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Winter 01
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Diversity Workshops: New Research
David Tritelli, Editorial Associate, AAC&U

A growing number of U.S. colleges and universities are using diversity workshops to facilitate intergroup dialogue and to foster intercultural understanding. The widespread use of these workshops signals recognition of the importance of diversity as an institutional priority. Yet despite their increasing prevalence, diversity workshops are a relatively underexamined innovation. A recent study conducted by researchers at Bryn Mawr College provides welcome insight into current practices and indicates a clear need to assess the effectiveness of diversity workshops.

The study, published in the College Student Journal, presents the results of a survey of 281 administrators responsible for organizing campus diversity workshops from a random sample of 356 traditional four-year colleges and universities. The institutional characteristics of the sample were varied, and the researchers report an overall return rate of 79 percent. The survey was conducted by telephone interview.

How Prevalent Are Diversity Workshops and Who Participates?

The study found that diversity workshops have been adopted by a majority of U.S. colleges and universities (70 percent) as a way to improve communication between majority and minority groups on campus. It also demonstrates the rapidity with which diversity workshops are being adopted. Ninety-three percent of the respondent institutions with workshops have introduced them since 1986, and most students eligible to participate in the workshops (64 percent) do so. In addition, the study found that nearly all institutions surveyed offer diversity workshops to students, while only about half offer them to faculty and staff. Although diversity workshops are exclusive to freshman orientation at some institutions, most schools make diversity workshops available to all students. And fewer than half of the schools currently offering workshops require that students attend.

What Is the Nature of Diversity Workshops?

Diversity workshops depart from more traditional modes of academic instruction; they are highly interactive and experiential. In the typical workshop, approximately 25 participants meet for an average of two hours. The most common practice calls upon participants to share their personal experiences with bias or discrimination. This method was cited by 92 percent of survey respondents. Other methods commonly used include group exercises designed to explore ethnic difference, to facilitate personal contact with minority participants, or to discuss incidents that have occurred on campus. Role playing and behavioral training are also used. It is surprising that diversity workshops, which the researchers describe as "arguably the fastest growing innovation in the history of U.S. higher education," have so far failed to attract the interest of educational researchers. Moreover, it is equally surprising that such a prevalent intervention in campus social relations has yet to attract the interest of social scientists.

The Need for Evaluation

Perhaps the most important of the study's findings is that "no institution has undertaken an evaluation of the impact of diversity workshops on the beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors of participants." At most schools (81 percent), diversity workshops conclude by soliciting participant feedback. This feedback, which is designed only to measure the level of participant interest and to evaluate the performance of the workshop leader, is generally very positive. Further, diversity workshops appear to be very well regarded by administrators, who tend to view them as a worthwhile investment. This feedback does not assess the impact of the workshops on participants, but instead is used to refine the workshops. The survey further found that most campuses (66 percent) do not conduct any follow-up evaluation.

Facilitator Training

The study indicates that the selection and training of workshop leaders varies widely. A significant minority of survey respondents (23 percent) described their workshop leaders as "self-taught." As is the case with those responsible for organizing campus workshops, practical experience appears to be valued over academic or professional background when selecting leaders to conduct diversity workshops. Workshop leaders are typically culled from the administration, the faculty, and/or the student body. In some cases, outside consultants are used. Most schools provide some training to workshop leaders, although this training is seldom based in the curriculum.


The adoption of diversity workshops by an increasing number of U.S. colleges and universities and the high rate of student participation signal a growing recognition of the importance of diversity-related issues on campus. This study clearly indicates, however, that much more assessment is needed in order to ensure that these workshops are succeeding. We need to know much more about how they are contributing to the development of students' skills and knowledge of diversity. Some preliminary evidence suggests we need to probe more deeply into ways diversity workshops can sometimes disrupt a student's view of the world and to address the emotional after-effects of participating in a workshop to promote intergroup dialogue. Given the educational and civic importance of diversity, this information will be crucial to our efforts to educate students for today's world.

Source: McCauley, Clark, Mary Wright, and Mary E. Harris. "Diversity Workshops on Campus: A Survey of Current Practice at U.S. Colleges and Universities." College Student Journal, 34 (1), 100-114.

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Workshop classroom

The adoption of diversity workshops by an increasing number of U.S. colleges and universities and the high rate of student participation signal a growing recognition of the importance of diversity-related issues on campus.

Communication tips
The study reported in the College Student Journal identifies trends, which the media likes to cover. Research like this is "hard news"--because it contains data, it lends itself to stories that can be placed in the front sections of newspapers and aired during the first few minutes of news broadcasts.

Coordinate with your public information office to make the most of any diversity-related research that you may conduct. Look for ways to promote the news in a variety of media outlets that reach many different audiences--from college or university websites to ethnic news outlets to alumni publications to student newspapers to mainstream media.

Explore spin-off stories that will help you keep your research results in the news. For instance, consider allowing a columnist to join a selected portion of a diversity workshop, or encourage him/her to interview participants after the workshops to report on what they learned and how they will approach their work differently as a result of the dialogue that took place. Or ask a senior administrator or faculty member to write an article or op/ed piece about how the institution has changed since diversity workshops became more prevalent.