Enacting Diverse Learning Environments: Improving
the Climate for Racial/Ethnic Diversity in Higher Education. ERIC Digest.
by Hurtado, Sylvia - Milem, Jeffrey - Clayton-Pedersen, Alma - Allen,
Research over the years has begun to provide important guidance in understanding
how to achieve diversity while improving the social and learning environments
for students from different racial/ethnic backgrounds. One key to enacting
diverse learning environments lies in understanding and developing programs
and policies to improve the campus climate for racial/ethnic diversity,
which involves understanding the environment from the perspectives of members
from different racial/ethnic backgrounds, creating opportunities for improved
race relations that permeate the classroom and extracurricular lives of
students, and realizing the educational benefits of diverse learning environments
for students who will need to be prepared to meet the demands of a complex,
diverse society. Given the extensive effort and progress colleges and universities
have made toward diversification in the last 20 to 30 years, it is important
to reflect on how learning and educational objectives can be maximized.
WHAT IS THE CAMPUS CLIMATE FOR RACIAL/ETHNIC DIVERSITY?
To improve the climate, one must conceptualize it in relation to racial/ethnic
diversity so that its impact can be assessed. In higher education research,
the campus climate has been defined as the current perceptions, attitudes,
and expectations that define the institution and its members (Peterson
and Spencer 1990). These common attitudes and perceptions have been conceptualized
as malleable and distinguishable from the stable norms and beliefs that
may constitute an organizational culture. This perspective of the climate
is modified by researchers who have begun to systematically assess the
climate by examining the perceptions and attitudes of various groups on
campus, and it is greatly enhanced by theories of race relations and social
psychology when the psychological climate is related to racial/ethnic diversity.
These theories present the notion that quite diverse views of the environment
emerge as a result of racial dynamics that develop on a campus. Theories
of race relations and racial attitudes assist us in understanding why an
individual or group may hold a particular view of the environment. Moreover,
although traditional notions of climate have focused on the psychological
dimension, it is linked with a historical legacy of exclusion at the institution,
its structural diversity, and behaviors on campus that include interactions
inside and outside the classroom. These aspects of the institutional context
are informed by changes in government and policy and the larger forces
of sociohistorical change in our society. This framework provides a sense
of how racial/ethnic diversity permeates many aspects of a campus environment
and the many ways in which researchers have attempted to capture aspects
of the issue of diversity on campus. A key finding emerging from this literature
is that each aspect of this framework is connected with each other. That
is, campuses can no longer speak about changes in the number of diverse
students without recognizing how this change affects the psychological
climate or opportunities for interaction across different groups on campus--
and ultimately changes in educational outcomes for students.
WHAT IMPACT DOES THE CLIMATE FOR DIVERSITY HAVE ON STUDENTS?
An important principle underlying this conceptualization of the climate
for diversity is that different racial/ethnic groups often view the campus
differently, a fact that has been confirmed in numerous studies. Further,
each conception is valid because it has real consequences for the individual
(Astin 1968; Tierney 1987). In this regard, it is realistic to find research
studies in which some elements of the climate may have more salience for
particular groups and therefore take on more importance in students' lives
as a result. Therefore, "Enacting Diverse Learning Environments"attempts
to draw from studies on many different racial/ethnic groups to provide
a balanced portrait of how different groups view the campus climate and
experience its effects. It also brings to light some of the lesser known
studies to connect them with the more widely read theory and research in
higher education, psychology, and sociology. Moreover, both researchers
and educators must acknowledge there is much to be learned from research
conducted on specific groups, including African-American, Asian Pacific-American,
Latino, Native American, and white students. Overall, the literature reveals
how the different, interrelated aspects of the climate for diversity are
linked with a broad range of educational outcomes for diverse groups of
First, the research shows that increasing the racial/ethnic diversity
on a campus while neglecting to attend to the racial climate can result
in difficulties for students of color as well as for white students. Research
has documented well how different racial/ethnic groups can experience difficulties
as a result of a poor racial climate. This research shows that individuals'
and particular groups' perceptions of the environment are not inconsequential
or intangible, but have tangible and real effects on the transition to
college and on educational outcomes. Second, many studies indicate the
importance of having diverse peers in the learning environment for important
outcomes, such as improvements in students' ability to engage in more complex
thinking about problems and to consider multiple perspectives, and improvements
in intergroup relations and understanding. Harnessing the learning that
can be achieved through contact in student peer groups is key. Third, additional
empirical studies reveal that, under certain optimal conditions, racial
conflict can be minimized and learning environments enhanced by diversity.
Much of this work suggests that providing opportunities for quality interaction
and an overall climate of support results not only in a better racial climate
but also in important learning outcomes for students. In many ways, racial/ethnic
diversity is linked with institutional goals for learning and teaching.
HOW CAN THE CLIMATE FOR RACIAL/ETHNIC DIVERSITY BE IMPROVED TO ENHANCE
THE LEARNING ENVIRONMENT?
Improving the climate may require some fundamental institutional changes.
Most basic is a conceptual shift in thinking about how diversity is central
to the institution's overall priorities for teaching and learning, which
also requires a change in how students are regarded or valued. Twelve principles
derived from the research can become central in campus initiatives to improve
the climate for racial/ethnic diversity. It begins with an articulation
of how diversity is central to education and continues with self-examination.
Second, institutions can structure opportunities for increased interaction
and involvement among students from diverse racial/ethnic groups in the
classroom and outside the classroom. A limited number of examples of promising
practices in "Enacting Diverse Learning Environments" attempt to realize
the potential benefits of racially/ethnically diverse student environments
and intentionally create opportunities for learning and interacting across
communities of difference.
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