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Diversity Plans: What Impact Can They Have?
Debra Humphreys, Editor, Diversity Digest

Campus diversity practitioners often complain that diversity initiatives aren't well integrated into the core structures of their colleges or universities. They argue that until diversity becomes a central feature of strategic planning efforts, little will change substantively with regard to campus diversity, and diversity initiatives will remain marginal and vulnerable.

Educational researchers basically agree with this assessment. They suggest that issues of diversity permeate many aspects of a campus environment and each aspect is connected with the others. It is clear in the research that simply recruiting a more diverse student body without attending to other aspects of campus diversity, including such issues as intergroup relations, curricular change, faculty and staff professional development, and diversifying faculty and staff, can result in difficulties for traditionally underrepresented students and can minimize the potential positive educational outcomes that a diverse environment can bring to all students.1

Daryl Smith, professor of education and psychology at Claremont Graduate University, has suggested that campus diversity encompasses four dimensions: access and recruitment, campus climate and intergroup relations, curriculum and scholarship, and finally institutional transformation (see Diversity Digest, Spring, 1998). Smith argues further that "comprehensive institutional change in teaching methods, curriculum, campus climate, and institutional definition and culture provides educational benefits for both minority and majority students." Research demonstrates that integrated efforts are more effective and that "the perception of a broad campus commitment to diversity is related to increased recruitment and retention of students from underrepresented groups and to positive educational outcomes for all students." How do institutions committed to campus diversity achieve this coordinated kind of institutional transformation?

More and more colleges and universities are developing comprehensive diversity plans to guide changes in campus policies and procedures. Some institutions, like the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) and the University of Michigan (UM), have had diversity plans in place for a decade or so. What impact do these sorts of plans have? What issues do they address?

The Madison Plan and the Michigan Mandate are two examples of comprehensive diversity plans put in place in the 1980s. They provide vision statements, set broad goals, and make recommendations for change in a variety of areas. Madison Plan 2008 covers areas such as leadership and accountability, pre-college preparation, student retention, financial aid, campus climate, faculty and staff recruitment and retention, and community and alumni cooperation. The Michigan Mandate, launched in 1987 and led by UM's former president, James Duderstadt, addressed areas such as faculty and staff recruitment and development, student recruitment, achievement, and outreach, and improving the environment for diversity.

Diversity plans are being developed at a wide array of institutions around the country and not just at large, public research universities. North Seattle Community College, for instance, passed a diversity plan in 1992 that addressed such issues as staff and faculty professional development, faculty research, student and faculty recruitment, support services for students of color, and campus climate. North Seattle's plan also included specific numerical targets for increasing the numbers of racial/ethnic minority students who matriculate and graduate from the institution. (For a sample of diversity plans at a variety of institutions, see the Recommended Resources on DiversityWeb, www.diversityweb.org).

When one reads through diversity plans from many colleges and universities, one is struck by how much they still focus on structural diversity (i.e. the representation of different racial/ethnic groups on campus) and how little they address student learning goals or issues of intellectual diversity. These sorts of planning documents cannot by themselves change how business is done in all spheres of campus life. Campus practitioners, however, suggest that they are crucial for creating an environment in which diversity initiatives are taken seriously, given support and respect from faculty and administrative leaders, and considered priorities on campus.

They provide tools for holding individuals in a variety of leadership positions accountable for addressing issues of diversity. They also provide vehicles to help those on campus who feel marginalized to voice their concerns. Finally, they provide a platform on which individuals on campus can build stronger diversity initiatives that go beyond just "numbers."

Developing Diversity Plans Today

What is different about diversity planning today? Diversity practitioners who have worked on these issues for many years suggest that the process of developing diversity plans has become much more inclusive. Campuses now are investing up to a year or more in bringing together various constituencies--including not only administrators, but students, faculty leaders, residence life experts, alumni, and even community members--to provide input into the drafting of recommendations. Diversity planning today is a much more "bottom-up" process and might involve listening sessions and public hearings with a variety of constituencies both on and off campus. These efforts have resulted in broader commitments, greater senses of shared vision and mission, and changes in emphases in today's diversity plans.

