in this important conversation.

The events of the past several weeks might prove to be a watershed moment in Columbia's history of commitment to diversity. This begs the question: Why is diversity so important? My answer is that we cannot truly embody excellence, a hallmark of our storied institution, without diversity. This is much more than aspirational rhetoric—it is an evidence-based statement. We all benefit from the accelerated pace of innovation spurred by interdisciplinary research; we encourage students to work and study in groups because we know that diverse perspectives and collaboration enhance learning. The richness of conversation in our classrooms is enhanced by diverse voices. Researchers such as economist Scott Page have systematically studied this phenomenon, and their research empirically supports what we see anecdotally. Diverse groups and diversity of thought produce a myriad of positive outcomes, including more innovative solutions to complex problems, more productive collaborations, and richer learning experiences.

To be clear, increasing and maintaining the numbers of underrepresented individuals in our academic spaces is necessary, but it is not nearly sufficient. We must maintain a culture that supports the retention and success of underrepresented faculty and students across disciplines. The benefits of such an inclusive culture apply to all members of the academic community and to society at large. When diversity and inclusiveness are prominent in our academic institutions, we all benefit.

Columbia is in a unique position to lead its peers with respect to diversity, including in the area of faculty diversity. Our president, provost and board of trustees are committed to the importance of nurturing diversity and inclusion. This commitment has been backed by University resources, including significant support for faculty recruitment, career development for junior faculty, programming to enhance the University's climate of inclusiveness, and Ph.D. pipeline efforts. The value of diversity, on its own and as an essential component of excellence, is clear. This is the time to take stock of the University's progress, which was recently recognized via the national Higher Education Excellence in Diversity award, while also keeping our sights on the opportunities ahead of us to improve further.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Columbia Spectator on Jan. 20, 2017.

Dr. Mitchell serves as the Vice Provost for Faculty Diversity and Inclusion for Columbia University in the City of New York and Senior Associate Dean for Diversity for the Columbia University College of Dental Medicine (CDM). In his role as Vice Provost, he is responsible for leading the University’s ongoing commitment to attract, advance, and retain a diverse faculty.