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Beginning a dialogue on diversity

Donald E. Hall, the Herbert J. and Ann L. Siegel Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, says the diversity discussion represented "Lehigh at its very best."

More than 50 people from the Lehigh community have begun what organizers hope will be an ongoing dialogue about diversity on campus.

Donald E. Hall, the newly installed Herbert J. and Ann L. Siegel Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, joined professors James Peterson and Jennifer Swann, as well as Tyrone Russell, the director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, for a preliminary discussion Tuesday among attendees comprising equal parts students, faculty and administration.

Hall envisioned this type of gathering, he says, after hearing about the deep concern for—and interest in—diversity issues when he interviewed at Lehigh.

“It also grows out of the administration's commitment to making diversity a priority,” Hall said. “It was very much a convergence of the individual commitments of all of the parties involved, and the right moment in time at Lehigh to bring the issue to the front burner.”

On Tuesday, Nov. 1, the entire Lehigh community is invited to attend a Campus Meeting on the Principles of Our Equitable Community, from noon to 1:00 p.m. in Lamberton Hall’s Great Room.

The principles are posted online  and next week’s meeting will kick off an ongoing discussion about what each member of the Lehigh community can do individually and collectively to make them part of the fabric of our university community.

‘Difference generates knowledge’

Organizers of this week’s discussion began by answering the question, “Why is diversity important?” The simple question elicited a host of responses, ranging from the academic and theoretical to the personal.

“Of course, there is an intellectual reason,” said Hall. “Diversity and difference matters to me because it’s the only way I learn anything. I don’t learn from people who are exactly like me, who share my beliefs, my view of the world, my gender. Sameness is deadening to me. I need difference. Difference generates knowledge for me.”

Swann, a behavioral neuroscientist who has spent much of her career studying sexual and behavioral differences between genders, explored how diversity powers the pursuit of knowledge.

“It turns out that female hamsters—which should come as no surprise to the people in this room—control a lot of what goes on in sexual behavior,” said Swann, who was one of the first to focus on the female of the species. “If she’s not cooperating, the male gets absolutely nowhere. Nobody had that perspective until we had female researchers.”

She concluded, “Something always happens when we have a diverse perspective.”

Students in the crowd gave both pragmatic reasons for diversity as well as personal ones. Some expressed hope for Lehigh’s diverse future, while others questioned whether the group was simply “preaching to the choir.” Others took umbrage with what they considered a too-narrow definition of diversity. Diversity is also, as one student put it, diversity of thought and of experience.

Swann and Russell have scheduled a series of follow-up discussions for students to continue discussing the campus climate and begin to formulate ideas for combating some of the issues that may arise. Entitled "There's D? Thursdays: Conversations on Community and Diversity," the ongoing discussions will take place Thursdays at noon in various locations of the University Center. The first is Oct. 27 in UC 306.

“I think the most laudable aspect of the discussion was the fact that everyone involved—faculty, students, staff, administrators—approached this topic seriously, honestly, and on equal footing,” Hall says. “We modeled the respect and active listening that is key to realizing a successful, deeply engaged diverse community. What we saw was Lehigh at its very best—and that is truly a model for others in our community and beyond.”

Story by Jordan Reese

Posted on Wednesday, October 26, 2011

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