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ISSUE 121 VOL 7 PUBLISHED 11/9/2007

Website skews campus diversity

By Tim Rehborg
Opinion Editor


Friday, November 9, 2007

One of the biggest issues currently facing college campuses across the nation is the recruitment and integration of a diverse student body, faculty and staff.

St. Olaf is actively participating in this conversation, employing different methods for maintaining its place among national trends.

We've heard the St. Olaf stereotype: our campus is full of tall, white, blond Lutherans. This stereotype is no longer accurate, nor does it appeal to prospective students. I think that most of us agree that diversity is an important part of the liberal arts education.

I scrutinized the St. Olaf mission statement, searching for information on St. Olaf policy concerning student body and faculty diversity. "St. Olaf College strives to be an inclusive community, respecting those of differing backgrounds and beliefs" appears to be St. Olaf's official statement on diversity.

Digging further into the St. Olaf mission statement, in the document "St. Olaf 2000: Identity and Mission for the 21st Century," I found this assertion: "We try to recruit a wider variety of people, and people with a wider variety of ideas, to participate in the overlapping multicultural communities of Manitou Heights." President Anderson echoed these sentiments, saying, "The reason I care about diversity at St. Olaf is because there is educational value in diversity - you're not going to be prepared for the world you're entering if we have a mono-cultural campus."

How does a president go about transforming St. Olaf, which currently boasts a meager 7.7 percent racial diversity statistic, into a campus offering diverse viewpoints?

I've always been slightly perplexed by our view and vision of diversity at St. Olaf. We live in Northfield - it's not exactly a hotbed of racial diversity. Again, according to the St. Olaf website, our student body has a 7.7 percent racial/ethnic minority. However, visit the St. Olaf homepage and scroll through the pictures prominently featured at the top of the page. There seems to be a disproportionate representation of students who appear to fit into a minority group. Out of the 62 photographs which depict people, 17 photographs depict a minority student. This statistic suggests that St. Olaf has a 27.4 racial/ethnic minority percentage.

Wow. Now it looks like our diversity percentage is almost at 30 percent. Spiffy.

Is this a deliberate misrepresentation of our student body's makeup? It's difficult to say. These images are the first thing a prospective student or donor sees when they peruse St. Olaf's internet profile. This online manipulation of our student body works as a subtle marketing tool seeking to increase St. Olaf's desirability to potential students.

I agree with our president that diversity is an important part of education. However, subtly presenting ourselves as a more diverse community than we actually are is deceptive and dishonest.

The other issue this misrepresentation introduces is the multifaceted definition of the word "diversity." The webpage photos place a heavy emphasis on racial and ethnic diversity. While it is true that people from different ethnic backgrounds may have different worldviews, ethnicity and diverse worldviews are by no means mutually inclusive.

St. Olaf's definition of racial diversity is limiting; what about diverse viewpoints embraced by students who may not belong to a minority group but still have different religious beliefs, gender and sexual orientations and those who come from different socioeconomic backgrounds?

If we are going to make it our mission to diversify our campus, we need to pay equal attention to all kinds of diversity and not just the "visible diversity" which make a pretty statement across the top of the St. Olaf webpage.

Aside from our student body and the recruitment of future students, campus diversity also plays a role in hiring new faculty. A dialogue between academic departments and the administration is vital in successfully balancing department and administrative goals in regards to faculty recruitment.

During a recent discussion in the St. Olaf religion department, the role of diversity in hiring a new faculty member arose. Several members of the religion department felt that St. Olaf lacks professors who specialize in the integration of science and religion. However, the desire to hire someone for this position was countered by the administration's wish for a faculty member who would increase the diversity ratio in the campus faculty body.

While this situation may be reminiscent of the affirmative action debate, it is important to consider the level at which we value diversity in our education. President Anderson pointed out to me that there is a disjunct here between our actions and our goals. St. Olaf's 21st century mission statement clearly states that we want to diversify our campus. However, as President Anderson succinctly stated, "We need to move past our noble sentiments and into action."

And isn't this the core of our mission statement? How many times have you heard the phrase "Ideals to Action" in relation to our school? The process of diversifying our campus is going to take compromise and innovation on both sides of the discussion, and we students have the responsibility of facilitating this vital discussion.





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