Diversify Holistically to Reverse Polarization and Achieve Academic Excellence

Achieving a diverse student body, faculty, and staff are worthwhile aspirations for any university. Diverse lived experiences and viewpoints improve our thinking, sharpen debate, and foster innovation. Properly implemented, academic diversity and inclusion initiatives can help mitigate and potentially reverse long-held prejudices and harmful, growing polarization.  We advance a new, holistic approach that achieves both maximum, inclusive diversity and the highest academic standards. As a case study, we use MIT, which has been part of my life since before I was born: my mother was an MIT librarian when she was pregnant with me and until I was five. Recently, I served as president and chair of the Alumni Association1See, for example, https://www.technologyreview.com/2016/04/26/246097/the-internet-of-1916/..

Let a Thousand Attributes Bloom

As it applies to higher education, I define diversity as 

the degree to which students, faculty, and staff represent/demonstrate a range of different skills, knowledge, cultures, identities, geographies, experiences, ideologies, philosophies, values, and personalities, thereby providing the greatest opportunity to learn and grow from each other.

There are a myriad of diversity attributes and even more ways to group them. I find three groups particularly useful: 

  1. Physical/identity characteristics, mostly immediately visible, include race, gender, age, ethnicity, language, disability, and sexual orientation. 
  2. Cognitive/intellectual attributes, less visible, include abstract vs. concrete thinking; risk aversion vs. risk taking; long- vs. short-term time horizons; collaborative vs. independent work styles; relationship vs. transactional orientations in dealing with others; and introversion vs. extroversion. 
  3. Related attributes—one’s “extended phenotype,” to use the words of biologist Richard Dawkins—include geographical location; industry; household income; veteran status; years of education; first-generation college attendance; civic associations, hobbies, and sports; and musical, sartorial, and tonsorial preferences. 

Attributes can cross more than one group. For example, religion/faith, political orientation, and sexual orientations may reflect both identity and cognition. In The Righteous Mind, psychologist Jonathan Haidt identifies six foundations of morality—care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and purity—that individuals and cultures differ in valuing2Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon, 2012). See also Haidt’s TED talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_the_moral_roots_of_liberals_and_conservatives/. In The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies3Scott E. Page, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies (Princeton University Press, 2007)., University of Michigan and Santa Fe Institute scholar Scott Page shows that it is cognitive/intellectual diversity that makes boards, committees, and work groups better at decision-making. 

While cognitive/intellectual attributes are less immediately visible than physical/identity attributes today, they are becoming more visible thanks to Augmented Reality, 5G, and other social, mobile, and cloud technologies.  In the future, these technologies will provide us real-time details of the people we are interacting with (think LinkedIn with a hundred times the detail), and enable us to see, for example, that everyone in a Zoom conference is an INTJ.  Even one ESFP might make that meeting more effective4Based on the work of psychologist C. G. Jung, INTJ (Introvert-iNtuitive-Thinking-Judging) and ESFP (Extrovert-Sensing-Feeling-Perceiving) are two of 16 personality types of the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality inventory. . While some may view this as an invasion of privacy, the outcome may well be that we will less likely “judge books by their covers” and more readily prioritize less-visible attributes in ensuring diversity and inclusion.

What I call holistic diversity—encompassing the entire individual—comprises all three groups. This brings me to my first point:  

Let’s embrace a broad set of all the attributes for which greater diversity and inclusion could make universities stronger, better, and more equitable. By expanding our candidate pools to include all three attribute groups, for admissions, hiring, promotion, and team building, universities can achieve the most inclusive diversity, the highest academic standards, and are less likely to reduce diversity in less-visible attributes, a widespread outcome of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives today of which we will see examples below.

Thinking Fast and Slow

Prioritizing visible attributes such as race and gender is readily demonstrable and may also signal a desire to right past wrongs. Addressing less-visible attributes, even if just as important and more underrepresented, is harder to demonstrate. 

