A recent study I conducted at Florida A&M University shows that students here in Tallahassee claim a type of diversity that is not defined specifically in federal court decisions. I’ve identified four different types of students based on their view of diversity. Diversity plays a significant role in the lives of each kind of student, even though the university itself has lost non-Black enrollment in the past 15 years.
In 1991, nearly 12 percent of FAMU’s 8,335 students were non-Black. That figure was splashed all over state newspapers as a herald of a new era. But racial diversity has slid over the years. There were almost 4,000 more students at FAMU in 2005 than there were in 1991, but there were fewer White students on campus. Statistics show FAMU is the only state university in Florida to have seen its racial diversity decline in the past 20 years.
So, I was surprised when FAMU students said they were not opposed to admitting more White students. At many historically Black colleges and universities, such a proposal is often met with criticism and seen as a threat to the existence of the university. It is hard to overlook the fact that FAMU was an underfunded stepchild of the Florida university system for a century.
In the study, 48 students representing a variety of majors, equally split by sex and academic year, were asked to rank order 36 statements regarding diversity. Through a method called “Q-factor analysis,” developed by British psychologist William Stephenson, the responses were correlated and analyzed, resulting in four main personality types.
This methodology generates hypotheses, but does not seek to prove or disprove them. It relies on grounded statements from the people themselves, describing their own thoughts. The methodology is a wonderful way of learning what people are thinking because it gives them a chance to describe their own reality.
The “didactic” student believes solely in the process of education, and appears not to be concerned primarily with the amount of diversity represented in the student community. This student comes to school to learn, and not primarily because the university is historically Black. This student says an influx of non-Blacks students would not result in an appreciable change in this institution of higher learning.
The “orthodactic” student identifies going to an HBCU with being Black. The sheer sense of being present at a Black university is what matters, as this student gains a sense of self and “knowledge of our own struggle.” In the eyes of this type of student, the last thing the university needs to do is diversify racially.
The “heterodactic” student is practical and comes to the university because it is close to home. Although going to an HBCU does prepare one for the “real world,” this student says it is also true that “perhaps a greater number of White students on campus would lead to more opportunities for shared learning experiences.”
Finally, the “theodactic” student believes that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is symbolic of the quest for diversity. One does not judge people on the basis of skin color. While attending an HBCU, the student will “gain a sense of pride and dignity.” At the same time, they also reject the statement “no one can appreciate our heritage like we can.”
My study, which was presented last month at the 22nd annual conference of the International Society for the Scientific Study of Subjectivity also found that students see diversity within differing cultures at the university. A constant thread running through the types was the statement that even if the college were 100 percent Black, one would still find diversity in terms of ideas and values.
One of my colleagues concurs, recalling a survey he conducted in which his students reflected this view of diversity. In class, he asked students to check one box for race or ethnicity, and another box for a second choice. Many of the students who might have put Black in fact had Hispanic or Caribbean backgrounds. The study raises questions about how universities interpret diversity as compared with how the federal courts might.
Prior to conducting the study, it seemed to me that the word “diversity” had become a shibboleth. People — Black and White — want to proclaim their allegiance to it, even if it is apparent to outsiders that the concept of racial diversity is not implemented.
Even the administration’s definition of diversity is changing. At a fairly recent session with the entire FAMU faculty, the word “diversity” was used to describe the mix of freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors, along with the diversity of their SAT scores. One can only view this construction as Orwellian.
The word itself is laden with the baggage of interpretation and may soon fall into the slough of innocuous desuetude. As a legal concept, if it ever really was one, it may have outlived its usefulness. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in 1881: “The law embodies the story of a nation’s development through many centuries, and it cannot be dealt with as if it contained only the axioms and corollaries of a book of mathematics.”
Perhaps above the legal concept of racial diversity is cultural diversity and both interact in a kind of “metadiversity.”
The definition of diversity, and who owns this definition, may determine whether the HBCU will continue to prosper in our society.
— Dr. Michael E. Abrams is a professor of journalism at Florida A&M University. The author wishes to credit Garrett L. Horne, a former journalism graduate student, for helping to collect the data for this study.
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