A Different Kind of Diversity

It was not until the 1950s that the first African-American students graduated from the College; the first class of women graduated in 1974, thirty-five years ago. Diversity seemed a little more elusive for us than for other distinguished universities—until today. When you step into Newcomb Hall, along with the clanking of the utensils, you hear Spanish, Filipino, Korean, and Chinese.

Last week I was in Singapore, attending an event organized by Gordon Kirtland (College ’77; Darden ’81) and Chew Mee Foo Kirtland (Darden ’81) of Singapore. They are stalwart supporters of the College, pillars of the local U.Va. community, and parents of a rising second-year student. Even under the threat of a tropical rainstorm, the die-hard Wahoos of Singapore showed up at the event—some forty-five alumni, parents and students, wearing orange and blue. Those were the only colors they had in common; it was the most diverse group of ’Hoos I have had the honor to meet in my first year as Dean.

There they were: The Peranakans (the descendents of Chinese immigrants who came to Singapore in the eighteenth century), Tamils, Punjabis, Malays, and Thais who reside permanently in the city state, and sojourners from everywhere in the United States, working in the financial sector for UBS, Morgan Stanley, and Standard Chartered Bank.  Together, they were Exhibit A of what has made one of the most improbable of the twentieth century’s fairy tales come true, when a colonial entrepôt turned into one of the world’s greatest financial centers. Singapore has parlayed this terrific diversity of humanity—open, munificent, and welcoming—into a vital asset for the future.

Twenty years ago, the government of Singapore presented the world with a political philosophy called, “Asian values.” It was mocked in some quarters as the antithesis of the self-evident truths and transcendent values we hold dear in the West. But buried in the din of criticism was the truth that “Asia” for Singapore is a very diverse and contentious community, making “Asian values” something almost universal.  The qualities that have made Singapore successful are the qualities of maritime commerce, which turn out to be the qualities of a great university: open, multinational, multilingual, multicultural.

In my meeting with the Singaporean Wahoos, I shared the news that the College now offers language instruction in a number of Asian languages, including Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Hindi, Urdu and soon, Bengali—and hopes in time to be recognized by the Department of Education as a National Resource Center for both East Asia and South Asia. This news was received with great delight—but at the same time, they know, as I do, that the College is a deeply multicultural place. And as our Singapore alumni demonstrate so proudly, it has been for longer than people realize.

One Response to “A Different Kind of Diversity”

  1. Tim Sheldon, Col. 68 says:

    Best regards to the Singaporean Wahoos!