Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Classroom

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Classroom

Article excerpt

Does It Promote Student Learning?

Since passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Higher Education Act of 1965, America's colleges and universities have struggled to increase the racial and ethnic diversity of their students and faculty members, and "affirmative action" has become the policy-of-choice to achieve that heterogeneity. These policies, however, are now at the center of an intense national debate. The current legal foundation for affirmative action policies rests on the 1978 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case, in which Justice William Powell argued that race could be considered among the factors on which admissions decisions were based. More recently, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in the 1996 Hop wood v. State of Texas case, found Powell's argument wanting. Court decisions turning affirmative action policies aside have been accompanied by state referenda, legislation, and related actions banning or sharply reducing race-sensitive admissions or hiring in California, Florida, Louis iana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Puerto Rico (Healy, 1998a, 1998b, 1999).

In response, educators and others have advanced educational arguments supporting affirmative action, claiming that a diverse student body is more educationally effective than a more homogeneous one. Harvard University President Neil Rudenstine claims that the "fundamental rationale for student diversity in higher education [is] its educational value" (Rudenstine, 1999, p. 1). Lee Bollinger, Rudenstine's counterpart at the University of Michigan, has asserted, "A classroom that does not have a significant representation from members of different races produces an impoverished discussion" (Schmidt, 1998, p. A32). These two presidents are not alone in their beliefs. A statement published by the Association of American Universities and endorsed by the presidents of 62 research universities stated: "We speak first and foremost as educators. We believe that our students benefit significantly from education that takes place within a diverse setting" ("On the Importance of diversity in University Admissions," The New York Times, April 24, 1997, p. A27).

Studies of the impact of diversity on student educational outcomes tend to approach the ways students encounter "diversity" in any of three ways. A small group of studies treat students' contacts with "diversity" largely as a function of the numerical or proportional racial/ethnic or gender mix of students on a campus (e.g., Chang, 1996, 1999a; Kanter, 1977; Sax, 1996). Gurin (1999) and Hurtado, Milem, Clayton-Pedersen, and Allen (1999) refer to this numerical or proportional "mix" of students as "structural diversity." Whether such diversity is a sufficient condition to promote student educational outcomes, however, is far from clear.

A second, considerably larger set of studies take some modicum of structural diversity as a given and operationalize students' encounters with diversity using the frequency or nature of their reported interactions with peers who are racially/ethnically different from themselves. In these studies, which might be labeled "in situ diversity studies," encountering diversity is viewed as part of the normal processes and functioning of campus life or of a campus's racial/ethnic and gender climate (e.g., Antonio, 1998; Astin, 1993; Cabrera, Nora, Terenzini, Pascarella, & Hagedorn, 1999; Davis, 1994; Gurin, 1999; Pascarella, Edison, Nora, Hagedorn, & Terenzini, 1996; Whitt, Edison, Pascarella, Nora, & Terenzini, 1999).

A third set of studies examines institutionally structured and purposeful programmatic efforts to help students engage racial/ethnic and/or gender "diversity" in the form of both ideas and people. This category includes studies of the influences of coursework and the curriculum (e.g., Astin, 1993; Chang, 1999b; Cohen, 1994; Cohen, Bianchini, Cossey, Holthuis, Morphew, & Whitcomb, 1997; Hurtado, 1999; MacPhee, Kreutzer, & Fritz, 1994; Palmer, 1999), and participation in racial or multicultural awareness workshops (e. …

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