Homogeneity on Campus: What We Can Do to Broaden Our Horizons
This university has a problem. There’s been a rash of self-congratulatory articles disputing the stance that YU has a lack of diversity. As an overwhelmingly white, religious Jewish, student body, I think this stance only serves to fetishize minority groups to make it look like we are an open-minded group of people. The goal of diversity on campus should be about inclusion and exchange of ideas that make us all more understanding and give us insight into the human condition, not about making us feel good about ourselves for having minority friends.
All this got got me thinking about my own time on campus. What I’ve noticed over the last three years since graduating from YU (and found to be true for many of my friends who attended YU), is that this has been my first experience interacting day to day with people who are not mostly white, Jewish men. I have also learned that no area of learning is limited to only one perspective. True learning occurs when problems are approached from many perspectives. And that goes for college classes as well as in life beyond school. In fact, it never really even occurred to me while I was on campus just how homogeneous a group the YU student body actually is. So I did a bit of research. U.S. News and World Report releases annual rankings in many different areas for universities across America. It is by this metric that YU often claims its excellence as a top institution. Yeshiva’s overall ranking in 2015 put it in a five way tie at #52. In terms of diversity, the average grade of the other 4 schools with a #53 ranking was .57, with 0 being the lowest and 1 being the highest. With a 95% white and 5% "international" student body (“international” qualifying as a non-minority in this case), YU’s grade was 0.
Besides statistics regarding the student body itself, what seems to be the biggest problem on campus is that discussing diversity is nearly taboo. During my time running the Seforim Sale, I pushed hard to carry obscure, often controversial titles and was met with considerable pushback from the employees of the sale. If the world’s largest Jewish themed book sale, which takes place in an institution of higher learning is not a place to explore controversial ideas and books, where is it ever going to be appropriate? I find it hard to believe that I am alone in thinking this way. Clearly, since YU has shifted the core requirements to follow a more interdisciplinary model, they see value in looking at issues from more than one perspective - and that’s exactly what diversity on campus creates. Some people might argue that while YU has a largely homogeneous group of students racially and religiously, it does in fact encourage lively debates and interactions amongst its students. But I assure you, lunch time debates about how much of the recession is to be directly blamed on Obama's particular brand of socialism does not qualify as a rich and diverse exchange of ideas. Really the biggest problem with the homogeneity of the student body is that it makes dissenting voices and already marginalized populations even more marginalized.
To be sure, I understand that Yeshiva University is not for everyone. What makes YU unique is specifically that it caters to a narrow group of people who form a community linked by religious affiliation. I am not arguing for sweeping reforms to push to accept people who wouldn’t gain from YU’s particular perspective on education and modernity in America. Without religious affiliation, there is little reason to select YU. What I am saying is that we need to be spending more time and energy embracing and celebrating the already existing diversity on campus.
There are already a number of groups of people in YU who qualify as minorities that most people seem perfectly happy to pretend don’t exist. I refer specifically to male students who hope to pursue careers in the creative fields. Consistently cutting art classes every semester drives a significant portion of students who might otherwise add to the conversation, and only reinforces the overly medicine/law/accounting/finance oriented conversation.
I refer to gay students in YU. In my three years in YU, I never once encountered a single openly gay student. Granted, that may have been due to my own ignorance and lack of awareness. But now that I am out of YU, I have a number of gay friends who attended YU. But they remained closeted in YU due to its (and admittedly many other religious institutions’) hostile attitude towards homosexuality. I refer to the increasing number of students who suffer from mental illnesses. Having open and honest discussions on campus will, perhaps for mental health more than anything, help to destigmatize this issue. Foreign students remain largely separate from the larger YU student body and are treated as something like second class citizens. Lastly, there is the fact that the Wilf campus is situated in Washington Heights, an area that has a heavy Dominican population, and that we have so little to do with them is a tremendous waste of a potential learning resource.
So what specific steps can we take to address diversity on campus? I don’t know that any policy change is going to get us to a place of openness and understanding. Perhaps taking a liberal arts education in YU more seriously is important. I understand that YU has been struggling financially in the last few years. However, if the best solution is to cut class programming to the point where we become a vocational school, then we will have lost what makes this a great university to begin with. I think that it’s worth exploring the idea of reprimanding authority figures who consistently belittle the struggles of homosexual students on campus and in the religious Jewish world as a whole. Why not appropriate more funds for clubs to host neighborhood events? Credit must also be given to YU Active Minds for already approaching mental health openly, and we must encourage them to continue to do so.
But what good can come of diversity on campus? Besides fostering a climate of inclusiveness, diversity expands our capacity for viewing issues or problems from multiple perspectives. Also, in an increasingly global economy, it’s beneficial to meet diverse groups of people before entering the workforce.
It is, after all, higher education’s mission to challenge established assumptions, disrupt entrenched thinking, and broaden our frame of reference. I think that YU is an especially poignant setting for this discussion as it's the only Jewish university that prides itself on being the place where "Torah" and "madda", modernity and orthodoxy, come together. Diversity of thought is built right into the model and should be constantly encouraged.