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03/03/2016 12:28:22

Vive la Difference

Once upon a time," starts Caltech vice provost Cindy Weinstein, ever the professor of English, "fifty, sixty years ago, the humanities were taught mostly by white men, as was the literature that students read: Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dickens, Zola, Faulkner. But beginning in the sixties and seventies, women and African Americans entered graduate school in greater numbers, and they were reading different things—for example, Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass or Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin—or reading the same books but asking different questions. In doing so, diversity has brought new life—what we might think of in the scientific context as 'innovation'—to the study of literature.

"Indeed excellence," Weinstein says, "has been the result of diverse scholars entering the field, reexamining many of its traditional assumptions and developing creative interpretations or making new 'discoveries' possible. Excellence, diversity, creativity. That's what we're about at Caltech."

Jackie Barton, the Arthur and Marian Hanisch Memorial Professor of Chemistry and chair of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, agrees. "When you ignore large portions of the population, you're missing out on all that talent. For instance, I always have a lot of women graduate students; I think of them as my secret weapon. They help my lab to do outstanding work—the best work we can do."

But does the fact that they are women actually change the questions that are asked, the research that is done? Barton, ever the scientist herself, pauses. "Well, I can't say," she finally replies. "Because I can't do the control." What she—and many others—can say is that building a diverse community of students, faculty, and staff is critical to fulfilling the Institute's mission, to keeping Caltech at the top of its game.

But what does that look like in practice? How do you embrace or even create diversity, especially at a school the size of Caltech, where the population is small to begin with? For more on how Caltech is fostering an ever-more-inclusive environment, read Vive la Difference on E&S+.

Written by Ramanuj Basu