To use Nobel laureate economist Daniel Kahneman’s language5Kahneman, Daniel, Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011), our focus on visible attributes is an example of “thinking fast:” immediate, rapid-fire reactions akin to attacking or running away from a threat. Fast thinking is the very behavior, whether learned or innate, that drives unwanted racial and gender discrimination. To fight racism and sexism, we must refuse to think fast and superficially about people, and instead think slowly and deliberately about them. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, his dream was for his children to be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. That is hard work. Character is not immediately visible. Recognizing character, like most attributes in groups 2 and 3, requires slow, deliberate thinking. We should not disregard them just because they are not immediately visible. 

Case Study: MIT

Having completed its most successful, $6 billion campaign under the leadership of President Rafael Reif, MIT is able to fund DEI programs as well as any university. In mid-2021, MIT announced the hiring of no fewer than six new deans for DEI. But as its Five-year DEI Strategic Action Plan makes clear, its focus is on physical/identity characteristics:   

The Institute currently identifies members of a “racial/ethnic underrepresented” group as: ‘a U.S. Citizen who self-identifies as Black/African-American, Hispanic/Latinx, Native American or Alaskan Native, Native Hawaiian, or other Pacific Islander.’ In this plan, we use a broader set of attributes— including socioeconomic status, religious beliefs, gender identity, veteran status, sexual orientation, disability, and other identity characteristics—to understand the composition of our community.

Such identity characteristics enjoy strong on-campus constituencies. “Slow-thinking” attributes are not only less visible but have few or no on-campus constituencies. They are neglected. As an example of just one such neglected attribute, consider geographical location. 

Admissions Pipelines Feed the Urban-Rural Divide

Adjusting for state populations, 2018 MIT undergrad enrollment for the least-enrolling 25 US states was 33% of the enrollment for the most-enrolling 25 states (see chart). The top seven states (including Massachusetts, MIT’s home state) enjoy northeastern proximity to MIT. Most of the under-represented states are rural. The admissions pipeline helps explain why MIT’s geographical distribution of US students is this way.

University student body pipelines have four stages: outreach, applications, admissions, and enrollments:

  1. Outreach is university marketing to and recruitment of high school seniors. Like most leading universities, the vast majority of MIT’s outreach is to urban areas. This is both more efficient than spreading limited resources across sparsely populated rural areas and is where most top-rated high schools are located. Failure to reach rural seniors is not specific to MIT; see, for example, this NPR article, “One Reason Rural Students Don’t Go to College: Colleges Don’t Go to Them.”6 https://www.npr.org/2019/03/06/697098684/one-reason-rural-students-dont-go-to-college-colleges-don-t-go-to-them

Universities thankfully now recognize the importance of reaching out to underserved communities. With a holistic approach, we will recognize rural and other underserved communities in need of such outreach as well.  

2. Application rates to MIT and top universities are significantly lower from rural states than for the US overall, due to less outreach to them; less awareness and word-of-mouth among students; lower SAT/ACT scores overall, giving students less confidence to apply; and to socio-economic and cultural factors. Two such factors are urban scalability and “somewhere” vs. “anywhere” mindsets: 

Urban scalability. The Santa Fe Institute has shown that, as the populations of cities double, average income, average numbers of graduate degrees and patents, and many other per-capita metrics increase by approximately 15%7See, for example, Geoffrey West, Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies (Penguin Press, 2017)..  Thanks to higher population and density, larger cities enable more frequent interactions, faster flows of knowledge, greater specialization and division of labor, and greater value placed on specialized skills. These benefits are created in part by self-selection – people who move to cities – but accrue to everyone in the city, whether self-selected or not. Urban college applicants and their families benefit from these dynamics.

