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Student Expectations and Experiences: The Michigan Study

John Matlock, Assistant Vice Provost and Director, Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives, University of Michigan

The Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives at the University of Michigan is completing a research project which examined the impact of the University's diversity priorities on students over the course of their four years at Michigan. The Michigan Study was initiated by the university president to examine the impact of the institution's diversity emphasis. One particular concern was whether the university's thrust toward increasing diversity might create a backlash from some segments of the student community--resulting in greater racial and ethnic polarization.

This longitudinal study started in 1990 with a survey of over twenty-five hundred entering undergraduates. Follow-up surveys were conducted at the end of their first, second, and fourth years. In addition to assessing students' expectations and experiences with diversity, the study also examined many other aspects of their college experience.

The study explored the similarities and differences in the expectations and experiences of the four largest racial/ethnic groups on the Michigan campus: African Americans, Asian Americans, Latino/as, and whites. These four groups of students were very similar in their responses to questions that did not focus directly on issues of racial/ethnic diversity and multiculturalism.

The findings do not support the commonly reported view that students of color and first-generation students generally are more interested in college for pragmatic career reasons and are less involved in academic and intellectual endeavors. All groups of students at Michigan show strong academic commitment.

The study did find large group differences in responses to questions about diversity and multiculturalism and to their experiences as a minority or majority on campus. Students of color, particularly African American students, more often feel that they are not respected by faculty members. Students of color, particularly African American students, are also much more supportive of affirmative action policies.

At the same time, African American students much more often feel that the university is not truly committed to diversity. While a majority of white students support the general principle of increasing racial/ethnic diversity on campus, a majority do not support specific affirmative action policies to increase this diversity. Their support for affirmative action, however, increases over the four years--dispelling the notion that institutional emphasis on diversity results in a white student backlash.

Researchers also found that all students, but particularly white students, come from highly segregated high schools and neighborhoods. Students' friendship patterns in college tend to closely reflect this reality. Despite the talk about "self-segregation" among students of color, the study found that white students have the most segregated friendship patterns.

Institutions clearly cannot treat students as one monolithic group, because their needs and experiences vary so much. The study indicates that students have different definitions of diversity that influence their perceptions and experiences. Students of color evaluate diversity goals in terms of institutional commitments and actions. White students, on the other hand, perceive diversity in terms of social contacts with students of color. Greater emphasis needs to be placed on the benefits of diversity initiatives for all students. To succeed, these initiatives must involve the entire college community.

The final report will be available in late August. For additional information, contact Gerald Gurin or John Matlock at 313/936-1055.

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Communication Tips

This kind of research is often interesting to the media and the public, and its release can provide a way to shape public debate. Studies on how diversity initiatives affect students are especially newsworthy in today's climate in which diversity education and affirmative action are under attack.

If communicating the results is a goal, keep that in mind when designing research projects. Depending on the results, the release can take the form of: a news conference with high-ranking university leaders and diverse students; one-on-one meetings with editorial page editors or columnists who are well-versed and thoughtful on the issue; or talk show appearances on selected radio and/or television talk or public affairs programs. Don't forget to generate coverage in student newspapers and faculty newsletters as well.

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