[The Montana Professor 16.1, Fall 2005 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

What Diversity Means to One UM Faculty Member

David Schuldberg
Department of Psychology

I: Overview

--David Schuldberg
David Schuldberg

The concept of "diversity" is a powerful and omnipresent one, but one often vaguely and poorly understood in academia. As professors we are all likely to have thought about the word and to have different feelings about it; for many, the notion raises unresolved puzzles and challenges. This article is concerned with ways that diversity issues have influenced me, my institution during the time I have been teaching, and academia in general. It attempts to show why attention to this phenomenon has improved academia, as well as providing what I hope will be useful ways for working with its implications. The first parts of the paper discuss what I have learned and observed, progress I believe that I have made personally toward an understanding of diversity issues in higher education. The end of the paper outlines tasks and confusions that are still difficult for me and perhaps for some of my colleagues as well.


Defining diversity

"Diversity" is "multiformity, variety, variegation."/1/ To an important extent this concept is a puzzle, as it raises the question of just what we are seeking "variety" in. In higher education the term is generally applied to hiring (and admitting) people belonging to a small number of "protected classes," but this need not be so. The term may equally be applied to our efforts to have many kinds of people working across the roles in the institution (students, faculty, staff, administrators), studying and doing research on many different ideas, and employing multiple perspectives and methodologies in scholarly work.

Each of these components is very important for the scholarly business of the academy. In my own field of clinical psychology, for example, to do a good job as a researcher and scholar, to understand the content of my field, requires attention to cultural factors, a skepticism about the generality of one's own experience, and--I contend--a lively ambivalence about individualism. Despite confusions about the word "diversity," I speak regularly about its importance and urge its pursuit.

II: My own history and identity

Much of what I have learned about diversity in academia concerns my own past; one of the first things that an interest in these topics has done is to point toward greater awareness of my heritage and cultural identity, their importance to me personally and to what I do. This has also made me more conscious of the role of cultural sensitivity in the substance of my work as a psychologist, including being a professor and a clinical practitioner; it also has implications for the intellectual content and methods of psychology as a scholarly field.

I have taught in the Psychology Department at The University of Montana since 1984. I am a Euro-American, and I grew up in Seattle, Washington. My relatives come from Los Angeles and Chicago and Brooklyn, from the state of Georgia, and before that from central and eastern Europe--Germany, Poland, and Russia. An historical swath of these relatives was destroyed during the World War II period; these are people my grandparents sent gift packages from the U.S.--clothing, sewing supplies hidden in the hems of the clothes--and then they stopped sending those packages. This (I am talking about the Holocaust) is in my parents' memory, but before my own time. Just recently I met a young relative who became interested in his family tree (and part of his tree is also mine); as we examined the elegant graphics from the genealogy software on his laptop, he finally confirmed for me the specifics, that, for a generation of at least one branch of the family, some died in Marin County, California, the others in Auschwitz.

My parents were both raised as Jewish, but non-observantly so. Their ancestors worked in America as traveling salesmen, copper miners, hotel operators, homemakers, gem merchants. One great-grandfather on my mother's side was a thwarted rabbi. I identify with him and feel that my career has parallels with his, not so much the parts of his story that got in the way of his success, but the almost-a-rabbi part. This article examines ways that both his scholarship and his dilemmas are relevant for me as well.

In the old country my great-grandfather's mother-in-law, on her death-bed, had extracted a promise from her daughter, his wife and my great-grandmother, not to depart from the strictest of Jewish religious paths. As his wife's promise was communicated to my great-grandfather, this meant that if he were to become a rabbi, he could only teach and preach the most conservative version of Jewish teachings. As it turned out, the U.S. job market for this was very bad; it was a more liberal and progressive time. I am told that after leaving Europe my great-grandfather was once giving a service in Leavenworth, Kansas, in a tent; this is an image that is very amusing to me, a Jewish tent-service. (This article returns to "big tents" later on.) By some accident of fate the father of Steven Wise, who was himself the "father" of the somewhat more relaxed form of Reform Judaism, was stuck in town over the Holidays and heard my great-grandfather's service. He offered him a free ride to a college for these Reform rabbis.

