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Communication tipsNational Poll Reveals Strong Public Support for Diversity in Higher Education

Across all demographic groups, American voters support diversity courses and programs and see the educational benefits of a diverse campus and classroom. This is the main finding of the first-ever national poll of public attitudes toward campus diversity. Sponsored by the Ford Foundation's Campus Diversity Initiative, the poll of registered voters was conducted by DYG, Inc. and surveyed 2,011 voters across the nation this summer.

While many diversity practitioners still struggle to convince colleagues of the importance of their work, the voting public seems to have come to a practical consensus in support of diversity education. Voters overwhelmingly believe it is critically important that people of diverse backgrounds learn how to live and work together--the future simply demands it. Reflecting the public's generally pragmatic view of higher education, those polled support diversity in higher education most strongly when they see its practical benefits for students, for American business, and for their communities' health.

Almost unanimously, Americans agree that our growing diversity and the global economy make it more important than ever for all of us to understand people who are different than ourselves. A majority of Americans, however, do not have a completely optimistic view of the future when it comes to our increasing diversity. Fifty-eight percent of voters believe "America is growing apart." An even larger majority see diversity education as at least one solution to this problem. Seventy-one percent of those polled believe that diversity education brings society together rather than driving society apart.

Diversifying the Curriculum

In many respects, the general public seems to disagree with the vocal critics of efforts to diversify the curriculum. For instance, similar proportions of American voters (just over half) support requiring college students to study different cultures as support requiring them to study the Western classics. Sixty-nine percent of those polled also believe that "courses and campus activities that emphasize diversity and diverse perspectives" have more of a positive than negative effect on the education of college students. Once again reflecting the public's pragmatic view of higher education, overwhelming numbers of voters believe that diversity education helps students learn critical skills including: communicating with those of differing backgrounds, teamwork, and problem-solving.

The poll asked about several specific kinds of diversity courses and programs. The most popular programs were those that were not "required" and those that had a pragmatic, utilitarian aim--for instance, with an emphasis on career preparation. The survey found that the highest support (88 percent) for "offering courses in business schools on managing a diverse work force." In virtually the same numbers (87 percent), voters support "offering courses designed to help students develop a balanced understanding and appreciation of their own and other cultures."

The public's pragmatism, however, is not focused only on workforce preparation. They are also concerned about the health of our increasingly diverse democracy. Eighty-one percent of those polled support "offering courses designed to help students understand bigotry and prejudice in the United States and historically, as well as its effects on individuals and society." Seventy-five percent support incorporating the writing of, and research about, different ethnic groups and women into courses in all relevant disciplines and 74 percent support requiring students to complete a community-based experience such as an Internship or Field Project in a setting with diverse populations.

The public also recognizes the need to help faculty members teach more effectively in diverse settings and learn new scholarship about diversity. Eighty percent of respondents support "creating and funding programs for faculty to become more effective teachers of diversity." In fact, 74 percent of respondents agree that "there is a lot of important information about various cultures in the United States that has been overlooked by college faculty in the past."

Diversity Recruitment and Campus Interaction

This survey was designed to measure what Americans want as outcomes of higher education. It did not ask any questions about specific affirmative action policies. The poll did reveal, however, that a majority of Americans support the goals of affirmative action and see clearly the benefits of recruiting a diverse student body. Seventy-five percent of those surveyed agree that "efforts to have a more diverse student body on college campuses" have had more of a positive than negative impact on the education of college students. American voters also believe that "diversity on campus" has more of a positive than a negative impact on the general atmosphere of campuses (69 percent).

In addition, while 75 percent of respondents agree that college students do "often separate themselves into groups by race," almost all of these same respondents (90%) say that, despite this separating, "it is still worthwhile to recruit a diverse student body." In fact, 66 percent of respondents "think colleges and universities should take explicit steps to insure diversity in the student body" and 75 percent think they should do so "to insure diversity among the faculty."

Are the Critics Having an Impact?

This poll did try to measure if negative statements about diversity education resonated with the public. While some of the criticisms of diversity education seems to have some support, (e.g. the idea of self-segregation by students), the majority of those polled rejected arguments against diversity education. The argument that diversity education makes academic standards or admittance requirements less rigorous is rejected by the vast majority of respondents, as is the idea that diversity education is simply political correctness.

