How does diversity play a role in higher education?

In many ways, colleges and universities are marketplaces of ideas. Faculty and students come from near and far, some old friends meet together to rehearse familiar stories handed down, others dazzle with intriguing new narratives from unexpected viewpoints, and still others try on and reshape perspectives and identities based upon what they unexpectedly see and hear. Indeed, it is these collision spaces of ideas, histories, and backgrounds that makes universities such as Duke – and higher education, in general — such dynamic and transformative educational spaces.

But to take advantage of all universities have to offer, faculty and students have to engage deeply with each other. Thinking outside our comfort zones is critical to developing understanding – whether that be other fields, other cultures, other languages, or other ways to approach problems. We often learn the most from the people with whom we have the last in common. And that means we have to learn to listen to voices that have not always been heard (or welcome) — voices of those different in background, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, gender and sexuality, or life experiences. Those of us who have responsibility for higher education must teach students the skills to think outside the familiar, to talk across boundaries, to, and to advance knowledge that arises from difficult dialogues.

The liberal arts are uniquely suited to teaching these very skills. Martha Nussbaum in her book “Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities” poignantly writes:

“Citizens cannot relate to the complex world around them by factual knowledge and logic alone. The third ability of the citizen closely related to the other two, is what we can call the narrative imagination. This means the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of that person’s story and to understand the emotions and wishes and desires that someone so placed might have.”

Universities, then, have the obligation not only to create a culture of inquiry and discovery but also a culture of empathy.

Working side by side with diverse colleagues in a chemistry lab has taught me the value of teamwork and the advantages of community problem solving. Such work has given me new insights and often helped me to challenge my own assumptions. Indeed, sometimes I have gained the best insight from the team member I least expected.

Society today demands that we work together toward common ground. That means we must respect and better understand each other. In preparing future leaders and citizens for meaningful lives, we in higher education must underscore an obvious fact: diversity, creativity, and excellence are one and the same. We must ensure we equip students with the ability to listen and learn from each other, to cross boundaries and difference, to question what we think we know, and perhaps, even change our minds. Only then can we develop the common understandings so needed in this unscripted world of complexity and change.


“Diversity is something you practice every day,” says Valerie Ashby, the Dean of Duke’s Trinity College of Arts & Sciences.

It’s a lesson she learned during her time as a Ph.D. student at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where she found an unlikely source of inspiration in professor Joe DeSimone.

“He is a 6-4, big, white, Catholic guy from Philadelphia, and I’m thinking, ‘there is nothing you can say that will teach me about diversity,’” Ashby recalls. “But it is a principle for him. He continues to surround himself with people unlike him, allowing everyone to think more broadly and intellectually.”

A North Carolina native, Ashby earned a bachelor of arts degree from UNC (1988) and stayed to focus on chemistry for her graduate work, which she earned her Ph.D. (1994). During her time there, Ashby saw diversity in practice as DeSimone filled his lab with traditionally underrepresented groups in science and engineering fields, around half of whom were women and African-American and Hispanic students.

Seeing the breadth of different experiences and backgrounds encouraged Ashby to focus on creating diverse teams of her own, something she continued during faculty appointments at Iowa State University and throughout a 12-year career UNC, where she was named Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Term Professor of Chemistry and became chemistry department chair from 2012 to 2015.

Her passion for diversity led her to act as a Principle Investigator and adviser to National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute diversity programs. She has also acted as a mentor to undergraduate and graduate students and served as faculty director for the Initiative for Minority Excellence at UNC’s Graduate School.

“I feel safest in a room where people are going to think differently than I do,” she says. “It makes me confident we’re going to come to better solutions.”

When Ashby took on the role as Trinity’s Dean in 2015, she said she was lucky to inherit a diverse senior leadership team made up of Duke faculty and staff of different genders, race and ethnicities with backgrounds in everything from art to architecture and medicine. Weekly meetings with the group means “I never have to worry about whether or not we can find an answer to a complex problem,” she said, because of all the different ways the team approaches issues that face the university.

In fact, among the most exciting parts of her job, Ashby said, is getting to focus on how she can further aspects of diversity on campus. She finds it through new faculty hires, creating events that welcome all students or simply having a conversation with a student, staff or faculty member about how they can consider the importance of diversity and finding challenging experiences in the world.

“At Duke, diversity is just who we are,” she said.