The Relevance of Diversity

In January, the College of Humanities convened a conversation on the subject of diversity, inviting faculty and staff in the college to come together to share their thoughts and insights.


Rob McFarland, Department of German and Russian: I recently read in Scientific American about a study that asked, “Is there a correlation between who does scientific work and its quality?” They found that, after analyzing data from 1.5 million scientific papers written over more than 20 years, scientific groups that are from diverse racial backgrounds actually do better science—better than the “old boys” who get together and support each other and all believe the same thing. Their teamwork, apparently, is better, and a diverse team does better science.

Marie Orton, Department of French and Italian: The benefits exist on the wider cultural level, but sometimes there is anxiety about that. For example, over the past 30 years, there has been a cultural shift in Italy because people now come from 90 different countries. This change has really redefined Italy as a multicultural society, which represents an uncomfortable cultural shift for Italians. And this leads me to ask, “Why do we see change as loss?”

Zina Petersen, English Department: Diversity threatens privilege.

McFarland: There has always been a power dynamic to diversity. Diversity is—my definition—a diffusion of power. In order to have a collection of sovereign subjects who are all free and all working together, there must be a devolution of central power, and if not, it’s not really diversity. Diversity can’t just be a question of race or a question of ethnicity but a concept of diversity of opinion, diversity of genders, and different existences. A monoculture doesn’t make for good science or good decisions, but to transcend that takes a renegotiation of power, which is really difficult. . . . A monoculture is so vulnerable to being wiped out—Ireland potato famine style—whereas diverse cultures, where the mixture happens, are much more resilient.


Mark Thorne, Department of Comparative Arts and Letters: As a visiting professor, I felt that BYU was shockingly white. But diversity at BYU is not skin color diversity, it’s experiential diversity. And that is so visible to me and to my wife as well. She said, oddly enough, that the Provo/Utah County area is the most culturally aware pocket of the United States she has yet visited because of the overseas mission experiences of so many of the students and employees here. We cannot go to the local barber without them telling us, once they meet my wife, who is Korean, how their brother or cousin or nephew served in the Seoul mission, and that’s been a real surprise, based on our initial outside impression. . . . The challenge, of course, is to not succumb to the fallacy that they have fully embraced a diverse mindset, because we are all still shaped and molded by our backgrounds. 

Agnes Welch, Center for Language Studies: I work with nearly 60 adjunct faculty at the Center for Language Studies, where we teach more than 60 languages each year. Conversations about intercultural communication often come up among our adjunct faculty—how to blend one’s own religion with BYU’s Latter-day Saint faith (we have teachers who are Muslim, Hindu, Catholic, and members of other faiths). One of their conclusions is that there are basic essentials underlying all cultures, and we need to think beyond the apparent differences to find the cultural “mass” of the world. Our teachers understand that they play an important part in identifying that “mass” even though they only teach one or two classes. They are constantly interacting with returned missionaries who have spent one to two years immersed in other cultures, and, in that respect, diversity is both real and relevant in our language classrooms.


Mel Smith, Office of Digital Humanities: I grew up in a farming community in Idaho, and I had never been outside the United States. I got called on a mission to Japan, and I was awestruck by the cultural differences—not only the way the Japanese people did things, but the way they thought and the way they responded to me. It opened my eyes. The opportunity that my religion gave me to experience other cultures really helped me start to think about the whole idea of what it means to be diverse and what might be Mormon culture as opposed to Mormon doctrine.

Thorne: As a Southern Baptist, it wasn’t my religion, per se, that fostered my appreciation of diversity since, growing up in a white, Midwestern culture, my religious experience was culturally composed of the people that we knew. It was as I got older, traveled a bit more, and started studying the history of the early Christian church as a classicist that I thought, “Those other Christians sure don’t look like me.” And I was intimidated at first but then realized, “I don’t think God is intimidated by that. Maybe I shouldn’t be either!” That encouraged me to realize that the diversity of the body of Jesus Christ is not really a problem in the gospel.

Peterson: One of the things that we borrow from the Protestant tradition is the idea that the threats to our faith are the world, the flesh, and the devil, but as Mormons we sometimes concentrate on the world being the evil thing. And the world seems to be this incredibly hostile, nasty, scary place that is just doing everything it can to destroy whatever is good and lovely. That can lead to a bellicose mentality: “We must fight the world!” This is sad, because I like a lot of things about the world. When we’re being told to fight and remain afraid, I instead think, “God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7), and that doesn’t involve freaking out; it involves looking for that which is “lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy” (Articles of Faith 1:13).

Matt Wickman, Humanities Center: I experience diversity in my religion in a couple of ways. One, I find there is a remarkable thing that happens when you are able to reach points of agreement with people from extremely diverse backgrounds. Unity is always hard-won, I don’t care where you’re from. Unity amidst diversity always blows my mind. Two, I think being a person of faith means having the capacity to imagine the world other than it is—to see the world, other people, one’s self, as more or better or more actualized than they are, which in some way is seeing diversity in things that appear the same. 

Welch: I was raised a Buddhist and went to an all-girls Catholic high school, where I started being exposed to Christianity and the idea that there’s a God. I grew up with a shrine in my home, burning incense in the morning and at night, but I joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because my mother was really a pioneer in the Church in Hong Kong. But I didn’t have a good, firm foundation to my faith, and my hang-up in believing the Church was a silly thing. It wasn’t the Book of Mormon. It wasn’t the idea of God or Jesus Christ. It was “Why, if this is the one and only true church for the world, did Heavenly Father choose somebody in America; why did it have to be a white 14-year-old boy?” It sounds really racist, but I was 14 at the time and trying to sort it all out, and that was my obstacle to overcome. Then I realized that if there is a true God, and Jesus Christ, whatever message they want to deliver to their people, it has to be global, it has to be for all colors and all races, it has to benefit all humanity—period. I think once I had the wisdom to understand that, I accepted it. This is a global church, and because we know that, diversity has to be one of the basic considerations you apply in your work, in your family, and at church.