Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: Notes from Jewish History and Campuses Today

Keynote at the 2018 meetings of the Association for Jewish Studies

December 16, 2018
Boston, MA

Some of you may have heard the now-famous anecdote about how the Air Force first built jet fighter cockpits based on the “average” pilot body shape and size, which in practice turned out to mean that the contours fit no actual person, because hardly anyone is average. Only when the space was made flexible enough to accommodate the variety of real individuals did the design start to work. Today, I would like to share some thoughts about higher education and the growing pains that have occurred as we have gone from a similar “one size fits all” approach based on a relatively homogenous conception of the student body to a far more diverse approach, and how the integration of ever more diverse students has forever altered the contours of American higher education.   I have come to many of these conclusions through insights gleaned, in part, from years of immersion in the field of modern Jewish history which has much to offer in terms of us helping to understand how minority communities can fundamentally shape the majority societies into which they integrate. I will therefore spend some time talking about my field and those larger lessons, but first let me turn to the broader institutional changes that have shaped higher education over the last thirty years. One caveat: I have spent most of my professional life in private, highly selective institutions. Therefore, these reflections emerge largely from that context, although I hope–of course–they have relevance to the wider landscape as well.

In the early 1980s, Williams College, where I currently serve as president, went “need-blind” for domestic applicants,  a policy that many others in a growing group of peer institutions made at roughly the same moment. This policy directed the admitting institution not to consider an applicant’s financial situation when deciding admission and was part of a larger goal that many institutions had been pursuing for the prior decade and a half—but few achieving—to make our campuses more diverse.

Over the next thirty years the push toward diversity continued to spread significantly.  While only three dozen institutions currently can afford to be fully need-blind, institutions of higher education across the United States have embraced the challenge of opening our campuses to an ever wider pool of undergraduate applicants from all socio-economic backgrounds but also from a broader array of racial groups, religious groups, sexual orientations, international backgrounds, etc.  Hand in hand with this commitment has been a push to diversify our faculties and staff bodies so as to provide our increasingly broad student population with role models and support networks they need to thrive on our campuses.

This push has come with an ideological commitment that understands the role of the College or University as, in part, fostering learning communities that are capable of talking across difference.  To quote the ambitious Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan from Brown University, my academic home for the prior twenty years:

To achieve our goals as a university, we must embrace both diversity and inclusion. It would be an empty victory to achieve one without the other. Absent diversity, an inclusive campus may become a homogeneous intellectual echo chamber that cannot teach individuals how to learn from, or communicate and collaborate with, people different from themselves. Absent inclusion, a diverse campus may generate misunderstandings and feelings of invisibility, fragmentation, frustration, and even anger that stem from the unproductive clash of people who bring different world-views, experiences, and concepts of identity to campus but who do not often interact/engage with one another on campus. It is only on inclusive campuses that diversity becomes a valued asset that promotes the advancement of knowledge and the learning and development of all of its members.

This shared ideological and programmatic commitment to pursue diversity and inclusion has become wound into the very mission of many colleges and universities in the United States. Indeed one could argue that our institutions have collectively sought to challenge the very deepest inequities in our society by confronting the third rail issues of American society–racism, sexism, and classicism–head-on. To quote Brown’s DIAP again: “Institutions of higher education, including Brown, have traditionally failed to include fully people of all races, ethnicities, creeds, socioeconomic classes, gender identities, sexual orientations, and disability statuses. To confront this reality and its enduring legacies, the University is committing to transform the policies, structures, and practices that have led to the exclusion—rather than the meaningful inclusion—of members of the community.”

It is not surprising that our educational institutions have embraced the war against inequity in our society. Given the growing number of scholars that have committed their careers to uncovering and critically challenging the structures that have created that inequity, it was only a matter of time before these institutions–the very same that ironically have also contributed historically to reproducing traditional networks of power in this country–would turn their attentions to seeking to challenge those pathways.  The goal is laudable and many of us have embraced the challenge of creating pathways of opportunity for those who might not otherwise have had access through the very institutions that traditionally worked structurally to exclude them. Indeed, Williams College, where I am the first female president, only first admitted women fifty years ago, and although I am the fourth Jewish president of this institution, I have received dozens of letters from female and Jewish alumni describing both what it was like to navigate Williams as it sought to make these seismic changes in real time and that nevertheless testify to the institution’s notable success in navigating these changes successfully, as so many female and Jewish students now consider Williams their own.

And yet having stood at the epicenter of our diversifying institutions for my entire career, I sometimes wonder at the unquestioned assumptions that have undergirded our evermore robust attempts to make our campuses diverse, assumptions that have leapt out at me via frameworks I came to know deeply as a student of modern Jewish history.