“Somewhere” vs. “anywhere” mindsets. According to author David Goodheart in The Road to Somewhere8David Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics (C. Hurst & Co., 2017)., “somewheres” are people who identify more with places and groups, such as hometowns and like-minded communities.  They more value familiarity, security, and local civic groups. In contrast, “anywheres’” identities and self-worth are more tied to achievement, position, and life experiences. According to Goodheart, people raised in rural areas tend to be “somewheres”; those raised in suburbs and cities, “anywheres,” who can more readily acclimate to living anywhere. “Somewheres” are less comfortable or willing to move long distances to unfamiliar places, such as from midwestern hometowns to elite, coastal universities. But many “somewheres” who do so eventually adopt “anywhere” mindsets.  See also this InsideHigherEd.com article, “Rural Students Gain but Lag in College Attendance.” 9 https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/11/05/report-examines-disparities-rural-and-nonrural-students

Since most outreach is urban, and word-of-mouth about MIT among rural students is sparser, the fewer rural applicants are more likely to be serious candidates who really want to go to MIT. I am an example of this.  My high school guidance counselor, Mr. Bussell, discouraged me from applying to MIT: no one from Jupiter, then a remote Palm Beach County outpost, had ever gone there.  Few in our high school had even heard of MIT.  Even Dad expected me to go to Palm Beach Junior College. But before we moved to Florida when I was five, my mother been an MIT assistant librarian, so I had heard all about (and idolized) MIT from an early age. Mom – only Mom – believed I might get in and made sure I applied. (Moms: realize your influence.)  I became the first male in my family to get a bachelor’s degree.

3. Admissions. According to former Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart, MIT admission rates (relative to the number of applicants) are slightly higher for rural than urban regions. Since outreach invites a wide range of applicants, pulling down average applicant quality, the quality of rural applicants, who enjoy little or no outreach, tends to be slightly higher on average.

Achievement measures where applicants stand when they apply; distance advanced, much harder to discern, measures how far they have progressed on their own initiative from where they began. Either set of metrics could better predict an individual’s future performance and success. SAT/ACT scores are important to both measures. AI can help discern distance advanced. We give credit for distance advanced to selected underserved communities; we need to do the same for a broader set of such communities, including rural ones, who have also faced obstacles but advanced similarly far from where they started on their own initiative. 

4. Enrollments. Chancellor Barnhart did not have data on rural enrollment rates, but anecdotal evidence suggests that rural candidates feel less welcome and included during campus visits and other interactions and are thus less likely to apply or, if admitted, enroll (more on this below).

The “Other Half” of the US

Apart from MIT’s mission of serving the entire nation, omission of the single attribute of geographical location from its DEI initiatives – inconsequential to some – has unexpectedly significant consequences. The disparity is not merely geographical: it is also cultural, economic, intellectual, and political10See, for example, https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/how-urban-or-rural-is-your-state-and-what-does-that-mean-for-the-2020-election/, and the Distressed Communities Index, https://eig.org/dci/report.. More than the US population overall, individuals from these states, mostly red, tend to value individual rewards and responsibility, local civic ties, frugality, a work ethic, and nuclear families. They have center-right sensibilities, tending to be more fiscally and socially conservative. They are lower income overall. They are more likely to be “somewheres” than “anywheres.” I call them the “Other Half,” because they make up about half of the US population, yet, as discussed below, they are likely the most underrepresented segment on elite university campuses.

“Other Half” Invisibility on Campus

Rural, center-right-sensibility, and lower-income individuals have no on-campus constituency or advocacy at MIT at all. They are invisible. In 2021, I served on a committee to select recent alumni for very senior leadership roles at MIT. In my interviews with candidates, all exceptional, I asked, when the subject of diversity came up, “Allowing for any segmentation of the US population you can think of, which segment do you think is most under-represented at MIT?” Separately, I asked the same question of our Dean for Humanities and Social Sciences. The most common response, including that of the Dean, was Native Americans. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, Native Americans, including Alaskan Natives, comprise 1.7% of the US population. No one mentioned rural, center-right-sensibility, or lower-income individuals by those or any other designation. Again, this is “fast” vs. “slow” thinking. This is even though “Other Half” under-representation had been called out by the Corporation Joint Advisory Committee (CJAC) in its FY19 report:

“Explore and publicly track a wider range of diversity metrics for income/wealth and geography (including rural/urban split). Only 30% of MIT undergraduates are from rural states compared to ~50% of the US population. Only 13.5% of undergraduates come from the lower 40% of the income distribution (which is still better than our peers). Roughly 2/3 of undergraduates come from “blue” states vs. 43% of the US population.”

