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New Research on Faculty Attitudes On the Benefits of Diverse Learning Environments


More than two-thirds of faculty members responding to a recent survey reported that students benefit from learning in a racially and ethnically diverse environment. In addition, more than 40 percent noted that diversity provides interactions important for developing critical thinking and leadership skills.

These are the findings of a newly released study, "Does Diversity Make a Difference?," sponsored by the American Council on Education and the American Association of University Professors.

This study was conducted in part to respond to the need for additional research on whether diversity represents a compelling interest in the context of anti-affirmative action lawsuits. Jonathan Alger, assistant general counsel at the University of Michigan and former AAUP counsel, notes that he believes this study demonstrates that "diversity is a compelling interest because it contributes to the learning process....Race is not a proxy for a point of view, but students learn from the similarities across racial lines and the differences within groups."

The survey findings are based on three studies: 1) analyses of data from more than 570 faculty members at research universities who completed a survey on their attitudes toward, and experiences with, racial and ethnic diversity; 2) analyses of data from a survey of 81 faculty members at Macalester College, a liberal arts college in St. Paul, Minnesota; and 3) a qualitative, case study of three interactive, multi-racial/multi-ethnic classrooms at the University of Maryland, College Park. In the survey of 570 faculty members, 10 percent of respondents described themselves as "far left" politically, and 53 percent described themselves as liberal. Thirty percent identified themselves as moderate, 7 percent as conservative, and less than 1 percent as "far right."

Diversity and Student Learning Outcomes

In addition to finding that a large majority of faculty members value racial and ethnic diversity on campus the survey also revealed other things about faculty members' attitudes toward diversity. Nearly 85 percent of faculty members said that diversity has not diminished the quality of their institutions. The study at the University of Maryland revealed that a majority of faculty and students in multi-racial/multi-ethnic classrooms believes that the broader range of ideas and perspectives that result from a diverse classroom generates more complex thinking among all students. Students and faculty also agreed that learning in multi-racial/multi-ethnic classrooms has a positive impact on students' cognitive and personal development because it challenges stereotypes, broadens perspectives, and sharpens critical thinking skills.

Institutional Commitment to Diversity

Upwards of two-thirds of faculty members surveyed believe that their universities value racial and ethnic diversity. Sixty-nine percent rated having a diverse student body either 4 or 5 on a scale of 1 ("not important/irrelevant") to 5 ("extremely important"). Seventy percent agreed strongly that their university is committed to enhancing the climate for all students, and 75 percent agreed strongly that their university values extra-curricular activities that promote cultural awareness.

Women faculty members, more politically liberal faculty members, and faculty members of color have more positive views of the benefits of diversity than survey respondents as a whole. These groups also feel better prepared to deal with diversity and say they are more likely to address issues of diversity in their classrooms.

Classroom Discussion and Issues of Academic Quality

More than 90 percent of faculty members indicated that neither the quality of students nor the intellectual substance of class discussion suffers from diversity. Barely 2 percent of those surveyed said that diversity in the classroom impeded discussion of substantive issues. More than 69 percent believed that diversity was important for developing students' willingness to examine their own perspectives and more than 70 percent reported that diversity is important for exposing students to new perspectives.

Many faculty members believe that diversity in the classroom is particularly important for White students. Almost 58 percent of those surveyed reported that diversity has an impact on the issues that White students consider in the classroom. Only about one-third of respondents, however, agreed that racial and ethnic diversity increased confrontation of substantive issues--a level of agreement much lower than for the other issues.

Impact of Diversity on Faculty Teaching and Research Practices

This survey reveals that student diversity is not leading large numbers of faculty to change their teaching practices or research agendas. Slightly less than one-third of faculty respondents said that the presence of racially diverse students led them to adjust their course syllabus, and approximately one-quarter of them said that they changed their teaching methods to encourage discussion in their classes. Only about 20 percent of teachers reported developing new courses in response to a diverse student population, and roughly the same percentage reported reexamining the criteria they used for evaluating students.

