The Diversity of Diversity at Hamilton
On campus and across the culture, one word can mean a lot of things
By Allison Eck '12
Illustration by Katherine Dunn
Diversity — as an ideal, a policy and a point of contention — has a long but paradoxical legacy at Hamilton. Samuel Kirkland's original goal in founding the Hamilton-Oneida Academy in 1793 was to provide young Native Americans with an education alongside white settlers, but his vision was never realized. It would be more than 50 years before Hamilton College admitted an Asian student and nearly a century before the first African-American student arrived. However, the modern College's commitment to inclusiveness has deepened, accompanied by the opening of Kirkland College in 1968 and the subsequent merger of the two institutions, as well as a growing sense of social responsibility on campus.
Such dedication requires constant support on the part of faculty members, administrators, alumni and students. Hamilton's 2009 strategic plan underscores the importance of diversity, as do its recent pledge to be need-blind in admission decisions and a newly announced plan to create a chief diversity officer's position at the College.
At the same time, discussions of diversity are always evolving. They have become more nuanced, more expansive and — usually — more civil. "We are bringing together people from different cultural traditions in a relatively confined environment," says Steven Yao, associate dean of faculty for diversity initiatives and associate professor of English. "Inevitably, conflicts are going to arise."
A few of those conflicts have sparked protests and feelings of animosity, among them campus-wide invitations for an April 2009 "Mexican Night" party that depicted a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, a guard with a gun and a piñata resembling a Trojan horse. Critics charged that it mocked Mexican culture and the dangers faced by immigrants; sponsors, apologizing, called it a parody.
The broader dialogue is less dramatic but just as important. It is about the role diversity assumes at a small liberal arts college: How will a Cultural Education Center contribute to campus life? Should members of the Hamilton community hold a common set of civic values? Does the word "diversity" even have a shared meaning?
"How about we just lose the term 'diversity'?" asks Bonnie Urciuoli, professor of anthropology, who has done years of research on the concept and has served on a faculty group studying social difference and its relationship to academic experience. "Why don't we try thinking of it as social complexity?"
We asked a sampling of people on campus — students, professors and administrators — to share their thoughts on diversity and its importance on the Hill and beyond.
Amanda Barnes '12
The emphasis on racial diversity here is an interesting discussion: What makes one form of diversity more legitimate than another? The more pressing issue, I think, is class inequality.... A group of the student population dominates the conversation, and it's great that they are so committed. But the problem I have is that race was just not something that was even in my consciousness. Being biracial, you would think it'd be more of an issue in my life, but it's not. I just haven't had the time to process it or think about it.... Maybe the need for a Cultural Education Center is legitimate. But I'm not of that mind. I think it could potentially be a form of self-segregation of the minority students on this campus. The building may become a replacement for actually raising awareness of diversity issues. I feel like this could be a really great organization and force on campus if they are able to avoid self-seclusion.
Phillis Holmes Breland '80
Director of Opportunity Programs
The progress of the country as a whole has impacted this college. I think there are certain things that are more prevalent and visible because there are more students of color. Have we made a whole lot of progress? On some levels yes, and on some levels no. I think that we still have work to do. There has to be a balance between what the College has been traditionally and historically and what it is now.... There are many stereotypes that come with being a part of our opportunity programs, but amid all of the financial strife, the institution's support has never wavered, and I think that says a lot.... What we try to do is level the playing field. When we bring these students here, I don't give them any discussion about their ethnicity or difference, but what we do is tell them, "Here are the rules for living here, and they apply to everybody."
Will Eagan '11
On campus, I hear the word "diversity" all the time, but the meaning of the word is, has been, and likely always will be unclear to me. It seems that most people understand it as the belief that various groups are destined to think or behave a certain way. This fuzzy definition is one that I cannot accept because it ignores the unique thoughts and beliefs of an individual. The common understanding of "diversity" forces one to view the world through a prism where everyone behaves within certain guidelines. I would prefer that instead of diversity conjuring thoughts of collectivist groups, each one of us should consider the principles that an individual lives by rather than categories of belonging.... The administration's use of the word "diversity" focuses primarily on race and gender/sexual orientation. I would prefer to see some consideration given to religion — which I consider to be the foundation of any culture — thought, language and military status. ... In the pursuit of diversity, we must be cautious to avoid the prohibition of different ways of thinking.
