A key argument in the most famous, recent affirmative action case, the University of Michigan’s Grutter v. Bollinger case, was that affirmative action in admissions was essential for students to learn how to live in, and interact with a diversity of people in, the modern world. Campus diversity was thus linked to the expansion of intergroup understandings and of human knowledge in college and university settings.
A study just released by The Center for Studies in Higher Education (CSHE) at the University of California (Berkeley) DOES DIVERSITY MATTER IN THE EDUCATION PROCESS? provides some interesting evidence for this contention.
Undergraduates at eight University of California campuses were asked such questions as, “How often have you gained a deeper understanding of other perspectives through conversations with fellow students because they differed from you in the following ways?” – “Their religious beliefs were very different than yours; Their political opinions were very different from yours; They were of a different nationality than your own; They were of a different race or ethnicity than your own; Their sexual orientation was different.”
The report’s abstract summarizes the findings thus (italics added):
This exploration into student interactions that improve understanding, student attachment, and demographic characteristics of students attending the University of California in the spring of 2006 finds the University to be a diverse and healthy environment. Interactions among students with demographic differences are frequent and are rarely associated with decreased sense of belonging. . . . Overall, rich or poor, religious or not religious, immigrant or Mayflower, Republican or Democrat, underrepresented minority or overrepresented majority, UC students feel that they belong at the University of California. In spite of strong scores . . . the University is encouraged to expand discussions about diversity, to launch a more thorough examination of campus climate generally, and to especially consider the experiences of low income and African American students.
More specifically, the findings are thus:
Over 40% of students reported that their understanding of others was often improved through personal interactions with other students who differed from them in terms of SES, politics and religion. Discussions [improved understandings] more commonly occurred (about 60% reporting frequent) where the topic was race/ethnicity and nationality—student differences that were more apparent because of visual differences or accent. . . . [S]tudents were attributing change to the fact that the other student in the discussion possessed the differing characteristics. This finding goes to the very heart of the argument that diversity must be present in the student body, not only the curriculum.
The study is certainly a start on assessing the impact of diversity on students in higher education, but the approach here seems rather superficial and too psychological. In my view much more attention needs to be given to qualitative and ethnographic data on students’ lives and experiences with diverse campus environments. Savvy researchers need to do focus groups and in-depth interviewing, to get deeply into what the campus racial and other social climates are really like. The report itself acknowledges this need, to explore the campus climate, but it is odd that this was not part of this original study–especially given some of their survey findings, such as that African American students had a lower than average sense of belonging on the UC campuses.
Major studies on campus racial climates have been published since at least the mid-1990s, and it is strange that these are neither fully cited nor significantly used in a report touching centrally on the impact of racial/ethnic climates.
Indeed, if racism can obtain in individuals without their being fully (or even at all) aware of it, why should students’ attributions of improved understanding, or even the claim to improved understanding, be taken at face value?