According to that report, 57% of the US population was in red states. As noted, most of the Other-Half states are red. Adjusting for state populations, MIT’s 2018 undergrad enrollment for red states overall (see chart) was 38% of the enrollment for blue states overall11In 2016, 84% of 3,141 US counties were red (Associated Press)..  But given that cities, including red-state ones, are more blue than rural areas, and that students enrolling are more urban than rural, the actual blue/red disparity is even higher than the state-level aggregates suggest. Relative to their total population, they are almost certainly more under-represented on our college campuses than racial minorities and women12To better ascertain this point, I have asked the MIT Chancellor’s Office for a more granular analysis at the zip code- rather than aggregate state-level. . Yet we never talk or hear about them. 

We value diversity both for exposing students to different lived experiences, thus helping to foster tolerance and understanding, and for better decision-making and creativity that comes from different cognitive styles. In both ways, the Other Half’s sensibilities are complementary to and counterbalancing universities’ primarily blue-state perspectives. They deserve to be included in on-campus conversations and our DEI initiatives urgently need to include them.  Arguably, MIT has a greater responsibility to attract, expose its undergrads to, and serve Other Half students because Massachusetts is both one of the bluest states and the most heavily represented among undergraduates’ home states. (The MA datapoint [x=65%, y=49] is literally off the chart above.)

Under-representation and Stereotyping: A Negative Feedback Loop

It gets worse. Above I mentioned that rural students may feel less welcome/included from campus visits and other interactions and may thus be less likely to apply or enroll. In part due to their under-representation on campus, Other-Half individuals—whether students, faculty, or staff—are widely, if unconsciously, stereotyped. The greater the under-representation, the easier it is to stereotype. 

At a recent visiting committee meeting, a senior administrator stated that those in the Other Half “don’t share our values.” Yet another characterized them as “poor, white, and uneducated.” Imagine making such gross generalizations about women, Blacks, or gays: utterly unacceptable. Both comments reflect bias, whether conscious or unconscious. But such sentiments are widespread on campus about Other-Half individuals. Many such students, faculty, and staff have become as deeply closeted as I was growing up gay in the 1970s. The bias and stereotyping are not unique to MIT: at many law schools, students routinely equate conservatives with white supremacists, without repercussion.  Relatedly, MIT Provost Martin Schmidt acknowledges that, “Being Republican may be the hardest thing to be on campus.” Indeed, according to FIRE’s 2021 College Free Speech Survey, 5.5 times as many MIT students self-declare as very or somewhat liberal (44%) than very or somewhat conservative (8%), and 4.8 times as many self-declare as Democrat (34%) than Republican (7%).

Imagine how uncomfortable many would feel on a campus where everyone was a Trump supporter.  Very uncomfortable indeed, I daresay.  That is how many Other-Half seniors feel when they visit MIT.

“Other-Half” Most Under-Represented among Staff

A survey reported in a 2018 New York Times article, “Think Professors Are Liberal? Try School Administrators,” found that “Only 6 percent of campus administrators identified as conservative to some degree, while 71 percent classified themselves as liberal or very liberal. … The 12-to-one ratio of liberal to conservative college administrators makes them the most left-leaning group on campus.”13Samuel J. Abrams, “Think Professors Are Liberal? Try School Administrators”, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/16/opinion/liberal-college-administrators.html

At a recent department visiting committee meeting, I observed that MIT could usefully engage an independent firm to confidentially survey staff to see 1) how many staff we have of center-right sensibility (expect there to be few), and 2) how welcoming and inclusive they find the MIT work environment. To elicit honest survey responses, I believe the provision of confidentiality would have to be airtight. 

