Commentary: As one of Utah’s female university presidents, I say it’s time to truly value diversity — not just celebrate it

Given the growing diversity of Utah, figuring out how to derive value from diversity, whether demographic, political or religious, will be crucial.

(Courtesy Westminster College) Bethami Dobkin has been named Westminster College's new president. Dobkin will be the 19th president and second woman to lead the college.

As Westminster College’s incoming president — and someone new to Salt Lake City — I’ve begun exploring various neighborhoods, sampling great cuisine and learning about the region’s rich history, culture and landscape. I’m also learning about the varied impressions that residents have of Westminster.

At one retailer, I noted that Westminster wasn’t among the universities promoted in their collegiate section. I asked, “Where’s the purple?”

The clerk responded, with a note of derision, “Well, we have something with a rainbow. Aren’t those Westminster’s colors?”

Rainbows are an important part of Westminster, as are Purple Hearts, leis, lacrosse sticks and mariachis. These examples are all cultural expressions of students’ varied lived experiences and reflect the changing demographics of both Salt Lake City and the state of Utah.

The tendency to reduce people to one part of their identity is entirely consistent with a country infatuated with political labels and seeking information for affirmation rather than knowledge. We sometimes reserve thoughtfulness and openness for those we already know and like. Difference can create discomfort. We’re reluctant to respect celebrations of diversity, as if doing so might open the door to thinking about people as more than a checkmark in a box.

Sometimes, though, checking boxes signals limited progress. For instance, the most noted characteristic I’ve heard about my presidency is my identity as a woman. The symbolism of my appointment may be important to a state that has seemingly struggled to embrace women in leadership roles, from Utah’s judges to government officials, to top positions in Utah businesses. So noted.

In the least, having a group of women assume presidencies of Utah’s universities shows that being identified as a woman should not, and need not, be a barrier to leadership. It might even prompt us to examine our assumptions about what it means to lead, or to be a woman. The next step is understanding the significance of having women in those positions, to move from seeing women as novelties to colleagues and partners in moving the state forward.

Just as there is value to be gained from understanding and including diverse people and perspectives, there is danger in assuming it’s not necessary. There are opportunity costs for companies that exclude key consumer groups in their workforce. There are labor costs of importing talent rather than training people who are already here. There are productivity costs when women and other underrepresented groups aren’t supported in their pursuit of education. And, perhaps most fundamentally, there are human costs that happen when people lose the ability to respect, empathize and take the perspective of others who seem different.

Given the growing diversity of Utah, figuring out how to derive value from diversity, whether demographic, political or religious, will be crucial. Institutions like Westminster do more than celebrate diversity: They help students cultivate the skills to navigate increasingly complex communities and workplaces. They are resources for businesses wishing to build stronger, more collaborative teams. They are key partners in solving complex problems and creating opportunities from the assets that diversity brings — as long as we begin by treating others from a place of empathy and respect.

The beauty of Utah’s landscapes is matched only by the beauty of its people. I’m excited to be part of a small college in a thriving city surrounded by bold, natural settings, and with students whose varied backgrounds and perspectives make our learning community richer and deeper. By giving them the knowledge and skills they need — and partnering with Salt Lake City’s communities, businesses and educational institutions — we can come one step closer to benefitting from all of the diversity the region has to offer.

Bethami A. Dobkin | Westminster College

Bethami A. Dobkin, Ph.D., is president of Westminster College, Salt Lake City.