As many of you know, for years European Jewish historians relied on a theory of Jewish modernization that emphasized the assimilationist demands of liberal nation-states as the key transformative engine for Jewish evolution within the modern world.  Documenting the path from communal autonomy to increased political, sociocultural, and economic integration, much of this scholarship in its earliest incarnation made clear that gaining political rights was predicated not only on the legal dissolution of Jews’ semiautonomous corporate bodies but also on the minimizing of Jews’ social and cultural differences from those around them. Indeed, in much early historiography, emancipation was depicted as leading to the full abandonment of a distinctive public Jewish identity in exchange for inclusion in the national community. Subsequent scholarship challenged portrayals of modernization as leading toward the complete absorption of Jews into their wider national contexts, stressing instead the multiple “paths to, of, and from emancipation.” As they rejected a single story of assimilation, scholars sought greater nuance by employing notions of “acculturation,” “integration,” and the development of Jewish “subcultures.

And yet as I argued in a review essay several years ago, if this re-conceptualization of the assimilatory process fundamentally altered our understandings of the recent Jewish past, the analysis remained incomplete.  In much of the historiography, assimilation emerged as a process by which a minority, in this case Jews, related to the majority culture, either through imitation and absorption or, more often, through the appropriation of new forms or ideas.  In other words, assimilation was conceptualized largely as a one-way process in which Jews absorbed, rejected, or transformed to a static majority culture. What this perspective missed was the dynamic nature of the majority society into which Jews were assimilating.  It rarely asked the vital question: assimilating into what? It seemed to me that in most historical literature on Jewish integration and modernization, the surrounding culture was portrayed as homogenous and static; Jews were seen to be assimilating into American or French or British culture.  The culture was viewed as fixed; Jews transformed. At the time I wrote that essay, I pointed to a handful of works that were challenging that trend by suggesting that Jews–like any minority–have been active participants in shaping the cultures in which they lived. Such work encouraged a more dynamic understanding of the process of cultural exchange and transformation.

Since then, the field of modern Jewish history has continued to expand with ever greater focus on how Jewish inclusion into the broader societies in which they lived forever changed those societies whether in terms of how religion was conceptualized, legal frameworks of inclusion and exclusion constructed and regimes of power articulated.  Such work could have overemphasized the impact of this one tiny minority but, to the contrary, much of this scholarship has shown how the incorporation of Jews into their wider societies was one of many factors that made those societies.  I offer one example to make the point:  In his book The Modernity of Others: Jewish Anti-Catholicism in Germany and France, published by Stanford University Press in 2014, Ari Joskowicz takes up the pervasive anti-Catholic polemics voiced by Jewish writers, activists, and communal leaders from the Enlightenment into the early twentieth century. In this study, Professor Joskowicz documents the ways in which German and French Jews participated in wider European liberal political discourse by siding with those who critiqued Catholicism as a means to help build the case for their own inclusion in these societies. As such, Joskowicz not only demonstrates that anti-Catholic anticlericalism constituted a foundational element of modern Jewish politics, but he makes clear that these discursive choices were not retributive attacks in response to centuries of Catholic anti-Judaism but rather a mechanism for participating in the evolving landscape of modern European liberal politics. In so doing, he challenges the field of modern Jewish history to re-think the place of Jews in European liberalism.

Among other points, then, this book pushes the field past the traditional minority/majority framework that has long dominated the study of Jewish life in Europe. While Jews certainly constituted a religious minority fighting for political inclusion in central Europe throughout much of the 19th century, Joskowicz makes clear that Jews were not the “outsiders” on every issue, nor were they even the primary “enemy” of liberal Europe for much of this period. Indeed, Joskowicz convincingly argues that Jews were active participants in the discourses that marginalized Catholics. By pointing to times that Jews joined other liberals in critiquing Catholicism, Professor Joskowicz challenges readers to re-think older frameworks around inclusion and exclusion. Indeed, Jews, he makes clear, often fought their own exclusion by participating in anti-clerical polemics. His historical landscape thus complicates the relatively simplistic binaries in which the field of modern Jewish history has long operated. Jews were active participants in making the broader culture of which they were apart, which in this case worked to marginalize Catholics as part of modern political evolution.