But, my great-grandfather could not accept the offer because of his wife's promise. After losing out on his big break, he knocked around the Midwest, doing consulting and counseling and trying a number of businesses unsuccessfully. He was threadbare but apparently savvy and was sought out for what he had to teach, basically functioning as an old-fashioned rabbi without portfolio who had neither temple nor congregation.

From my perspectives in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries my great-grandfather's choice to remain steadfastly orthodox initially seemed foolish, and his promise to his wife (and her promise to her mother) seemed unwise, anachronistic, atavistic. There is a strong strain of assimilationism in my parents' generation of my family, sometimes with the suggestion that one should jump into the melting pot, submerge cultural differences, polish off rough edges (and any trace of an accent), and get on with life as a plain (European) American. Yet my great-grandfather's problem is also not so alien in 2005, a choice between career and family; he could lose his partner in the new land, or he could compromise his traditions and possibly his faith by becoming a new type of rabbi. (Interestingly, in the version of the story that has been told to me, there is a suggestion that my great-grandfather himself was really something of a free-thinker, that the old-time faith belonged only to the other side of the family. When his wife died, he took to carrying a walking stick and wearing spats.) In short, one way or another, he had to choose who it was that he was going to be.

Is life really easy in the twenty-first century?

While it may seem that I have been spared the kind of dilemma my great-grandfather faced, it is more likely that I have merely made my important choices thoughtlessly, not even necessarily realizing when I was doing so. I thought my decisions were easy or non-existent, until later. While I haven't had to choose overtly between values and job, or my spouse's mother's values and my field, there are still ongoing, if submerged, tensions in my mundane and modernist life. As one example, in the daily work of a professor there is an unresolved question of how much to transmit the old ways, the old teachings, and how much to go a "reform" route. Many of the books in my office are classics. Others are just out of date. I am unlikely to discard any of them.

Do white people have a culture?

As noted, considering one's own history and personal aspects of identity leads to a consideration of one's own culture. Many Euro-Americans or "white people," as you know, believe that they have no culture, no past. Part way along my own path--when someone politely and inclusively asked me, "...and what is your cultural background"--I would say, "I have none." More recently I moved beyond this to saying, "Oh, I'm an Anglo." This is slightly better than saying (as I also have), "I'm just an Anglo."

But, technically, I am not really Anglo, in the sense of being British, at all, although I mainly speak English; I am Euro, and I am a white person. As Popeye said in the cartoons: "I yam what I yam." The beat author Jack Kerouac, in a famous passage touting minority status (a passage that is also rich in self-hatred), spoke of wanting to be anything other than what he was, "A white man, disillusioned." Although still white, I am not so disillusioned anymore. It has taken a while to realize that, as trivial as it sounds, I do belong to culture. One implication of diversity in academia, for me, is to be aware of and to proclaim belonging to a culture, in fact belonging to more than one at the same time.

The tribes of psychologists and academicians

I am also a psychologist and a professor. Art MacDonald of Lame Deer, a tribal elder and an elder among psychologists (who goes back to the time when you could count the number of Native American Ph.D. psychologists on a few fingers of one hand), once reminded me that I also belong to the tribe of psychologists, that it is good not to forget this and to know about this tribe's values, rituals, language, and rules. This is a second kind of belonging to culture.

I am indeed an academic, someone who values logos, words. Some things come down from my great-grandfather that seem less conflicted to me than his choosing not to go to seminary. For example, there are usually ink stains on almost all of my clothes. If you were to check what I am wearing at this moment, you would probably find ink on every article of clothing, including--although I have not looked--my underwear: this is from roller-ball pens, inkjet cartridges, and from dry-erase markers. (It used to be that you could tell professors by the chalk dust on their clothes; now it is stains from white-board markers.) In this way my own profession is partially a hand-me-down.

Day to day, I share a great deal with my circuit-riding great-grandfather, more than simply being a logos guy. He was like today's temporary part-time instructor, a "freeway flier" whose office is a cardboard file box in the back seat and who drives the highway from one part-time teaching job to another. Like a freeway flier he was deprived the scholarly community of bona fide rabbis. This reminds me that I am thankful to have a full-time academic job. I feel I share with him a valuing of ideas, of reading, of talking about what you read, of music, of growing through talk, of teaching and advising. And I have the more than occasional desire to preach.