Emerging Issues: New Priorities, New Challenges

As the larger political and social environment changes and as new perspectives are brought to bear on planning processes, diversity plans have shifted in their priorities. At many institutions, the range of issues addressed under the umbrella of campus diversity has increased and now includes attention to issues of disability and the needs of gay, lesbian, and bi-sexual students. Kathy Sisneros, a residence life coordinator at UW, agrees that priorities have shifted over the years and the conversations have broadened on campus. She suggests, however, that race still dominates as an issue. It is no longer, however, just a "black-white" issue as it may have seemed earlier. Latino and Asian American students are much more engaged now and are increasingly defining their own issues and influencing the shape of diversity initiatives.

While some new issues are finding their way into current plans, one administrator who has worked on drafting and implementing the various diversity plans at UW suggests that the problems are basically the same as they've always been, but the political context is very different today than it was ten years ago. During the 1980s and early 90s, for instance, some institutions put into their plans specific targets for increased representation of minority students. Given the current climate of hostility to traditional affirmative action plans, institutions seem much more reluctant today to include specific numerical targets in their plans. Rick Olguin, a faculty member involved in North Seattle's diversity plan isn't sure what impact the challenge to affirmative action in his state will have on their future planning. He does argue, however, that realistic numerical targets are very important if diversity plans are to be seen as credible across the campus and in the community.

David Schoem, a faculty member and academic administrator at UM, cautions that one shouldn't measure progress only by what is emphasized in written diversity plans. He suggests that some issues that may not seem prominent in written diversity plans are, in fact, emerging as key areas of progress on campus. Ten years ago, the focus was clearly on access, and diversity was defined primarily around issues of race. The current furor over affirmative action policies and the attention the media has paid to these policies have kept issues of access in the spotlight. Schoem argues, however, that people working "on the ground" have broadened their focus to attend more and more to issues of teaching and learning. He argues that many diversity practitioners are more focused on scholarship and transforming the curriculum.

And while diversity plans may appear on the surface to be mostly about "numbers," plans have provided the impetus and needed momentum for a variety of other campus change efforts. Schoem, for instance, has seen an increased focus at the UM on interdisciplinary conversations among faculty. Student intergroup dialogues, which Michigan has facilitated for years, are now also expanding to include faculty members.

Hazel Symonette, a senior administrator in the Office of Quality Improvement at UW, suggests that there is now a more concerted effort on her campus to truly transform the campus environment. This new emphasis has led to the development of diversity leadership institutes involving large numbers of faculty and staff who meet weekly over a 9-month period to cultivate different ways of doing their jobs so that diversity issues are more systematically and "organically" integrated into the day-to-day business of campus life.

In addition to different approaches to engaging faculty and attending to seemingly intractable issues like campus climate, the more collaborative nature of the planning process has resulted in a few other issues gaining in prominence.

The recruitment of a more diverse faculty, for instance, has been elevated as a concern because of the relative lack of progress in this area on many campuses (see Diversity Digest, Winter, 1999).

Another distinctly new feature of diversity plans is the attention being paid to partnerships with constituencies outside the campus--including alumni, business and community leaders, and local governmental agencies. In the current climate of attacks on affirmative action, partnerships with K-12 educators are also emerging as key elements of diversity planning. This is a particularly strong component of the Madison Plan 2008. Through a new initiative, university leaders are proactively engaging with the K-12 institutions that prepare students to matriculate to UW. They are setting up summer enrichment programs and are personally engaged in discussion with K-12 leaders about preparing a more diverse cohort of students to enter and succeed at UW.

Curricular Transformation: A Limited Role for Diversity Plans?

Many diversity plans include curricular change in their statement of goals, but few seem to offer concrete recommendations in this area. The curriculum does not seem as central to diversity plans as do issues of recruitment, retention, and climate. There is a strong tradition in U.S. colleges and universities of individual faculty autonomy when it comes to curricular development. It seems to be more difficult, then, for these sorts of diversity plans, generally coordinated by central administrations, to "mandate" curricular changes. Traditional structures, divisions of responsibility, and mechanisms for implementing new curricula are not the only things, however, that influence the pace and direction of curricular change.

