Better Support for a More Diverse Student Body

Published in the June 3, 2015, issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly

Embracing diversity has been an essential element of Princeton’s mission and trajectory at least since President Robert Goheen ’40 *48 took office more than a half-century ago. He and his successors, myself included, have believed deeply that the Princeton community benefits from the richness of experiences and perspectives provided by students, faculty, staff, and alumni from all backgrounds.

As the University has become more diverse, it has sought to create support structures that will enable all students to find a home and to thrive at Princeton. Over the course of this academic year, questions about the breadth and impact of this support have been magnified as our campus and our country have grappled with intense issues related to race, equality, and justice.

In response to concerns about our campus climate, the Executive Committee of the Council of the Princeton University Community (CPUC) created a Special Task Force on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, whose 51 members included undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and staff. For several months, the task force solicited feedback from the campus community in exploring options to improve University policies, practices, and programming.

 

The task force in May delivered to the CPUC Executive Committee an excellent set of recommendations in several areas, including academics, training, public programming, institutional responses to discrimination and harassment, and student life resources. These can be viewed on the CPUC website. I am grateful to the task force members for their serious deliberation about issues that are important to the well-being of our campus community, and I look forward to working with Provost David S. Lee *99, who chairs the CPUC Executive Committee, to implement recommendations endorsed by the committee.

One key theme that emerged from the task force’s work recognizes the value of providing a variety of resources tailored to the distinctive needs of different groups on our campus. For example, the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding — which was known as the Third World Center from 1971 to 2002 — historically focused on serving as a support base for students from underrepresented backgrounds. In recent years, the center’s mission has broadened and it now serves as a locus for discussions and activities focused on multiculturalism. While the center and its director, Tennille Haynes, have done outstanding work, the task force learned that the Fields Center’s impact as a source of support for students of color has diminished as it has taken on the challenge of trying to serve all students.

The task force recommendations include reassessing the Fields Center’s mission and providing staffing and financial resources to help it meet the needs of students of color. This recommendation reflects the reality that, while it is undoubtedly important to support and promote multiculturalism more broadly, we must understand that different groups have different needs that require distinctive responses.

In his seminal work on social change in America, Bowling Alone, Harvard University political scientist Robert Putnam distinguishes two kinds of social groups: those that “bond” (affinity groups based on particular identities and backgrounds) and those that “bridge” (networks with a broader focus and members from various backgrounds). Putnam argues that both have their place in society: “Bonding social capital constitutes a kind of sociological superglue, whereas bridging social capital provides a sociological WD-40. … [U]nder many circumstances both bridging and bonding social capital can have powerfully positive social effects.”

Putnam’s observations help to illustrate why Princeton cannot be content either to take a purely multicultural approach to student life or to subdivide all of our student support efforts by racial and ethnic groupings. We must embrace both approaches and find the right balance. We want students of all backgrounds to interact with, understand, and appreciate each other — to bridge their differences and to form a strong community as fellow Princetonians. At the same time, we must ensure that students from all backgrounds have appropriate resources to help them bond and succeed as they deal with the distinctive challenges that affect them most.

Princeton is clearly far more inclusive than it once was. But we can improve. The tragic events that have gripped our country this past year and their impact on the Princeton community are powerful reminders of this University’s unceasing obligation to identify and eliminate the effects of pernicious stereotypes, to make our campus more genuinely inclusive, and to aid the cause of justice and equality in our nation and the world.

—C.L.E.

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