Amy Tannenbaum '10
Hamilton has made some strides in recent years to numerically increase diversity, so percentages are looking really good. But then I find that that is seen as enough to solve the problem. I hear comments about how women are in the majority on the Hill so they don't need any special accommodations; we don't need a Womyn's Center anymore. We've increased ethnic diversity, but if you look at the experiences of students of color here on the whole, a lot of them feel like it's a hostile environment. This is also true of LGBT students who feel like there's no safety for them.... I think that Hamilton's a little bit behind, but I also realize that these types of problems like racism and sexism aren't things that don't exist outside of Hamilton, and it's not like we can make them go away forever. But because Hamilton is this great institution, its students go on to be leaders in all types of fields. So if we can create a better environment and more awareness here, then that will translate into bigger change.
Landry Frei '12
The College is first and foremost a school, and therefore its greatest focus should always be on academics and the curriculum. I really do not think it is the administration's task to attempt to alter or control the social atmosphere of the College.... Also, the assumption that culture is determined by race is flat-out wrong. A white student from an Iowa farm town has a vastly different culture from a white student from a European country or a white student from Brooklyn. The same can go for any race. A black student could be from Chicago, Nigeria, South Africa or London. What is important is diversity of experience, diversity of opinion and differences in ways of thinking. I know this has been said many times before, but I think it's worth saying again: What about political diversity? How much of that can we honestly say there is among the faculty or students at Hamilton?
Professor of Anthropology
"Diversity" is one of those words whose meaning is very context-dependent. There are a lot of words that work this way — they tend to be very loaded, and people use them in ways that reflect their perspective.... The danger is that [the term "diversity"] gets ripped loose of the history of race, and people completely tune out the reality of how "race" came about in the first place. Differences exist because there are these histories in which people from different parts of the world were put into highly exploited situations. If you wipe out all that history and say that "diversity" is something that belongs only to an individual and we value it only in terms of how it relates to our organization, then basically, that's the danger of the corporate idea of diversity — i.e., that it is valuable insofar as the corporation can use it.... How about we just lose the term "diversity"? Why don't we try thinking of it as social complexity — which is kind of a basic concept in sociology and anthropology — in the sense that the social world is a complicated place? Inequality is part of that picture.
Ha Eun "Sam" Cho '10
My overall feeling about diversity is that it's for the most part good and an imperative component of one's college experience. When we talk about diversity at Hamilton, I feel like most people think of it strictly in terms of race. However, I believe diversity encompasses much more than one's race. For example, although I'm classified as a minority, I grew up in southern California. The types of social experiences that I've encountered are in stark contrast to those of an international student. Therefore, when I arrived at Clinton, I had a hard time adjusting — not because I was now suddenly a "minority," but rather because I was now in rural Central New York. ... I think these issues haven't come up as strongly in past years because Hamilton was less diverse. As Hamilton is becoming more diverse, we are seeing a clash between groups of individuals with different backgrounds.
Katherine Costa '12
I feel that diversity is a pressing issue at Hamilton. As part of the "white majority," I have many friends who belong to minority groups, and I often see them struggle with their identity as Hamilton students. Many do not feel like they belong on this campus. Many minorities feel they are automatically grouped into the "Other" category, and people assume that just because they are not white, they take a certain stand on all issues that arise and are naturally militant. Many feel they do not have an individual voice, but a "minority" voice.... Programs like POSSE and HEOP have been wonderful steps in the right direction, but they need more support from the campus as a whole, administration especially, in order to truly blossom. The opposition that the Cultural Education Center has faced in getting started is another indicator of how difficult it is to be a minority student at Hamilton College.
