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Whatever Happened to the Goal of Integration?

Carol Schneider, Executive Editor, Diversity Digest, and Executive Vice President, AAC&U

When we chose "Student Experience" as one of the Diversity Digest priorities almost two years ago, we never imagined that we would be returning to basic questions about access or facing a resegregation of our campuses. More than thirty years ago, segregation in higher education became illegal. Campus leaders initiated efforts to integrate the nation's campuses. American higher education is indeed far more integrated today than ever before. However, as we know, much remains to be accomplished before all students who desire it are participating in higher education at the peak of their potential.

As campuses become more diverse, we increasingly recognize that different students require distinct and varied kinds of educational support. We also realize that campus diversity contributes powerfully to the dynamism and effectiveness of higher learning.

This issue of Diversity Digest explores new realities that emerge from this transformation of college campuses. Stories reveal how engagement with societal diversity can be a fundamental part of college learning and students' college experience--in the classroom and beyond.

Losing Ground?

Despite the encouraging innovations described in this issue, there is good reason to worry that we are in danger of losing ground in making higher education more inclusive and responsive. Decisions to stop considering race as one factor among many in admissions are threatening to plunge selective campuses back to the 1950s--at least in terms of their racial diversity.

When this issue went to press, it appeared that the University of Texas School of Law would have no African American students in next year's entering class. Public graduate schools in California, as a result of the recent Board of Regents decisions to halt affirmative action policies, are also facing dramatic drops in the numbers of students of color applying and being admitted to next year's classes.

How did this happen? While many of us recognize how much will be lost if we move away from proactive admissions efforts, increasing numbers of Americans seem to support policies that will severely impede access to higher education for many students of color.

Have we done enough to help the nation recognize the stake it holds in higher education's success in effectively serving a diverse citizenry?

Inclusion Is More Than Access

Higher education has been on a steep learning curve in its engagement with student diversity. As campuses have gained experience in recruiting and working with students once excluded, we have become more sophisticated in our understanding of what it means to end segregation. But perhaps we were too busy doing this work to explain to the broader public why it is important to the nation. We need to redouble our efforts in this area--if only to set the record straight.

Some observers charge that higher education doesn't seem to currently value integration. They cite anecdotal stories of campus balkanization, even if they run counter to research data (see Student Expectations and Experiences: The Michigan Study).

While few higher education leaders still use the term "integration" to describe their goals, higher education has not given up on providing access to more students. But access is only a small part of "inclusion." We now know that higher education's initial efforts at "integration" too often conveyed to "new" students an expectation that access simply meant assimilating to an existing cultural norm.

Recognition, Campus Climate, and New Learning

Students have challenged this assimilationist model. They seek acknowledgment, in both campus programming and curriculum, that there are multiple cultural traditions in this country and that all have value. Research offers persuasive evidence that educational effectiveness requires campuses to meet students where they are.

Changes in campus culture and climate are important dimensions of success. We now see that for a campus to be supportive of all its students, everyone needs to change--from staff to faculty to administrators.

Forging Strong Communities

All this attention to cultural diversity and recognition of distinctive cultural traditions in campus programming and in the curriculum does not mean giving up on the goal of community. In searching for community, however, we are also learning to take account of particularity. Instead of assuming that community can be based on the denial of diverse cultural heritages and experiences, we are learning to help students develop a strong sense of their own distinctive heritages and identities. And we are also creating spaces--in the classroom and in the community--where students come together to learn from one another about issues important to our society.

Giving Up a Competitive Advantage?

In the long run, higher education's effective engagement with societal diversity contributes to American resilience and vitality. Inclusion of all parts of our society in higher education prepares graduates experientially and intellectually for a culturally complex world. With more than 75 percent of high school graduates going to college, this is what business would call a decided competitive advantage.

But we can hardly educate students for the challenge of a diverse society if our campuses revert to racial homogeneity. Higher education depends on a fundamental commitment to access. It's time to ask whether we really believe in educational excellence and opportunity for all.

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