The larger social and political climate has also affected the ways in which the curriculum is addressed in diversity plans. While efforts like those described by Schoem above have certainly been facilitated and fueled by diversity plans, curricular requirements around diversity issues are not the explicit focus of many diversity plans. Symonette suggests that were it proposed today, for instance, UW's existing diversity requirement might not pass. At the same time, the more inclusive planning process at UW allowed students to express their dissatisfaction with progress in this area. UW students argue that the current requirement is insufficient and that diversity issues are still only addressed in a tiny fraction of the curriculum. Symonette notes that the current diversity plan does address curricular issues, but not via the same strategies as before. The new plan calls for an evaluation of the current ethnic studies requirement, but also sketches out ways that diversity issues should be infused into some key areas of the curriculum including into newly structured Freshman seminars.

This may be another area where new partnerships are important. At UW, for example, business leaders were involved in the most recent diversity planning process. They expressed concern that college students currently lack the multicultural competencies needed in the workplace today. These new voices calling for changes to the curriculum may provide additional support and impetus for needed changes. Schoem agrees that campus-community partnerships are becoming increasingly important to diversity efforts--not only to increase support for diversity initiatives, but also to strengthen learning opportunities beyond the traditional curriculum.


As with any kind of comprehensive change effort, nothing replaces strong and courageous leadership. The early institution-wide diversity plans were all initiated by individuals who took risks, articulated powerful visions, and followed through with specific initiatives. These kinds of visionary leaders are needed now more than ever and not only at the top of institutions, but in locations all across college campuses. Diversity plans are still a key tool for making lasting changes that will improve college learning for all students.

Goals of University of Wisconsin System's
Plan 2008

Goal 1  Increase the number of Wisconsin high school graduates of color who apply, are accepted, and enroll at UW System institutions.

Goal 2  Encourage partnerships that build the educational pipeline by reaching children and their parents at an earlier age.

Goal 3   Close the gap in educational achievement, by bringing retention and graduation rates for students of color in line with those of the student body as a whole.

Goal 4   Increase the amount of financial aid available to needy students and reduce their reliance on loans.

Goal 5   Increase the number of faculty, academic staff, classified staff and administrators of color, so that they are represented in the UW System workforce in proportion to their current availability in relevant job pools.

Goal 6  Foster institutional environments and course development that enhance learning and a respect for racial and ethnic diversity.

Goal 7   Improve accountability of the UW System and its institutions.

Madison 2008 Plan builds on and extends the UW System's Plan 2008 passed by the UW Regents in May, 1998.

1 Hurtado, Sylvia, et. al. Enacting Diversity Learning Environments: Improving the Climate for Racial/Ethnic Diversity in Higher Education. AHSE-ERIC Higher Education Report, Vol. 26, No. 8, 1999.

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North Seattle Community College

North Seattle Community College

Communication Tips

Community members, journalists and prospective students may be interested to know that an institution is developing, revising, or implementing a broad-based diversity plan particularly if it involves local business and community leaders, and/or governments. If the planning process is likely to generate dialogue that will be heated or will engage large groups of people across the campus, journalists may learn of this work. If that is the case, it may be better to proactively alert the media to the diversity planning process through a news release, or through calls to or meetings with selected reporters.

But remember that if you choose to publicize the development or implementation of a diversity plan, journalists may come back in a year or two to explore how well it is working. So be certain that there are attainable benchmarks at regular intervals, so that you can report progress.

"True diversity means accepting new members not only into our classrooms, but into dialogues about how classrooms are structured and what is taught there. Diversity is not just about 'numbers': it requires profound structural change. As we have learned to be more open to different ways of seeing, we have discovered that there always has been more diversity on campus than we ever recognized. Many of the new programs that were created to support students of color or women actually have improved the opportunities for success for all students. We will not succeed until all who come here feel a sense of ownership, until the experiences and points of view they bring are reflected in every aspect of our communal life."

-- James J. Duderstadt, former president, University of Michigan