Multiculturalism: See beyond the surface
Elon University's administration prides itself on developing a multicultural society, but is blind to the individuality of each student.
To Elon, diversity means showcasing individuals displaying symbols of their respective cultures rather than the unique traits of each student.
University Relations recently produced a video titled "Celebration of Lights," featuring students, faculty and staff of numerous ethnicities, races and religions, to encourage viewers to write on the Elon University Facebook page expressing gratitude for those who have made an impact on the Elon community.
The video was posted in a public forum and has been produced by those affiliated with Elon. As such, it represents the face of Elon. While we acknowledge that Elon does not solely constitute white Christians, the video inaccurately portrays the community's population and misconstrues the significance of cultural symbols.
Prior to the production of the video, Hillel director Nancy Luberoff received a phone call which requested that a Jewish student appear in the video wearing something that indicates the individual's religion. Dan Anderson, director of University Relations, suggested that a male wear a yarmulke (a traditional head covering) in the video.
The request contained no ill intent of any kind, and Anderson explained that the purpose of the request was to further demonstrate that Elon is a community of diverse people.
Although she described the phone call as respectful and considerate, she did not believe that the cultural symbol was an appropriate representation of Jewish students at Elon, considering the fact that no male Jewish student observes the religion to an extent where he would wear a yarmulke in a common setting. Instead she provided University Relations with the name of a student who wears a Star of David daily and would therefore better represent Jewish life at Elon.
The instance illustrates that video producers intended to present a tangible representation of the administration's view of diversity. While the video may have enabled the university to appear diverse, the administration was counterproductive in its efforts.
Essentially, they asked students and faculty to decorate themselves in their culture. The request should have been phrased,
We would like to demonstrate the culture of each individual; please wear an emblem that is significant to you." Instead, they imposed a stereotypical example, promoting a boxed representation of their version of diversity.
Although Anderson said that the video was not intended as a multicultural video, he still wanted viewers to tell "at a glance" that these are people of many different beliefs and many talents and all contribute to making us the community that we are.
But perhaps it is not possible to present one's culture "at a glance."
A headshot cannot exemplify culture. Culture is rooted in tradition and language and beliefs. As a result, we question if multiculturalism is tangible and if Elon should try to make it so.
This is not to say that Elon should not strive for diversity on campus, but in an effort to increase diversity, the administration should not blind itself to the individual and intellectual value of its student body. There is a focus on the origins of a person rather than the life of the Elon community member.
The increase in international students and a student body that better represents the world's diversity is listed as the first priority in The Elon Commitment. The commitment sites the accomplishments of Laith Majali '05 of Jordan, a Sundance Film Festival award winner, to explain how the incorporation of 300 "more students like Laith" on Elon's campus "will enrich the experiences of the entire student body." The administration praises him for where he was born rather than his success.
Realistically, yes, the inclusion of more award-winning students will enhance the academic value of the university. Nevertheless, his achievements are derived from his talent, not this ethnicity, and the Elon Commitment again fails to distinguish the individual from the cultural label.
As seen in the Elon Commitment and the "Celebration of Lights" video, the administration attempts to define and showcase students and faculty according to their cultural contribution to the university. Until the administration sees beyond the superficial traits that signify diversity, it cannot expect its students to help foster the Elon Commitment's definition of a multicultural society.
Updated December 7, 2010