Unwittingly Polarizing America

Growing polarization may be America’s greatest existential threat. One, if not the main, driver of polarization is lack of dialogue among polarizing groups. Driven by user engagement (“Likes”), social media today encourage us to interact just with those who already share our views. We urgently need to find common ground with those outside of our in-groups to keep our civil society from breaking apart. 

Stereotyping invites those stereotyped to do likewise, driving sides ever further apart, and—amplified and accelerated by social media and partisan press—drawing our country down into an authoritarian spiral. More than any other institutions, universities can model open discussion and tolerance to avert these outcomes. Too, if a high school senior from rural America has, or perceives she has, less chance to be admitted to a major university than an equally qualified, traditionally under-represented racial minority but less under-represented in fact, that will arouse resentment. Deservedly so. Resentment also drives polarization. Some feel that being left behind in education is one of its key drivers. 

Effective DEI Requires a Light Touch

I came out late, in my late 30s.  Prior to that, if I were chosen, promoted, or elected, I knew it was due to what I had contributed or accomplished, not to the fact I was gay.  Now that I am out, I can’t always be sure. No one should have to deal with that insecurity and indignity.  

To avoid undermining the very individuals we intend to serve, and, as noted above, to avoid arousing resentment that fuels polarization, DEI needs to use many dimensions with a light touch rather than a few dimensions with a hammer. Let’s make certain that no one has to wonder whether they were accepted, hired, or promoted just because of gender, race, sexual orientation, or other physical/identity characteristic. To quote MIT Chancellor Melissa Nobles, we need to attract a diverse pool of students and faculty “defined in the broadest terms.”

Across Top Universities, Alumni Giving Participation Steadily Declining

Inclusion and belonging apply to alumni, too. Alumni represent approximately 140,000 of 165,000 (alumni + students + faculty + staff) total members of the greater MIT community.  As has been widely documented (see Council for Aid to Education chart below for one example), the percentage of university alumni who donate to their alma maters has steadily declined over the last two decades.  Here is a hypothesis we owe it to ourselves to test: At least part of the decline is attributable to universities straying from their focus on education and research, becoming more ideological, and consequently estranging alumni.  Even among my close friends with advanced degrees and successful careers, some have stated clearly that they will not support their alma mater “because my money would go to ideology instead of education.” For similar reasons, some alumni have stopped reading MIT’s magazine, Technology Review

I had the great privilege and joy of serving as 2015-16 MIT Alumni Association (MITAA) president/chair, a position I fondly refer to as MIT’s head cheerleader and matchmaker. During that time, I met with over a thousand alumni in 25 MIT Clubs in a dozen countries.  As a result of that experience, I recently advised my friend and colleague MITAA CEO Whitney Espich as follows: 

Closely review all large-scale alumni communications for content which is unduly political. Consider content not just from our own blue-state viewpoints, but from the viewpoints of those of red-leaning sensibilities, of whom there are relatively few on campus but who are well represented among our alumni (especially older cohorts); and of international alumni, whose countries invariably have their own political, economic, and social issues to deal with.  Whenever possible, lead instead with MIT’s universal, inspiring, unifying achievements in the sciences, engineering, and technology.

What Universities Must Do

Embrace a broad set of diversity attributes, including physical/identity, cognitive/intellectual, and related attributes for which greater diversity could make stronger, better, and more equitable universities, for outreach, admissions, hiring, promotion, and team building. By expanding candidate pools to include all three attribute groups, universities can achieve the most inclusive diversity, the highest academic standards, and are less likely to overlook and reduce diversity in important attributes.

Assess admissions pipelines – outreach, applications, acceptances, and enrollments – to understand where and why shortfalls are occurring and address them, especially where on-campus constituencies and advocacy are lacking. The “Other Half” may well be the most under-represented such constituency on your campus as it is at MIT.

