N.C. State’s new idea of diversity: a ‘conflict of ideas’

North Carolina State University is in the pilot phase of a project to implement diversity in its curriculum. Two departments (Psychology and Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering) have already begun implementation.

This diversity project is headed by N.C. State’s first vice provost for diversity and African-American affairs, Rupert Nacoste. Nacoste has been a professor of psychology at N.C. State since 1988 with a scholarly focus on affirmative action. Nacoste is an award-winning teacher at N.C. State, having been elected to N.C. State’s Academy of Outstanding Teachers in 1994, received a University of North Carolina Board of Governors Teaching Award in 1997, and named an N.C. State Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor in 1999. He accepted the vice provost’s role only on the stipulation that he would also continue teaching.

The diversity that Nacoste seeks is one that understands that a university is a place for the conflict of ideas. “What I mean by ‘diversity’ is a mix of people of a wide variety of backgrounds to create the conflict of ideas,” he said. “It’s not a pure demographic approach; that’s not useful.” His idea of diversity involves not just minorities, but students of different social backgrounds, students from large cities to students from small towns, even first-generation college students.

Nacoste plans to create two groups, one of students, the other of faculty, to help nurture the conflict of ideas. The student group, which Nacoste calls the “Lair of Diversity,” comprises students from a swath of groups across the campus, who will become the proving ground for the conflict of ideas. The faculty group, the “Den of Diversity,” will discuss any policy changes to nurture the conflict.

An upcoming week of importance for Nacoste is N.C. State’s Human Rights Awareness Week. Nacoste said there was some controversy among the planning committee because a pro-life student group wanted to be included. That group will take part of the awareness week, Nacoste said, because “we can’t appear as if there are some ideas we don’t want to deal with.”

The admissions calculator

“It is gratifying that academia is belatedly admitting that the only diversity that matters is diversity of ideas, not diversity of external characteristics like race, ethnicity, and sex,” said Roger Clegg, vice president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Washington, D.C., which studies issues related to race. “Nonetheless, so long as such external characteristics are a factor in admissions, discrimination on those bases will continue to occur, and admission officers will continue to equate those factors with having particular ideas or having had particular experiences.”

N.C. State, according to the CEO, favors the external characteristic of race. A study conducted for the CEO in 1998 by researchers Robert Lerner and Althea K. Nagai found that the relative odds ratio in favor of black applicants over white applicants with the same test scores and grade-point averages at N.C. State to be 177 to 1. By way of comparison, as CEO President Linda Chavez wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, “the relative odds that a smoker compared to a non-smoker will develop lung cancer are 14 to 1.”

Based on Lerner and Nagai’s research, the CEO website developed an online “admissions predictor” (www.ceousa.org/html/ncst2.html) for students interested in enrolling at N.C. State. It invites students to type in their Verbal and Math SAT scores and their high school grade-point averages, and it calculates different probabilities of their admission into NC State according to whether that set of SAT scores and GPA belongs to a white applicant, a black applicant, an Asian applicant, or a Hispanic applicant.

For example, according to the predictor, a student with a 3.0 GPA and scores of 500 on both the math and verbal sections of the SAT would, if he were white, have a slightly more than 50% chance of admission (.569), better than an Asian’s chances with those scores (.512) and a Hispanic’s chances with those scores (.529), but markedly below a black student’s chances with those scores (.996).

“While disagreement and diversity is important, so are academic qualifications,” Clegg said. “Indeed, the latter is more important than the former. Particularly at the undergraduate level, when a student’s ideas are likely to be unformed or changing, it is more important to focus on the student’s ability to work at a particular intellectual level.”

A new direction

The post Nacoste holds was created in Sept. 2000, and it signifies a new direction for the university in its approach to diversity. In the 1990s, N.C. State attempted to implement a campuswide “Diversity Initiative.” The Diversity Initiative, however, was written in a way that was high on right-sounding buzzwords but short on objectively measurable goals. The Diversity Initiative had four goals:

Goal 1: NC State will increase the presence and contributions of diverse groups through the NC State community.

Goal 2: NC State will create a working and learning environment where differences are welcomed and valued so that NC State will have a climate that offers opportunity for and supports the success of all students, staff and faculty.

Goal 3: NC State University will incorporate diversity in a significant way into teaching, learning and research.

Goal 4: NC State’s commitment to diversity will be evident in all its operations.

“The Diversity Initiative is essentially defunct,” Nacoste said. He called it a “set of plans” that had no action.

Recognizing that, the administration created the position of vice provost for diversity and African American affairs last year to create what Nacoste said was “planning through action.” A comparison between the university’s definition of “diversity” under the Diversity Initiative and its new definition through Nacoste’s office quickly reveals the difference. The old definition is laden with question-begging, whereas Nacoste’s is exuberant.

“My office was designed to motivate the campus, to motivate the administration, and to motivate everyone to engage in diversity efforts,” Nacoste said.


How N.C. State’s now-defunct Diversity Initiative defined “diversity”

As adopted on Nov. 12, 1997, by the Administrative Council:

Diversity is a reality created by individuals and groups from a broad spectrum of demographic and philosophical differences. It is extremely important to support and protect diversity because by valuing individuals and groups free from prejudice, and by fostering a climate where equity and mutual respect are intrinsic, NC State will create a success-oriented, cooperative and caring community that draws intellectual strength and produces innovative solutions from the synergy of its people.
NC State will create a learning environment which enhances the human potential of all the members of the University community as related to its mission to achieve excellence in research, teaching and community service. Diversity and civility are essential for NC State’s continuing world-class distinction as a progressive land-grant institution committed to excellence and equity.

How N.C. State defines “diversity” now

Definition: In the University, diversity exists when the mix of people from a variety of niches of society is such that the occurrence of a conflict of ideas is inescapable.

Assumptions: Universities are built on the claim that a conflict of ideas is good. Indeed, universities seek to create an environment where the debate of ideas leads to new, innovative and unforeseen ideas.

In order to ensure the occurrence of this debate of ideas, the university must ensure a diversity of ideas and to have a diversity of ideas you must have a set of people with a diversity of experiences that represent a wide distribution.

So defined and conceptualized, diversity then is the heart of the university.