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Institutional Leadership and the Complexity of Campus Diversity
Daryl Smith, Professor of Education and Psychology, Claremont Graduate University

I recently published an overview of the emerging research on the impact of diversity on students in higher education. Writing Diversity Works: The Emerging Picture of How Students Benefit underscored the different, but interrelated dimensions of campus diversity. It also revealed to me how attending to diversity on campus brings to the surface problems in institutional structure that have existed in higher education for a long time and that impede our efforts to foster effective learning environments for all college students. While it is essential that institutional leaders understand and attend to each of the different dimensions of campus diversity, it is also important to see their interconnections.

What do we now mean when we use the phrase “campus diversity?” The term holds multiple and politically contentious meanings within and beyond higher education. A 1995 AAC&U report describes diversity as “the variety created in any society (and within any individual) by the presence of different points of view and ways of making meaning which generally flow from the influence of different cultural and religious heritages, from the differences in how we socialize women and men, and from the differences that emerge from class, age, and developed ability” (AAC&U, 1995). Seen this way, diversity on campus encompasses complex differences within the campus community and also in the individuals who compose that community. It includes such important and intersecting dimensions of human identity as race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, class, age, and ability. These dimensions do not determine or predict any one person’s values, orientation, or life choices. But they are by definition closely related to patterns of societal experience, socialization, and affiliation. They influence ways of understanding and interpreting the world.

Beyond these issues of individual identity, diversity in higher education has also come to mean, however, not just the differences among and between peoples, but also the value and significance that a community places on particular differences. Social identities and affinities emerge as significant, in part, because of the asymmetrical cultural and historical contexts in which they have been placed. Campus diversity is more, however, than a list of communal traditions and experiences with which individuals may identify and to which others may react. The term “campus diversity” has also come to refer to the variety of strategies institutions and leaders have developed to address the consequences of earlier homogeneity both at a particular institution and in higher education generally. Because of the inherent complexity of the topic and of the strategies campuses have adopted to address issues of diversity, it is essential that leaders understand diversity in a multi-dimensional way.

I have developed a conceptual framework that maps four distinct, but interrelated dimensions of diversity. The first dimension, representation, focuses on the inclusion and success of previously underrepresented groups. This is the most commonly understood element of diversity initiatives, and it has emerged from a social and historical context of exclusion and resulting underrepresentation. Campus leaders have found, however, that addressing representation necessarily involves the second dimension, campus climate and intergroup relations. This dimension addresses the impact of the collegiate environment on institutional and student success. It also addresses underrepresented groups that experience hostility or marginalization because of their backgrounds, and increasingly focuses on efforts to bring students together across boundaries. Addressing this dimension might include activities which seek to prevent students from experiencing campuses as alienating, hostile, and “chilly.” It also has come to involve identifying institutional characteristics that affect the psychosocial environment and therefore may influence all students’ experiences, levels of involvement, and academic achievement.

Increasingly, programmatic efforts are revealing the conditions under which students and others are brought together effectively to create diverse work groups and environments. This is one of the ways in which attention to diversity has brought to the surface deficiencies in how campuses have been supporting and facilitating the success of all students and have provided useful educational and co-curricular strategies that turn out to increase the academic success and satisfaction of all students. The final component of this dimension of campus diversity involves efforts to develop opportunities for genuine intergroup dialogue and action. Indeed, creating opportunities for members of a campus community to come together in dialogue and in work may be one of the important roles for higher education in our society (see “Fostering Intergroup Dialogue on Campus,” Diversity Digest, Winter, 1998).

The third dimension of campus diversity--education and scholarship--involves the inclusion of diverse traditions in the curriculum, the impact of issues of diversity on teaching methods, and the influence of societal diversity on scholarly inquiry. The core of higher education, after all, is made up of: 1) the curriculum--what we teach; 2) pedagogy--how we teach it; and 3) scholarly inquiry--what we value. Perceiving that the curriculum was connected to student success and recognizing that much had been omitted from traditional academic fields, many campus diversity efforts have focused on the curriculum--from the development of ethnic studies and women’s studies programs to the development of general education diversity course requirements (see Diversity Digest, Winter, 1997). This dimension underscores that curricular change is at its core a reflection of new areas of scholarship, new questions, and the contributions of decades of research that are now being seen as central to a good education.

We might see these curricular discussions also in relation to larger issues of institutional change for improved educational effectiveness. We might compare discussions about diversifying the curriculum to those about computing in the academy. Fifteen years ago, knowledge of computers and the use of e-mail and the Internet were peripheral for most students and faculty. Now, as educators, we have come to assume that students require knowledge of these tools to function effectively both in college and after graduation. As computer literacy has been embraced, so must the challenge of educating everyone for living in a multicultural world. The activities related to diversity in this curricular dimension have expanded, then, to include all students.

The final dimension, institutional transformation, refers to deep, reorganizing questions which build upon the many changes prompted in the earlier dimensions. The many “diversity initiatives” on campus necessarily raise questions about traditional practices and approaches. Indeed, it is clear that a focus on diversity often raises issues which have needed attention for some time. Student success in the form of graduation rates, the significance of mentors, the campus climate for many students, issues of community, intergroup and intragroup relations, links between in-class and out-of-class learning have been concerns for years in higher education. Recent diversity efforts, taken seriously from an institutional point of view, can prompt fundamental improvements in these areas. And, the research is beginning to suggest that strong and visible leadership is key to the success of any diversity initiatives.

Specifically, the research reveals that comprehensive institutional change in teaching methods, curriculum, campus climate, and institutional definition and culture provide educational benefits for both minority and majority students. Research also suggests that the perception of a broad campus commitment to diversity is related to increased recruitment and retention of students from under-represented groups and to positive educational outcomes for all students.

Diversity initiatives are often “segregated” as though they hold significance only for designated populations. In truth, the research I wrote about in Diversity Works has the most powerful implications for campuses as a whole. Higher education is rightly subject to criticism that far too many of those who enter its doors fall away. This is an issue that cuts across all populations. Campus leaders can look to diversity initiatives for a range of educational strategies that can effectively raise our levels of success, not just with specific students but with all students. Moreover, these initiatives present the promise of preparing students (and our institutions) to address, function in, and help shape a diverse and complex society. Seen this way, campus leaders may also be able to help others on campus understand why every member of the campus and larger community has a stake in supporting diversity initiatives.

To order Diversity Works: The Emerging Picture of How Students Benefit, contact AAC&U Publications Desk, 1818 R Street, NW, Washington, DC 20009; 202/387-3760; pub_desk@aacu.nw.dc.us.

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