i Diversity at SNC: truth or myth? (And how to make it more true) | COLLEGE WRITING: DEBATE(S) IN HIGHER EDCUATION

Nevena Prebiracevic

As a Catholic liberal arts college, rooted in the Norbertine traditions of service and respect for the dignity of all people, St. Norbert College aspires to build a community which is intellectually, spiritually, and personally challenging and reflective of the diverse world we live in. However, with a student body that is 89% white with only 18 states and 10 countries represented; with faculty members like Wolfgang Grassl, whose open contempt for homosexuality communicates a particularly unwelcoming message; and, with the College’s emphasis on its private, Catholic roots, the college’s stated commitment to diversity and its sincerity is questionable. The lack of diversity on a college campus is problematic because, on the one hand, it fails to prepare students for the actual world they will live in; on the other, it suggests—if only inadvertently—that this Norbertine community may not be very welcoming to those who don’t fit a particular mold. In both instances, it harms the College’s educational mission and leaves everyone poorer.

Therefore, I believe that there are several concrete steps the College can, and should, take in order to enhance and strengthen its diversity in order to honor its mission, traditions, as well as its desire to be the foremost institution of higher learning in the United States. These include: recruitment programs for lower-class, underrepresented groups; greater clarity on its commitment to all persons regardless of their backgrounds; and, intentional and integrated race, ethnic, culture, gender, and sexuality education.

The issues of racial, ethnic, and sexual orientation diversity are particularly real and serious. Not addressing them deliberately and openly can produce more individuals like Grassl, who feel supported and even encouraged to speak against specific groups of people. It also propagates the possibility that what has happened in other places, like at Grace University where a student was expelled for being a lesbian, might happen at SNC too. And, as college touts its Catholic identity, it inadvertently suggests that the experience of a faculty member at a Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) affiliated institution may also occur at St. Norbert (even though SNC is not a member of CCCU), therefore, sending a message which likely pushing away a great many talented individuals from considering SNC in any capacity.

In terms of the socio-economic diversity, as one of nation’s 193 most selective colleges, St. Norbert falls into a category of those “whose two-thirds of students come from the top income quartile and only 6% from the bottom quartile.” Although not true, its private nature further suggests that only affluent can attend, which likely prevents thousands qualified, lower-class students from even considering to apply. Reaching out to those lesser among our brothers and sisters is at the core of the Gospel’s teachings and should certainly be at heart of our Catholic institution, too.

Many colleges and universities nationally are wrestling with these or similar problems, but some have been especially successful at tackling them. Their experiences have offered models for others, and St. Norbert would do well to follow in their footsteps. For example, Amherst College in Massachusetts—one of the oldest and most selective liberal arts colleges in the country—struggled with recruiting students from economically diverse backgrounds. However, having understood how harmful this was to their educational mission, they have since made a commitment to recruit qualified students regardless of their ability to pay. The effort has been quite successful. Similarly, in the effort to even the odds of competitive college admission for those of lower socio-economic backgrounds, researchers form Stanford and the University of Virginia have developed an extremely creative program to tackle this problem. Additionally, in addressing the challenges with racial and ethnic diversity, Yale’s professor Albert Laguna found a way to make college populations of all walks of life more integrated through, what colleges do best: teaching. Namely, Yale requires all students to take racial and ethnic classes. St. Norbert can distinguish itself by following these and other examples to become a truly diverse place, both in word and example (as the college’s motto would suggest).

While vigorous debate is essential to a liberal arts education—and a thriving society—we must be cognizant that when a Catholic professor at a Catholic university speaks against a minority population (i.e. gay men and women) it sends a very loud message to those he dislikes and to their allies. Although this does not technically make the College guilty by association, the optics aren’t good especially when finding Grassl’s article online is rather easy while identifying any kind of a direct rebuttal is tough, if not impossible. With this in mind, the College should make more effort to clearly communicate that all viewsas well as all people are welcome on a thriving campus as they, together, seek after the truth. After all, that iswhat Pope John Paul II wrote in his Ex Corde Ecclasiae, and is the same sentiment that, from what I can gather, SNC Religious Studies faculty shared in their 2013 sharp response to Grassl’s article. Several SNC students agreed in their opinion pieces for the St. Norbert Times, too.

The purpose of a Catholic college is to seek truth, and the purpose of an American college is for all people to have the opportunity to do so. More to the point, as we often hear around campus, Norbert of Xanten was quite the rebel who challenged the papal authority at several occasions. He sought peace and reconciliation through action and contemplation of all people, without exception, regardless of their alignment with the official views of the pope or even his own.   

Finally, we have incredible resources at SNC, like the Cassandra Voss Center, which has been hosting scholars in residence such as bell hooks, the renown social justice scholar, and offering other types of gender programming. The Center’s extracurricular work is tremendous and it does make a difference in this arena but, alone, it isn’t enough. Extracurricular activities are optional and, generally, only students who are already open to and interested in such topics attend. Therefore, we should find ways to integrate these and other programming and teaching activities into academic curriculum, and do so deliberately. We can even use the FYE and Communio to facilitate these objectives, because teaching is what universities do, so why not teach the essential skills of properly, and fearlessly, navigating the diverse world we live in?

Although St. Norbert maintains a commitment to living in communio with others, the only way we can truly accomplish this ideal is by bringing together people from all walks of life, educating them in a way that is consistent with the changing times we live in, and by emphasizing—in word and example—our unequivocal commitment to all people, all ideas, and all voices. After all, that is what diversity is about. And if none of this has you convinced, check out the recent study which points out that diversity actually makes us brighter!



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