One consequence of having more than one culture is this: not only might my cultures be distinct from yours, but I am also diverse--and at times contradictory--within myself. I am not simply a one-dimensional being, but in a sense a complex of several selves. There are ongoing questions regarding which part of myself is in play, and also how to negotiate the differences between self and others. My affinity for this life in the academy is contextualized in my own past. How does that combine with forward-looking scholarship?

The academy as an interpersonal setting

Another old-country remnant concerns my deep belief that the academic world is built on relationships. The campus runs on personal connections, and these ties must be tended. Although university life is sometimes described as cut-throat, cold, and competitive, we are all better to the extent that our scholarly relationships are humane. One of the things my students have taught me--especially what being with some students of color has taught me--is how to be, I hope, a better person, a better professor, a better colleague, and especially a better mentor. Coming up against differences fostered and forced self-examination. It encouraged me to listen, to be ready to visit about "personal" things, to talk a little less (sometimes hard as a professor), to be prepared to have my eyes opened to things I don't know, to learn about topics I thought I already mastered, and to be able to talk about--to bear witness and admit to--the times when I am wrong, foolish, insensitive, or blind. Sometimes one is schooled by one's elders and sometimes by one's students. This process part of being an academic is crucially important, and it is not much different from being a member of an extended family, a participant in a certain kind of specialized neighborhood, or a resident of a rural town.

III: Roles of context in academic content and in pedagogy

How does this relate to academic content and clinical practice within my own area of psychology, to the substance of my research, teaching, and supervision of students? Psychology shares with other social sciences conceptual peculiarities in its content. (Wittgenstein mocked the field for its "experimental methods and conceptual confusion.") Its object of study is generally the person, and its scholarship cannot escape being somewhat self-referential; one is always struggling with dialectics of social context and individual as determinants of what unfolds over time. (When I was an undergraduate, this tension was called "Skinner vs. Freud.") For example, here is a quotation from the psychiatrist Jurgen Ruesch in Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry./2/

The Psychiatrist and Culture Change: The differences in the psychiatrist's value system from those of the core group arise from specific life experiences. Essentially they are related to experiences of culture contact and repeated exposure to differing systems of value during the formative years. Such conditions sharpen the social perception of the future psychiatrist and make him (sic) aware of the fact that values differ from group to group. Being forced to reinterpret his own position whenever he meets a new group, he develops the necessary means which enable him to perceive and evaluate the various communication systems of other people. Such basic life experiences are necessary if a man (sic) wishes to become a successful therapist. Training merely supplies a system for an orderly arrangement of these basic life experiences.

I have taught a course on the Rorschach Inkblots since I came to UM. Only in the last six years have I really appreciated how much culture--for better and sometimes for worse (in terms of bias)--has entered into people's responses to these famous ink blots, as well as the implications clinicians take from them. I am writing here about aspects of what clients see and say ("It looks like a bat"), interpretive clinical "facts," as well as also less formal lore that I had mainly taken for granted in graduate school and then as a professor. For instance, sometimes a person will collapse distinct concepts together into one fused idea. One teaching example involves a "bear-grass skirt," where the perceptions and ideas of "bear" and "grass" seem pathologically condensed into one boundary-less, dream-like response to one bit of green ink--unless one knows (as many Montanans do) that there really is such a thing as "beargrass," that it comprises one concept, and that you can make things out of it. I am grateful to the students and colleagues who have helped me with things like this. I have found out a bit more about how to open my eyes and learn across nationality, gender, culture, sexual orientation, gender orientation, race and ethnicity, disability status, rural-urban demographics, and more. Of course, learning about the Rorschach can be viewed as a very special case of highly contextualized knowledge because it is a doubly-interpretive endeavor. Rorschach himself asserted that the client is likely to approach the task as an interpretive one. And, the clinician trying to make diagnostic sense of these responses is engaging in clinical interpretation, with somewhat reduced criteria for "objectivity." This is especially tricky, and the procedure itself has been denounced as multiple layers of quackery. Yet, we find contributions of culture, history, gender, and other attributes that make us variegated in many less controversial and less applied areas of my field as well. Psychology's ultimate academic success as an arena of meaningful and enlightening research and scholarship, may rest on its--speaking simply--integrating within-individual and contextual diversities in its object of study. Seeing oneself as contextualized, in some sense taking responsibility for one's own history, can help with this.