Seventy-one percent of those surveyed indicated that they felt well-prepared to teach in diverse settings. Far fewer respondents said they initiate discussions of race in class (36 percent) or assign students to diverse groups (33 percent).

More senior faculty (in terms of years and rank) were somewhat less positive about the value of diversity and less likely to address issues of diversity than were respondents generally. Similarly, faculty members who reported spending more time lecturing cited more negative effects of diversity and were less positive about the benefits of diversity, while faculty members who spent more class time in discussion and other non-lecture classroom activities saw fewer negative and more positive effects of diversity.

Liberal Arts Colleges and Institutional Mission

The main survey was conducted among faculty members at large research universities. Report authors said they limited their survey to this group of institutions because such institutions have been the focus of most challenges to affirmative action and are likely to be most affected by its abolition. The report, however, also examined the mission statement and supporting documents of the 28 top liberal arts colleges in the country and researchers administered the same faculty survey to faculty members at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The official mission statements and supporting documents of the 28 top liberal arts colleges in the country (as ranked by U.S. News and World Report) all list a range of essential aspirations of college learning that go beyond intellectual mastery of a subject area. Included in six values that were cited by more than half the colleges surveyed, "learning perspectives from diversity" commands the attention of more than 60 percent of the schools. In addition, 57 percent include "tolerance and respect for others" as part of their mission statements and/or supporting documents.

The survey of faculty members at Macalester College revealed an even greater degree of support for a racially or ethnically diverse student body. Ninety-two percent said that a diverse student body is essential or very important to achieving the college's mission. Ninety-seven percent of respondents either agreed strongly (64 percent) or agreed somewhat (33 percent) that diversity enhances student learning.

Diversity in the Classroom Necessary, But Not Sufficient

Some of the findings about faculty practices and the results of the case studies at the University of Maryland reveal that racial and ethnic diversity in the classroom is important, but not enough to facilitate the creation of the most effective educational environment. Faculty participants in the University of Maryland case study said that a multi-racial/multi-ethnic classroom environment enabled them to implement their teaching methods more successfully and to enhance the curriculum with a wider range of experiences than more homogeneous classrooms permitted. They also concluded, however, that other conditions are important to maximizing the potential benefits and minimizing the potential drawbacks of racially and ethnically diverse classrooms.

The report cites several features that contribute to this effective diverse learning environment: "(1) a learning-centered rather than teaching-centered philosophy, in which the faculty member is considered only one of the classroom participants; (2) interactive teaching techniques, such as small group discussions, student presentations, debates, role-playing, problem-posing, and student paper exchanges; and (3) a supportive, inclusive classroom climate."

Implications

As president of ACE, Stanley O. Ikenberry put it, "The evidence presented in this report demonstrates that campus diversity provides educational benefits for all students--minority and white alike, and that these benefits cannot be duplicated in a racially and ethnically homogeneous academic setting. These findings should cause us to take a fresh look at efforts by universities to increase diversity, viewing them not only as a means of providing equal opportunity, but as a critical academic tool in offering students the best education possible."


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Communication tips
This kind of research by two major education associations provides opportunities to generate hard news stories which report on the new study, but also to spin off features and opinion pieces. Search for local angles to this kind of story by identifying how national trends are reflected on your campus. Consider spokespeople who can speak to the issue from a variety of perspectives.

Then use a study like this to generate discussion about the benefits of diverse learning environments on your campus or in your community. Will your college or university president, or a prominent faculty member, write a guest editorial on the subject for a state or national newspaper? Will student newspaper editors solicit the views of their readers on campus? Will your institution post an article about the study on the college or university web site? Is there a faculty member of color who might write an article or op/ed piece for a minority newspaper? Is there a prominent alumnus willing to address diverse learning environments in the alumni magazine? Pursue as many of these options as are feasible to turn a national news story into a local conversation.