I've been talking recently with students and their parents about diversity in college admissions, and those conversations prompted me to reread an essay by Neil Rudenstine, Harvard University's President from 1991 to 2001. Published in the April 19, 1996 edition of Chronicle of Higher Education, "Why a Diverse Student Body is So Important." was prompted by an appeal in a court case regarding admissions to the University of Texas Law School. Rudenstine's essay is most intriguing to me because it places questions of college diversity into historic context.
When I first met classmates at Harvard in 1975, after I introduced myself as from eastern Washington State, I heard more than a few times, "Oh, you are here for geographic balance." Funny you should say that. Rudenstine traces Harvard's diversification to America's Civil War, when Harvard President Cornelius C. Felton recruited "students from different parts of the country. Gathering such students, he wrote, 'must tend powerfully to remove prejudices, by bringing them into friendly relations.'"
Charles Eliot was Harvard's controversial president from 1869 to 1909, and he defies explication here. But he favored students from "nations, states, schools, families, sects, and conditions of life" who could experience at Harvard "the wholesome influence that comes from observation of and contact with" people different from themselves. He wanted students who were children of the "rich and poor" and of the "educated and uneducated," students "from North and South, from East and West," students belonging to "every religious communion, from the Roman Catholic to the Jew and the Japanese Buddhist." One student from President Eliot's era, W.E.B. DuBois, Harvard Class of 1890, looked back on his Harvard years and wrote that his alma mater "was no longer simply a place where rich and learned New England gave the accolade to the social elite. It had broken its shell and reached out to the West and to the South, to yellow students and to black. . . [Eliot and others] sought to make Harvard an expression of the United States."
Much has changed since I began college tagged as a geographic balancing act. Diversification is, well, more diverse. And it comes perhaps slowly, but always steadily. DuBois would likely be shocked to walk Harvard's campus today and meet a few students. So we do ourselves a favor to remember, in all the conversation about how colleges are woefully homogeneous, that we are not at one fixed point. We never have been. We are, in fact, part of a process that is always changing, one Japanese Buddhist at a time.