The academy as liberating and conservative

I believe that the professoriate can potentially be something like the proletariat, the vanguard class that should lead revolutionary change, radically transform how we do things, and make a better society. This may be controversial as a potential role for higher education, and it marks me as a refugee from the sixties still seeking reconstruction. But, while I view our agenda as academicians as an essentially liberationist one, academia is also inherently conservative. It seeks to preserve and transmit various bodies of intact knowledge--with deep historical roots--to the next generations. Yet, it is also attempting to give students tools and then set them loose. Gary T. Marx, a sociology professor I had when I was a sophomore, noted that "the truth may not set you free, but it sure...will make you cynical."

This may be short of liberation, but it isn't pure content delivery either. Facts not only build up knowledge, but they can disrupt our beliefs. This rupture can also disturb the bedrock notions of "facts" themselves. Is the knowledge in one's field, the material that is delivered in our coursework and defines the landscape of our research, indeed multiform and various, even after we have toiled to find its coherence and crystalline unity? To acknowledge that our "truth" may be textured and nuanced can introduce a certain tentativeness into lectures!

IV: Living in several different worlds

The beginning of this paper noted that the meanings of diversity in education are not fully resolved and digested for me. A first paradox involves the actual practice of living multiculturalism, difficulties in what some Native American students I know call "walking in two worlds," living in and between several communities. It is important for me not to minimize the specific and sometimes extraordinarily daunting situations faced by students and scholars of color; their difficulties are often qualitatively more strenuous than my own. Yet, many if not all of us do inhabit two or more worlds, "code switching" in our speech as we travel through the contexts where we live, hang out, and work. If I am a member of at least two cultures, what happens when two of my selves come into conflict, when one seems to claim priority or exclusivity and I feel that I need to make a choice? My great-grandfather seemed dealt a limited set of choices. For me, whether or not to function in "Anglo" culture, at least most of the time, has not seemed to pose such difficult questions. But, things become more complex the moment I acknowledge my own history.

This hints at one of the core dilemmas involving diversity in the academy: how does one engage in the preservation and celebration of identity, yet maintain membership in a larger society, inhabiting a "big tent" where different schools and ideologies can interact? To speak easily of diversity downplays the possibilities of conflict between one's selves (and with others) and assumes a harmony--external and internal--that experience teaches us is difficult to maintain. There is actually no convincing reason to believe that we can be successful at promoting a big-tent containing conflicting ideas in the midst of strongly-held beliefs. The fabric is constantly stretched by claims of exceptionalism and pressing "wedge issues." Yet, this problem is also essentially the problem of human existence; it is unique neither to academia nor to diversity debates. In some sense, we have no choice but to live with, although not actually to solve (which we cannot), the problem of how to cohabit with our own internal contradictions and multiple selves, and with others.

Evolutionary biologist W.R. Hamilton noted that competition and conflict exist at the level of the individual and the gene, that each of us contains separately-evolved, competing behavioral "modules" with different agendas and strategies. For Hamilton this realization was freeing, because he could understand why he felt like "an ambassador ordered abroad by some fragile coalition, a bearer of conflicting orders from the uneasy masters of a divided empire."/3/ Brokering a possible life out of competing demands is what we must do in our individual bodies and our lives; it is also what we need to do in the wider world and the academy. There is no analytic equation, no algorithm guaranteeing solution that provides a path through these problems. They cannot be solved in advance, only addressed incrementally and imperfectly, via inexact heuristics. But, I do believe that we can indeed live with each other in the academy, not at all harmoniously but mainly without warfare.

Relativism and bedrock values

In my own field psychotherapeutic work also has some less-negotiable values. Questions regarding possible exceptions to the social contracts involved in therapy press us daily. It is impossible to avoid these impositions unless one does not take one's own values or those of one's vocation seriously.

