March 21, 2001: On the Campus

Students, race, and Princeton stereotypes
Undergraduates and administrators alike look for ways to diversify

Diversity has become the hot topic on campus of late. Just before winter break, the Daily Princetonian ran a 10-part series of vignettes about race at Princeton in the hope of inspiring debate. The new financial-aid initiative, replacing all student loans with grants, has prompted fresh discussions of socio-economic diversity. Several members of Terrace Club have convened a campus-wide roundtable for an ongoing discussion of diversity. A dedicated group of administrators and faculty have spent several years designing a survey study of the campus climate that they will administer to nearly 1,800 students within the next few weeks. They hope to have statistical results by spring, with anecdotal evidence of the ways that different groups experience Princeton soon to follow. And new USG President Joe Kochan ’02, in one of his first official moves, has formed two new committees to discuss race and gender.

Since lack of diversity is certainly not a new problem on campus, it is difficult to explain why it has become the issue of the moment. Perhaps the topic is simply unavoidable. “Last semester,” explains Kochan, “I was amazed at the number of meetings and discussions — on topics that relate only tangentially to diversity issues — that ended up coming back to concerns about diversity, most specifically race and gender.”
Or perhaps members of the university community view the presidential transition as an opportunity to address some of the problems; Kochan, at least, hopes that his committees will be able to spur the incoming president to action with an honest picture of diversity on campus.

Yet it is difficult to know what that picture might look like, because student views on diversity vary widely. Associate Provost Joann Mitchell, a leader of the administrative survey effort, explains, “We have heard anecdotally from many students that they haven’t enjoyed their time here — and we want to know why that is, and why so many others just can’t understand that idea at all.”

Most students, with some exceptions, do feel that diversity — particularly racial and socioeconomic diversity — is lacking. But there are two schools of thought on what the basic problem is. One holds that there are just not enough minorities on campus and that merely adding numbers will resolve the issue. The other finds a more subtle and more serious flaw: that the campus climate itself impedes any diversity that Princeton does have and prevents any future diversification. One Asian-American senior says, “The problem is not numbers — we have a reasonably diverse population — but the problem is the on-campus climate. Various groups of students separate themselves voluntarily.”

The administration is acutely aware of that shortcoming. Mitchell explains, “We are operating under the premise that if we advance the quality of life for students of color, it will advance the quality of life for all students, and that will help attract a more diverse crowd. But we also want to know if we are taking full advantage of the diversity we do have.”

Many students, not surprisingly, fault in part the eating club system, bicker, and the competitive social atmosphere that the Street creates for isolating different groups. “When I was in the residential colleges,” observes one white senior, “I had a much more diverse group of friends.” In response to similar arguments, there is serious discussion of making the anticipated sixth residential college a four-year college.
Many students also believe, however, that the flaws of the eating club system are merely part of a larger problem: that for all of its wonderful historic qualities, Princeton simply has too much tradition. People just do not feel comfortable doing anything new. One African-American sophomore explains, “What diversity there is is not cultivated because of the dominant stereotypical Princeton culture.” She goes on to explain that because of such strong tradition, students from atypical backgrounds feel forced to either conform or remove themselves entirely from the social scene. In the words of a white senior, “Princeton students are all the same mentality of people, no matter what race they are, and that’s the problem.”

Whether or not that image is accurate, it is far too prevalent both on campus and among potential applicants to ignore. If all of the current discussions of diversity do nothing else, if they can collectively combat that image they will have made substantial progress. Then Princeton can take full advantage of its diversity, it can improve its campus climate, and it can attract a more diverse student body. And then, perhaps, lack of diversity will no longer have to be such an unavoidable topic.

Alex Rawson ( is a regular columnist for the Daily Princetonian.

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