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ISSUE 116 VOL 2 PUBLISHED 9/20/2002

Diversity issue overdramatized

By Dan Schramm
Staff Writer

Friday, September 20, 2002

When Eida Berrio, St. Olaf's Dean of Community Life and Diversity, first came to campus three years ago, she attended a gospel choir performance, and thought to herself, "That's a lot of white kids for a gospel choir."

While the issue of diversity (or lack thereof) is not a new issue for our community, it does demand our attention and reflection. While our administration continually works to improve campus diversity and project the appearance as an all-accepting community, a quick glance at the make-up of our student body and faculty reveals that our claims of concern for a diverse campus may ring hollow.

A Caucasian gospel choir? A student body more homogenous than the high schools most of us attended? The brochure published by St. Olaf entitled, "Community Life and Diversity," states that, "St. Olaf College strives to be an inclusive community, respecting differing backgrounds and beliefs." Yes, we joke, prejudice against Swedes and Catholics at St. Olaf is at an all-time low. But how has St. Olaf changed to be a more diverse community?

It depends on what we mean by diversity. Most of us assume the word "diversity' is referring to racial diversity. There are, however, many other forms of diversity: religious diversity, sexual diversity, political diversity, economic diversity, the list could go on.

Roger Loftus, Director of Human Resources, points out that St. Olaf has recently allowed domestic same-sex partners to be on the health plan of its employees, in an effort to attract and include sexual diversity among its faculty and staff. As an equal opportunity employer, St. Olaf also attempts to recruit employees from a wide variety of backgrounds-hiring staff not only from around Northfield but also from minority ethnic communities in the Cities.

St. Olaf also participates in a voluntary affirmative action program, giving a certain amount of admission priority to groups with a history of unequal treatment: African-Americans, people with disabilities, females (although representation of the last no longer seems to be an issue on this campus). When President Thomforde was appointed two years ago, he made growth in all areas of diversity a top priority of the college. The fact that we even have a Dean of Community Life and Diversity suggests the seriousness of the administration's commitment to that goal.

While the commitment of the student body to an increase in community diversity is a bit harder to gauge, Dean Berrio says that in her conversations with students she senses a definite openness to more diversity. Referring to our student body as "sophisticated" and "intelligent," she foresees no significant backlash by students against a campus that would display a broader spectrum of demographic variety.

But if, in our official policies and our open attitudes, we have outstretched our arms to various minority groups, why is it that we have yet to see a demonstrable increase in grossly underrepresented groups on campus? This year's first-year class displays the highest diversity of a St. Olaf class in seven years.

Why was diversity higher seven years ago than it is now if, ostensibly, St. Olaf has been steadily increasing its commitment to greater diversity since then? Furthermore, even though improvement is being shown in comparison to past years here, in comparison to colleges across the country this year, do we not have a considerable amount of ground to cover before achieving even a relatively low standard of diversity?

Again the question confronts us: What do we mean by diversity? St. Olaf College is an extremely unique community, due in large part to its Norwegian Lutheran heritage. When we speak of diversity, it is important to recognize that our community, despite a relative lack of diversity within, contributes significantly to the diversity of society at large. While many colleges have long ago given up the religious and cultural identity of those who founded them, St. Olaf has placed itself in a unique and important position by attempting to maintain its religious and cultural heritage in a society that is increasingly demonstrating the symptoms of a stagnate monoculture.

Thus, St. Olaf must mediate between two opposing desires. On the one hand, this college seeks to maintain strong religious and cultural roots. On the other, this college wants to increase the diversity of backgrounds and identities of its students and staff. Is this position untenable? No. Being a Lutheran institution does not preclude an inclusive community of people of various backgrounds and beliefs. Just the opposite, in fact: Our Christian heritage demands of us a love of all people regardless of our differences. To celebrate that diversity, to find that diversity beautiful in itself is an act of spiritual maturity with strong precedent in the Lutheran tradition.

The converse, of course, is true as well. That is, being an all-inclusive, welcoming community does not preclude maintaining a strong religious and cultural heritage, for the same reasons mentioned above.

If we set our sights on these two goals-retaining the identity of this institution while welcoming those with different identities, and if we are truly sincere in our desire to build the diverse community we envision, the issue of why we have yet to attract significant numbers of minority groups need not distress us. Indeed, Berrio is quick to point out that imparting feelings of inferiority or inadequacy to those of us who find ourselves in the majority demographic on campus is farthest from the minds of those who are seeking to make St. Olaf a more diverse community. We are privileged by the societal position into which we were born recognize that privilege as such and welcome those of different backgrounds into our community.

It is then that our identities may be shared equally with one another, so that all are transformed, and the collective identity of St. Olaf College is made stronger by the gifts each unique individual brings to it.

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