Early in a clinician's training he or she is likely to be taught about so-called "value-free" clinical work: the therapist is not supposed to impose political, moral, or religious values on the client. Very quickly, if not immediately, the clinician-in-training also learns that there really is no such thing as value-free psychotherapy. First, there are meta-values in play. Not imposing one's personal values and respecting autonomy are themselves values, and even they are not above scrutiny. For example, across health care in general, patient autonomy is contextualized in an individualistic view of the person, and it reads differently when one is doing conjoint family therapy with an extended family group. There are also limits to the client behaviors that the therapist will accept with neutrality. We are ethically and legally obligated not to go along with a client's values when they promote sexual exploitation of children, for example. The professional training of therapists includes a mixture of tolerance or inclusiveness combined with firm discernment and some rigid limit-setting. This can be an uncomfortable mix, and it recapitulates in miniature the professor's didactic struggles to convey a variegated and contextualized corpus of knowledge and set of methods. In life in the university how can we build and maintain an inclusive scholarly environment? What are our universal, absolute values, or does anything go? Constructing tolerance becomes a pivotal process issue.

Making the university a better place

What, then, needs to be preserved and what changed? How does the freedom of the student balance with willingness to listen to us? How much is the classroom a sacred space? Is it merely a convenient venue for taking some cellphone calls?

I recently accompanied my son's eighth grade class on a field trip to the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, Washington. As an exercise the class assembled a large skeleton of a Gray Whale. The young man guiding us in this lesson wanted to teach the students about the possible origins of a particular piece of bone. Clearly practiced at this he said, "I don't know how you feel about evolution, but one theory of why that bone is there is that...." Some of the adults in our group felt that he was soft-pedaling the empirical evidence about the phylogenetic history of these whales, or that he suggested that evolution and creationism are equally plausible or scientific. For me, the reference to "one theory" seemed honest enough, although I have twinges of discomfort.

Keeping the tent around us is the hard part. But, for me, greater inclusion has made academia a better place, in several ways. Some involve content and seeking to acknowledge multiple teachings and research strategies. Others involve participating in the hiring and retaining of a diverse cadre of colleagues; we need to address potential formal and informal unfair practices in and around our institutions, particularly in hiring and promotion. For me, this also includes attempting to redress past wrongs. Finally, inclusion implicates how we live our lives in our own quadrangles, college towns, urban campuses, institutions without walls, or neighborhoods. It is worthwhile to think about the ways that academic activities--a "normal" lecture, paper, or lab--take place and to consider changing them, doing things differently.

I have noticed that some of us are also becoming more attentive to how we do the things we do as academicians. We can ask whether the methods we use to teach, do research, model professional behavior, mentor, and guide really represent how we want to be doing the job, and what can be improved. This is an uncomfortable task, often played out in the absurd theatre of the faculty meeting. Trying to find the true fundamentals of the academic game, I believe that not all of them are simply "Euro." I am grateful that Comprehensive Examinations, in fact a lot of the daily meetings that I attend, have humanized somewhat since I was a grad student.

It is worthwhile to look around the table--in whatever meeting it is--and ask: who is sitting around this table? Who is not at the table? I still come to the conclusion that there is a lot of work to be done in these places I love and call home, Universities./4/


  1. Webster's Second New International Dictionary, Unabridged.[Back]
  2. Written in collaboration with Gregory Bateson in 1951 (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 20).[Back]
  3. Hamilton, W.D. (1995). Narrow roads of gene land: The collected papers of W.D. Hamilton, Volume 1: Evolution of Social Behaviour. N.Y.: W.H. Freeman. See p. 134.[Back]
  4. Portions of this paper were given as the keynote address to the UM Diversity Advisory Council Student Achievement Awards Ceremony, May 4, 2004. I am grateful to have been invited to give that talk. I thank Editor Richard Walton for valuable suggestions for extending these ideas. Thanks to my mother Jane Schuldberg for the story, to Dr. Shan Guisinger for opening additional worlds, Larke G. Schuldberg for discussions of universal human rights, and to Dr. Gyda Swaney.[Back]

[The Montana Professor 16.1, Fall 2005 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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