Of diversity and poor phrasingDuke has long dedicated itself to the pursuit of socioeconomic diversity. In 2012, the University launched the Socioeconomic Diversity Initiative to assess the state of financial diversity. In light of those findings, the administration has introduced a suite of new policies. These include the construction of a financial literacy website for students, the creation of a new faculty position to support low income and first generation college-goers and the elimination of “hidden fees” attached to some classes.
We support these new initiatives. Accepting students from a broad range of class backgrounds not only helps financially disadvantaged students gain access to a high quality education, but it also adds richness and depth to the Duke community. Both inside and outside the classroom, students from varying financial backgrounds provide invaluable perspectives and promote awareness of class differences.
Although the website and other policy changes are a step in a more inclusive direction, they fail to address the underlying issue: providing low-income students the opportunity to receive a Duke education. The obstacles preventing Duke from radically improving the socioeconomic diversity of its campus extend well beyond its Gothic walls. Unequal access to college counseling, for instance, privileges affluent applicants over their lower-income peers.
Duke can, however, begin to improve inclusivity by increasing financial aid and ensuring that this aid covers necessary but overlooked costs of attending college. Spending more money on financial aid would, in our view, be a better allocation of funds than websites or new faculty positions. These things have some value, but they are largely cosmetic fixes, and the money spent on those initiatives ought to be spent on the students themselves.
Despite these improvements, we are deeply troubled by a statement made by Steve Nowicki, dean and vice provost for undergraduate education, about socioeconomic diversity. Nowicki claimed that Duke and its peers are “inherently an upper-middle class environment,” and that “we kind of want it to be an upper-middle class environment because that’s the place where our students will end up.”
If we interpret this statement charitably, we might conclude that Nowicki was merely describing the socioeconomic makeup of the student body and expressing his desire that Duke help students ascend social and professional ladders.
Nowicki seemed also to be suggesting, however, that Duke’s administration, despite calls for greater “diversity,” seeks to squeeze all of its students into the upper-middle class. Moreover, his statement reduces college to its instrumental value and implies that students ought to seek high-paying jobs, rather than use their skills to pursue careers that they find personally fulfilling.
What is perhaps most troubling about Nowicki’s statement is that it reflects a complete misunderstanding of what socioeconomic diversity is and ought to be. Not only is the upper-middle class—its culture and lifestyle—fraught with deep social problems, but it is precisely the pervasiveness of “an upper middle-class environment” at Duke that funnels students into a narrow range of professional paths and makes low-income students feels painfully out of place.
It is contradictory for the administration to publicly call, on the one hand, for more socioeconomic diversity, while privileging, on the other hand, a particular class over others. We suggest Nowicki choose his words more wisely.