Refuse to stereotype the “Other Half” and other under-represented segments with no on-campus constituency and advocacy. Recognize our vast common ground with such segments and expand on it. Whether it’s eliminating poverty, preserving the environment, making higher education and health care more accessible and affordable, or achieving world peace, different constituencies share similar goals but differ in their approaches. Recognizing this invites a discussion of the benefits, costs, and unintended consequences of various approaches and shifts the discussion from ideological to practical. The greater the polarization, the more heavily common ground should weigh in our policies and advocacy. This approach is harder work and less satisfying short-term than stereotyping and doubling down, but it is a win-win long-term for universities, our nation, and the world. 

Leverage outreach, applications, and enrollments (Stages 1, 2, and 4 of the admissions pipeline) to achieve diversity along a broad range of dimensions.  Resist the temptation to compromise academic standards to admit any candidates (Stage 3). Lowering standards is a recipe for mediocrity, compromising the university’s standing and effectiveness long-term, and mismatch (under-qualified students who are admitted to elite universities), leading to students experiencing worse life outcomes than those who were not admitted in the first place. 

Consider both achievement and distance advanced in evaluating all candidates. Either set of metrics could better predict an individual’s future performance and success. SAT/ACT scores are important to both measures. 

Launch institution-wide task forces on US and global polarization to study forces driving this polarization and recommend solutions to mitigate and reverse these destructive forces. The task forces should address, in part, what universities themselves need to do. 

Achieving holistic diversity and inclusion in universities and addressing marginalization and exclusion of Other-Half students, faculty, and staff, may well be as unpopular today as addressing on-campus discrimination against Jews in the 1930s, Blacks in the 1950s, and gays in the 1970s. But confronting those instances of exclusion in the past has paid huge dividends, helping our universities and our nation survive and flourish. Our DEI efforts, if holistic – encompassing the entire individual – will do the same today. 


  1. See, for example, https://www.technologyreview.com/2016/04/26/246097/the-internet-of-1916/.
  2.  Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon, 2012). See also Haidt’s TED talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_the_moral_roots_of_liberals_and_conservatives/
  3. Scott E. Page, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies (Princeton University Press, 2007).
  4. Based on the work of psychologist C. G. Jung, INTJ (Introvert-iNtuitive-Thinking-Judging) and ESFP (Extrovert-Sensing-Feeling-Perceiving) are two of 16 personality types of the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality inventory. 
  5. Kahneman, Daniel, Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011).
  6. In the chart, labels appear above or below, not to the left or right of, the datapoints. Data point color (red or blue) is based on 2016 US presidential vote.
  7. https://www.npr.org/2019/03/06/697098684/one-reason-rural-students-dont-go-to-college-colleges-don-t-go-to-them
  8. See, for example, Geoffrey West, Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies (Penguin Press, 2017)
  9. David Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics (C. Hurst & Co., 2017).
  10. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/11/05/report-examines-disparities-rural-and-nonrural-students
  11. See, for example, https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/how-urban-or-rural-is-your-state-and-what-does-that-mean-for-the-2020-election/, and the Distressed Communities Index, https://eig.org/dci/report.
  12. In 2016, 84% of 3,141 US counties were red (Associated Press).
  13. To better ascertain this point, I have asked the MIT Chancellor’s Office for a more granular analysis at the zip code- rather than aggregate state-level. 
  14. Samuel J. Abrams, “Think Professors Are Liberal? Try School Administrators”, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/16/opinion/liberal-college-administrators.html
  15.  Richard SanderStuart Taylor Jr, Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It (Basic Books, 2012).
John Dana Chisholm
John Dana Chisholm
John Chisholm is CEO of John Chisholm Ventures, an entrepreneurial advisory and angel investment firm based in San Francisco. He is a trustee of the Santa Fe Institute and served on the MIT Corporation (board of trustees) from 2015-2021. He is the author of Unleash Your Inner Company: 10 Steps to Discover, Launch, and Scale your Ideal Business. Follow John on Twitter @johndchisholm.
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