21, 2001: On
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 havent enjoyed their
time here and we want to know why that is, and why so many
others just cant 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
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 thats
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
is a regular columnist for the Daily Princetonian.
For more On the Campus
columns, visit www.princeton.edu/~paw.