Intercultural Learning for Inclusive
By Edgar Beckham, senior fellow, AAC&U
A recent headline in Education Life heralds
“The Changing Face of Diversity.” It describes
dramatic demographic changes at the University of California–Berkeley
and reports the concerns of some Asian students about
their numerical dominance. While an astute reader can
readily interpolate a connection between demographic
diversity and educational benefit, the text itself is
of little help. It is as though the face of diversity,
which reveals its numbers, were its only significant
The tendency to reduce the value of diversity to demographic
quantifications is most likely an unintended consequence
of the civil rights movement, which emphasized racial
and ethnic disparities as the most obvious and persuasive
manifestation of social injustice. But the tendency
may also result from a binary habit of mind that compels
us to favor simple choices over combinations, either/or
over both/and. Some of the most committed advocates
of social justice fear that locating the value of diversity
in another arena may diminish the power of their moral
On the contrary, an exclusive focus on an abstraction
like social justice without some grounding in a reality
that entertains concrete social outcomes may be counterproductive.
Just imagine being informed by your surgeon soon after
you are rolled out of the surgical suite that she had
successfully pursued social justice. A member of a minority
group cognizant of disparities in health care might
take some comfort in the pronouncement, but would likely
want additional information beyond that single fact.
The New Jersey Campus Diversity Initiative (NJCDI)
has provided a refreshing example of the added power
that can result from aligning moral arguments with strategic
interventions that promise practical value. The example
is particularly pertinent to education for two reasons.
First, since education has long been associated with
both moral principle and practical outcomes, it offers
a fertile environment for nurturing the alignment. Second,
there is growing evidence that while demographic diversity
offers a compelling marker for the pursuit of social
justice, its contribution to education is greatly enhanced
by educational strategies that exploit its catalytic
potential and put it to focused use.
NJCDI was launched in 2002 with funding from the Allen
and Joan Bildner Family Foundation, which provided three
years of funding for eight institutions in New Jersey.
The Bildners had for many years sought to fund a project
to reduce bigotry and improve intergroup relations.
They had used the services of the Philanthropic Initiative,
an organization that helps donors refine their philanthropic
goals and develop a strategy for more effective giving.
In 2002 the Bildners invited the Association of Amerian
Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) to occupy the
third side of the triangular formation that would guide
the initiative. AAC&U brought years of experience
developing and assessing diversity projects and promoting
their congruence with the aims of democracy and liberal
As thoughtful as the preparations were, it was the
work of the campuses that gave voice and visibility
to the aspirations of the initiative. Much of that work
is described in rich detail in the articles that follow.
There are many lessons worthy of attention—about
design, implementation, and assessment and about the
roles of students, faculty, institutional leaders, and
communities. Two lessons have been selected for some
elaboration here because of their centrality to the
The first, labeled “intercultural learning,”
calls attention to the imperative that diversity education
benefit all students. At NJCDI institutions, students
have learned about diversity together—they have
learned about themselves and others, not only from each
other, but in an educational context that they share
in common with each other.
The second, “making excellence inclusive,”
emphasizes an educational outcome that also embraces
all students. As AAC&U turns its attention increasingly
to this new formulation and examines the research that
supports its goals, it is becoming increasingly evident
that diversity, intercultural learning, and inclusive
excellence depend on each other for meaning, moral value,
and social significance.