Campus community thrives by diversity of ideas

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

When I began writing this article, I thought I was going to be discussing President Cohon’s recent semesterly e-mail, which he sent out Friday morning. As I thought about this effort to update the campus community on larger events, though, I decided to try and figure out what exactly the term “campus community” means. It is, after all, a term used frequently enough. A quick search through my e-mail shows over 150 references to the term since I arrived at Carnegie Mellon less than three years ago. Certainly a literal definition would include the students, faculty, and staff here in Pittsburgh, as well as those in Silicon Valley, Qatar, and Carnegie Mellon’s other locations abroad. It might include alumni or others with less immediate university connections. These groups, surely, make up the nebulous concept of the “campus community.”

In spite of this deceptively simple explanation, a community is more than a collection of independent groups — there must be some more profound connection to treat our university as a community, rather than merely a school. Shared challenges and successes make a community, and while moaning about the weather and homework contribute some small part to that, they are not sufficient reasons to call ourselves a community.

Once these superficial explanations are discarded, the underlying causes become clearer. Whereas many colleges are bound together by their football teams and school pride, we are united by something more profound: diversity. It is our differences, and the different communities they create, that lead to our greater unity.

When I speak of diversity I do not mean primarily ethnic diversity, though certainly that is an important part of our university identity. I mean diversity of thought and action. At first, it may seem that an undergraduate voice major and a tenured computer science professor have little in common. But that voice major will have a love and talent for music that she would share with her professor. And that music professor and the computer science professor together would be researching new algorithms for computer creation of music, or developing robotic appendages to allow amputees to play instruments. At the same time, the voice major could be involved with a student organization that includes students from every college at Carnegie Mellon, and this organization would interact with staff from the Office of Student Activities.
At the surface, it would be easy to say that Carnegie Mellon is divided into insular departments and groups with little concern for the university as a whole. That was, in fact, the disappointing conclusion I was going to reach in response to Cohon’s e-mail. This conclusion is not entirely invalid — few students will have taken the time to read that entire 2,000-word missive, and many of them feel little connection to the university as a whole. They do, however, feel connected to those groups and subcommunities in which they participate directly. Little about Carnegie Mellon is monolithic. We have our individual and group goals, and we identify much more as editors for The Tartan or undergraduate computer science majors than we do as university community members.

What makes Carnegie Mellon great is not the strength of its individual groups, nor is it our underwhelming Tartan pride. What makes us great is the interconnectedness among those groups. Our organizations and departments are not insular, and when they come together, they can produce amazing results. We should care about our university as a whole, and President Cohon should continue informing all of us about these issues. But we should also recognize that our strength comes not from a single, overriding belief, but from the combination and transformation of diverse viewpoints and unique individuals.