Slightly over half of voters interviewed believe "diversity courses and multi-cultural courses" raise academic standards. This group outnumbered those that felt it lowered standards by more than a three to one margin. A strong majority also reject the idea that diversity education takes resources away from more pragmatic, job-oriented curricula. Finally, 52 percent disagree and 38 percent agree with the statement: "the problem with diversity is that it's used as an excuse to admit and graduate students who wouldn't otherwise make it."

Who was Polled?

The sample of voters polled was scientifically drawn and is projectable to American voters nationwide within a margin of error of plus or minus 2.2 percent. Fifty-one percent of those polled self-identified as either "very conservative" or "more conservative than liberal." Forty-eight percent of those polled were men and 37 percent were college graduates. Seventy-four percent of those polled identified as white (non-Hispanic), 10 percent African American, 4 percent Hispanic, 1 percent Asian, 3 percent Native American and 5 percent identified as "Other/Mixed Race."

There is majority support for diversity education across all demographic groups, though support is strongest among Generation Xers (18 to 30 years old) and self-described liberals, and somewhat less strong (though still significant) among senior citizens and self-described conservatives. More specifically, there is more support for teaching about "other's cultures, backgrounds and lifestyles" among younger respondents, self-described liberals, African Americans, Latino/as, and those who are more educated.

Generation Xers and self-described liberals are also the most likely to believe diversity education raises standards, while older respondents and self-described conservatives are somewhat less likely to believe this--though they too still believe it raises rather than lowers standards by a 2 to 1 ratio.

The Message to Higher Education

The results of this national poll should send a strong message to higher education leaders. The general public supports diversity education in general and the numerous specific programs which fall under that heading. As AAC&U's president, Carol Geary Schneider, put it, "the strong support registered by younger voters for diversity in the curriculum is especially significant. Many of these voters have already taken diversity courses. They understand from direct experience the value of these changes in the curriculum. They also recognize that diversity courses do not divide us. They bring people together."

For complete poll results, see DiversityWeb .

Other Findings from the National Poll on Campus Diversity

  • 50 percent of voters believe that "diversity" means different ethnicity, race, nationality or culture, while only 12 percent said it means different social status or economic/education levels, and only 8 percent said it means people of different religious backgrounds.

  • 85 percent of respondents agreed that "new information about diversity will help college classes stay up-to-date."

  • 80 percent of those polled agreed that "it is just as important for colleges to prepare people to succeed in a diverse world as it is to prepare people with technical or academic skills."

  • 58 percent disagreed with the statement, "college courses like Women's studies, African American or Chicano studies take valuable resources away from the education and training that young people need to make it in today's economy."

  • 80 percent of respondents supported (with 48 percent strongly supporting) "creating and funding programs for faculty to become more effective teachers of diversity."

  • 75 percent of voters support "incorporating the writing of, and research about, different ethnic groups and women into courses in all relevant disciplines."

  • 68 percent of those polled support "requiring students to take at least one cultural and ethnic diversity course in order to graduate."

  • 58 percent of voters agreed that "diversity education has a liberal agenda."

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Communication tips

This sort of poll, with its rich wealth of new data, can generate news stories over time.

If you have a new poll or study on a controversial issue like diversity, try to generate spot news, feature stories, and opinion pieces. For instance:

  • Consult your public information office for advice on the most effective way to release the data.
  • Hold a news conference to release the results. Invite several leaders from different segments of the community to participate.
  • Issue a news release to media statewide or throughout your region. The release can be distributed via mail, fax, and/or by email to reporters who cover relevant issues.
  • Book radio and television talk show appearances to discuss the data.
  • Identify feature story opportunities for journalists. For instance, find students who have experiences that speak to the value of diversity and suggest that journalists profile those students. Or identify older faculty members who can discuss the new and better ways that learning occurs on the more diverse campuses of today. Feature story ideas are especially important to television reporters, who cannot always make data compelling to views without them.
  • Set up a meeting with editorial board members at a local newspaper a day or two before the general release to review the new data and give them material with which to generate supportive editorials.
  • Identify allies who can write op/ed pieces, or guest editorials, on the poll or study.
  • Be prepared to write letters to the editor in response to the print coverage.
  • Consider all options for posting the data on websites.
  • Prepare simple, one-page talking points and another one page of key findings and distribute it to local college presidents and others who give speeches frequently. Encourage them to incorporate the data into their remarks.

In all this work, consider how opponents are likely to react. Think through the kinds of messages, spokespeople and tactics they generally use so that past experience helps you anticipate their reactions. Then, take the time to develop effective strategies to pre-empt their response or minimize its effectiveness.

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