Joskowicz’s book is one of many to which I could point that has begun to document how integration of Jewish minorities was an active process that not only changed Jews but that changed the societies into which they were merging.  It is this cultural exchange model that has been very much on my mind as I think through the landscape of higher education in the United States today. The impulse to build diverse campuses was constructed initially I think, on what one might think of as an assimilationist model of the modern university.  In the earliest iteration, the model seemed predicated on the notion that by opening the doors of our campuses to an ever wider body of students, we would challenge some of the most powerful inequities in American society and level the playing field for those for whom an education might prove a powerful engine of social mobility.  However, very little attention was paid to how our schools might have to change as a result. Put differently, commitment to diversity was predicated on the notion that it was a social good to offer the pathway of opportunity to those who might otherwise have previously been unable to access, and it assumed that once given that opportunity, those passing through the gates of our institutions would assimilate into the dominant norms of those institutions.  To be clear, I’m not arguing that anybody articulated such aims, only that very few really considered how our institutions of higher education might also change as a result of this inclusion.

And yet as people in our field know firsthand, inclusion and institutional transformation go hand in hand.  Indeed, in what one might call the first wave of campus diversity efforts, growing numbers of women, Jews, black students, latinx students, and gay students helped revolutionize the categories of knowledge on our campuses.  Programs in Jewish Studies spread across the country alongside departments of women’s studies, queer studies, Africana studies, and Latin American studies. As some well-known scholars in this room have argued, this transformation over time led to the “normalization” of our field–which is to say the mainstream incorporation of the study of Jews and Judaism into departments of history,  religion, etc.–a change that went hand in hand with the development of a broad array of interdisciplinary areas of study that challenged the very cannons on which higher education was established. This Association whose 50th anniversary we celebrate today helped drive that change while also marking the ever growing professionalization of the field into something that could fully assimilate into American higher education.  Jewish studies assimilated as American colleges and universities also transformed to create an intellectual home for the field. Indeed, the very fact that I stand before you today as the President of Williams College in some way epitomizes this change.  In the lifetimes of many people in this room, Jewish studies went from being entirely on the margins of the American academy to now being recognized as a viable qualification for a college president at one of the country’s oldest liberal arts colleges.

Today, our campuses are in the midst of the second wave of this process.  Now having integrated those who came before and transformed to meet that challenge, we are once again undergoing a seismic transformation.  Student populations in higher education are increasingly racially and ethnically diverse with approximately 60 percent of enrolled students identifying as women, and 40 percent as Black, Latinx, Asian, Native American or multiracial. As we continue to work to make our campuses as inclusive as possible, we continue to have to consider how far we will change reflect those we are attracting to our campuses.  Do we imagine they will assimilate or will we transform to reflect our newest members? The answer to this question still seems unresolved to me as our campuses struggle with debates over a wide variety of issues that students from diverse background continue to raise.  On many campuses, for example, the debates over freedom of expression reflect the views of a changing student demographic. As Inside Higher Ed reported in March, a majority of students say that they would choose diversity and inclusion over free speech, and the Institute for Democracy and Higher education recently reported that research¹ found that students have no tolerance for racist, sexist, xenophobic or homophobic speech.²

From the AAUP site:

In response to verbal assaults and use of hateful language, some campuses have felt it necessary to forbid the expression of racist, sexist, homophobic, or ethnically demeaning speech, along with conduct or behavior that harasses in response to the outrage that Individuals and groups that have been victims of such expression feel. They claim that the academic progress of minority and majority alike may suffer if fears, tensions, and conflicts spawned by slurs and insults create an environment inimical to learning.³

At the risk of opening up the Pandora’s box of the so-called “free speech” debates on our campuses here this afternoon, I would posit that the highly emotionally charged debates that have broken out over speaker invitations, shout-downs and “cancel culture” mirror in some way the seismic curricular transformations that allowed our field to grow in the aftermath of the first wave of demographic transformations on our campuses.  The changing student demographic has raised questions about key assumptions our institutions not only hold as self-evident–the value and merit of a culture of free expression–but on which they are built. As the AAUP asserts: On a campus that is free and open, no idea can be banned or forbidden. No viewpoint or message may be deemed so hateful or disturbing that it may not be expressed.

I note this neither to advocate for nor reject a particular perspective on campus speech issues, but rather only to note that assimilation is rarely a one-way proposition.  As Jews who entered the modern nation-state transformed the bodies into which they were integrating, so too our current students are in the processes of testing the assumptions of the institutions that they have joined.  The outcome is still in flux, but it should be no surprise the process is tumultuous and the end result likely a significant transformation in ways we may still not be able to image.

When colleges and universities were established, like fighter jet cockpits or European national identities, they incorporated assumptions about their “natural” constituencies. But then the definition of who belongs changed. In higher education, we proactively changed it. When we did, the old contours no longer fit everyone—we are just beginning to understand, I think, that we might have to rethink our assumptions. Jewish studies has greatly enhanced our understanding of how minorities shaped and were shaped by European and other nationalisms. With careful attention I believe the field can also help us address one of America’s central challenges: building a diverse and inclusive educational system.