A Conversation on Race at Olin

(Disclaimer: I hope that some of the discussions on race and future actions by Olin pertaining to race will be beneficial across the board. That said, Matt Huang’s article “Racial Challenges at Olin” speaks more specifically to challenges faced by Asian/Asian-American students here, and it’s on Frankly Speaking’s website if you would like to check it out.)

Congratulations, Olin! You did the gender thing. It’s great. But what about the race thing?

Olin’s a pretty determinedly colorblind place. Colorblind admissions, colorblind team dynamics, people here love to talk about diversity and its benefits, as long as it doesn’t involve skin color. But racial diversity is a demonstrable asset in situations that involve teamwork and creativity. Sound familiar?

A HuffPost article by David Goldberg and Mark Somerville on diversity in engineering demonstrates a common tendency to brush over matters of race. They mention it briefly, but emphasize the importance of gender, personality, and aspirational diversity. These are all good things to have, of course, but they certainly are not more important than racial diversity in a historically discriminatory field. And this refusal to talk about race and treat it as important is an unfortunate trend here at Olin.

Maybe you’d like to cut the college a little slack. After all, it is a private school, and under no obligation to be racially diverse. Except that it sort of is, especially if you read the founding precepts, or any publicity material centering on how we ‘pioneer creative innovation.’

The precepts are self-described by the F. W. Olin Foundation as “the principles upon which the College was established as well as the Foundation’s hopes for what the College will accomplish and the good that it will do.” The third precept, only surpassed by ‘must be named after Olin’ and ‘must offer only engineering,’ is this: “from among the students who qualify [academically], the College shall endeavor to develop as diverse a student community as is possible.” The first axis of diversity named is race, and the second is gender. How did we end up skimming over that first one and then awarding ourselves monumental back-pats for a 50/50 gender balance?

There is a reason I implicated Olin’s pride-in-innovation as a commitment to racial diversity. A lot of research around diversity and team performance suggests that if Olin really wants to produce the best ideas and the best teammates, it should take a hard look at diversity. Teams with variation along any axis – race, gender, even politics – outperform homogenous ones simply because different types of diversity give people unique perspectives and experiences, the lenses through which we generate ideas. Furthermore, if the variation presents visually (as race and gender often do), so much the better: not only do different identities and perspectives bring more ideas to the team, but perceived differences among teammates cause team members to think more about team topics and have deeper, more productive discussions at meetings. Especially in matters of creativity and – wait for it – innovation. Diversity is an asset, not an obligation.

Interested in reading more on this? Katherine Phillips’ article “How Diversity Makes Us Stronger” in Scientific American (online) is a good place to start.

Want to hear more? Next month’s issue of Frankly Speaking will feature a follow-up to this article.

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