Let’s better understand diversity and its value at Pitt

By Simon Brown / Columnist

Four years ago, I received my much-awaited acceptance to Pitt. With my ‘safety school’ secured, I prepared my calculus of college acceptance. I was expecting a painful decision among school choices in April. 

I never had to make that decision. I got rejected from my two other schools, both private, elite colleges. I had been planning an extensive list of universities, both private and public, from mid-tier to Ivy League, as students increasingly do today. But my mother cautioned me: “Why would you apply to other public universities, where you would pay almost twice what you would pay in-state at Pitt?  What public university could give you a better education?”

Her words were well-placed, especially since she was footing most of the bill. 

Like many other Pennsylvania students, I came to Pitt because I ‘had to.’ It was the only cost-effective, national university with the infrastructure to support my academic interest. In my case, that was philosophy. For others, it’s biomedical engineering, neuroscience and the list goes on. 

But Pitt’s obligation as a state-related institution to educatePennsylvanian students, has diminished in recent years, paralleling the diminishing financial support from the commonwealth. 

Chancellor Gallagher has articulated a positive vision for the University as it leaves behind its history as a ‘regional college’ and ascends to the ranks of ‘national universities.’ Specifically, he sees “diversity” as a value common to universities with global aspirations but severely lacking at Pitt. 

Chancellor Gallagher’s prioritization of this principle deserves praise, but he has to make sure that “diversity” within the student body embraces socio-economic diversity, both in rhetoric and in practice. If the guiding principle only includes geographic and racial diversity, then the University risks abandoning its obligation to working families and their children in Pennsylvania. 

The term ‘diversity’ is fraught with ambiguity. It means nothing on its own, and it only gains any significance when applied to a certain metric: ‘racial diversity,’ ‘gender diversity,’ socio-economic diversity.’ When these metrics go unspecified, the term can bear contradictory implications. Chancellor Gallagher’s praise for the expanding geographic representation within Pitt’s incoming student body, spanning 46 states and 21 countries, says nothing about the financial, racial or even linguistic backgrounds of these students. 

If a white, upper-middle-class student from the Philadelphia suburbs encounters a white, upper-middle-class student from the San Francisco suburbs, I doubt either encountered ‘diversity’ in any meaningful way.

This ambiguity belies the purported benefits which ‘diversity,’ writ large, brings to the campus community. Indeed, some colleges’ purported ‘diversity’ on one level mask another level of homogeneity — even exclusion. 

A recent Pitt News article featured a prospective freshman who is considering New York University over Pitt, because of NYU’s significant population of students who identify as a racial minority. Her preference proves admirable and mature. Students should seek out friendships and relationships with peers from different backgrounds, who have had different experiences of the world. Racial identities strongly inform those distinct experiences of our society. Without a doubt, there is a pedagogical benefit she could receive at NYU which she could not so easily with the 16 percent of minority students at Pitt.  

Unfortunately, that diverse experience in the heart of Manhattan comes with a hefty price-tag. The yearly tuition with room and board at NYU is about $66,542 —  with little chance of full-need aid. When one adds in the astronomical cost of living in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, it’s hard to imagine students from low-income families choosing NYU over a less costly competitor. 

If the administration wants diversity that spans all relevant demographic metrics, it must not follow the path trod by NYU. We can enjoy the diversity and prestige of a national university without the attendant tuition. To succeed in this financial balancing act, however, Pitt will need to rebuild its relationship with the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. With a new, education-friendly governor in Harrisburg, that reconstruction is more possible now than ever. 

But we must make sure that the rhetoric of geographic expansion does not undermine our good graces with the state government. Chancellor Gallagher sees geographic and racial diversity as intertwined efforts, explaining to the to the Board of Trustees, “The numbers tell you what you would expect: That Pitt, like the Pittsburgh region, is less diverse than many other regions or institutions.”

We can start increasing diversity, but we don’t have to stray far from the ‘Pittsburgh region’ to find it. We can begin by increasing our institutional affiliation with under-resourced and predominantly black public schools in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. Mayor Peduto has drastically increased efforts to attract immigrant communities to replenish Pittsburgh’s aging population. 

Pitt can succeed in fostering a diverse community worthy of a ‘global institution.’ We can only do so, however, if we remember that our immediate community, the Pittsburgh region, invites racial and socioeconomic diversity itself. 

Write to Simon at [email protected].