Associate Professor of Government
The fact that we can even have this conversation about what diversity should mean suggests that we always already have some sense of what we're talking about. That is precisely the kind of debate we ought to be having. There are probably very few of us who would say we want no diversity — what would that even mean?... The concern of those who are agonistic democratic theorists is that if we try to resolve these differences, what do we lose in the process? If we get everyone to follow view X or engage in practice or culture Y, then this necessarily would entail a kind of flattening out and loss of a genuine quality. The presumption for many agonistic democrats is that people are different in different ways that can't be and shouldn't be ironed out.... In the wider democracy, and even more so in a residential college where you cannot get away very easily, we have to be able to continue to disagree.
Bianca Dragan '10
Diversity was not a criterion that I looked for while researching colleges, perhaps because diversity was not on my mind in Romania. The country is dominantly white, dominantly heterosexual and dominantly Orthodox. Maybe because I have always been part of the Romanian majority, I have not felt like or viewed myself as part of a minority at Hamilton, even if I am from a different ethnic, social, cultural, linguistic and academic background. Of course I would like for Hamilton to have more than three Romanians on campus, but I chose an American college and expected a multicultural community. I was not looking for the familiar. Coming from a homogeneous country, at Hamilton I was faced with a great academic, sexual, ethnic, religious, political and cultural diversity, which has helped me evolve as an individual, intellectually and emotionally.... Hamilton College should definitely promote and model values of community and respect, but I feel that it is not the job of the administration to "teach" these concepts. They should be norms of common sense and personal integrity. After all, the Honor Code's premise is to treat students as adults.
Anthony Mathieu '12
While I feel the administration has done a satisfactory job of admitting a variety of students from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, I do not believe the appearance of diversity at Hamilton should stop at racial characteristics. It is the responsibility of students to take more advantage of the variety in experiences.... I decided to join the Womyn's Center based on my interest in gender issues and my desire to get more in-depth experience with such issues, as opposed to learning about them exclusively in a classroom. Being one of the only male members has given me the benefit of being able to give a broader, more moderate perspective in discussing issues on and off campus pertaining to gender. Overall, I believe women are given the same opportunities as men to thrive on Hamilton's campus but are still forced to endure a patriarchal social atmosphere on the Hill.
Corinne Bancroft '10
The administration should acknowledge the structural nature of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism and able-ism and develop institutional ways to respond to them. The administration also should develop a more comprehensive mechanism for addressing the concerns of students of color.... I think the faculty, both in individual research and collective conversations, has done a good job acknowledging and questioning the complexity of the [diversity] issue. What we lack, however, is a community conversation on the subject. For instance, our professors discuss this in faculty meetings, the Social Justice Initiative makes appeals to the administration, and the Student Assembly has discussions that exclude some of the key groups. It seems, then, that different constituencies lack a lot of the substance from others' conversations, and this prevents us from moving forward.
Elijah LaChance '10
There are lots of pressing issues at Hamilton. Diversity is one of them. However, we have made great strides, and until we are willing to make more great strides and not baby steps, we should admit that we are where we are.... Diversity is a thing a lot of people talk about at Hamilton, but few seem to understand. We should be honest about its complexity, about what it does for us and what it doesn't do.... The conversation has been almost exclusively focused on race, gender and sexual orientation. When was the last time you saw a person who needed a wheelchair to get around at Hamilton? How about someone with a mental or learning disability? How about someone with a facial deformity? If we really want to talk about diversity, the first thing we have to admit is that Hamilton, regardless of the number of students of different races or sexual orientations, is not diverse and never has been.
Associate Dean of Faculty for Diversity Initiatives,
Associate Professor of English
Diversity is a value, just like excellence is a value. People raise questions about what diversity means, but we don't raise those same questions about what excellence is. I find it a curious contrast.... I think we do try to bestow values and communicate values as teachers. There are those people who make a very clean distinction between intellectual and ethical or moral activity. I don't see that distinction as being quite so clear. Adults on campus have many roles — one is to challenge the world views of students, including the ethical values they have developed. But it is the job of all adults on this campus to have an investment in creating as inclusive an environment as possible, one where all students and members of the community can thrive and maximize their potential. There's an ethical dimension to all that we do here.