For graduating Ph.D.s, a final lesson in diversity and inclusion

After being students for most of their lives, Cornell's freshly minted 202 doctors of philosophy received one more vital piece of instruction at the 16th annual Ph.D. recognition ceremony in Barton Hall on May 24. It concerned diversity and inclusion.

"As you move through your careers ... never forget to share your experiences with those who are different from you," Deputy Provost David Harris told them. While the graduates may be world experts in their specialties, it is important to remember, "we are not experts on all topics," and "our explorations" are not complete, he added.

Harris said that diversity is important because by engaging with different people and concepts we gain the ability to communicate with a wider range of people in the world. He went on to discuss a sociological theory known as "partial perspectives," which concerns an individual's unique but limited perspective making it difficult to understand another person's perspective. It is only through engaging with people with different perspectives that we gain new understanding, said Harris.

He described two hypothetical groups living on opposite sides of a sign, one group exposed to a side advertising an alcoholic beverage and the other to a side advocating for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. While each group might agree on the size and shape of the sign, they would also have very different conceptions of the sign's message, based on their partial perspectives.

Harris, an African-American, said he grew up with "multiple partial perspectives" in a white suburb, never feeling comfortable with urban blacks who "used different slang" and had different interests. At the same time, he also wasn't comfortable with his suburban white peers, who had never tasted "chitlins or collard greens." His unique background helped him in his academic work to understand the complexities behind residential mobility and "white flight" from ethnic neighborhoods.

He also described a study he took part in as an undergraduate, in which a black student and a white student were each given the exact same résumé and then told to look for work. On the first day, the black student returned soon after his interview, having been told the job was filled. The white student did not return from his interview for many hours and when he did, he said the employers did not offer him the job of waiter, but they told him he had a future with them as a host. The experiments led to research that has informed federal laws, said Harris.

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