ERIC Identifier: ED317145
Publication Date: 1989-00-00
Author: Smith, Daryl G.
Source: Association for the Study
of Higher Education.| ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education
The Challenge of Diversity: Involvement or Alienation in the
Academy? ERIC Digest.
For years, researchers have forecast the increasing diversification of
students in higher education as a result of changing demographics and a variety
of other social and economic shifts. The diverse elements of todays student body
include age, gender, ethnic and racial backgrounds, and increasing numbers of
differently abled and part-time students. Despite the difficulties inherent in
generalizing across such disparate groups and individuals, the issues higher
education faces fundamentally relate to the capacity of institutions to function
in a pluralistic environment. While it is unrealistic to assume that higher
education will solve all these challenges independent of the rest of society, it
is clear that the successful involvement of diverse populations has significant
implications for education and for the nation.
WHAT IS THE CURRENT STATUS OF ENROLLMENTS, GRADUATION RATES, AND THE CAMPUS CLIMATE?
Although the makeup of todays
student bodies is more diverse than 20 years ago, current enrollments suggest
that this trend has reversed itself for some groups. Moreover, many students are
clustered not only in segments of the post-secondary system but also in various
levels and fields. Several recent national reports have sounded an alarm that
the progress with respect to enrollments is not sufficient. Observers generally
agree that retention overall and the retention rate for certain specific
populations are critical problems for many institutions, even though
surprisingly little is known about retention for most minority populations and
for other nontraditional groups. One of the more troubling themes to emerge is
that many campuses do not effectively involve students who are different.
Students must confront stereotypic attitudes, unfamiliar values, ineffective
teaching methods, and an organizational approach that may not support their
efforts to succeed. While such concerns are prominent in the experience of
minority students, issues of stereotyping, social isolation, and alienation are
found in each of the literatures on women, disabled students, and adult learners
as well. Indeed, in contemporary higher education, the condition of diversity is
all too often a condition of alienation.
WHAT ARE THE PATTERNS IN INSTITUTIONS LABELED
Five major themes emerge from a variety of studies looking at
successful institutions. These institutions:
1. Focus on students success and provide the tools for success;
2. Have begun to develop programs for increased coordination with elementary
and secondary grades and for enhanced articulation between community colleges
and four-year colleges and universities;
3. Dedicate energy and resources to creating an accepting environment that
nourishes and encourages success;
4. Have access to good information that focuses on the institution and
5. Include leaders in the faculty and administration who provide strong
direction for these efforts.
In addition to the insights that can be developed from successful
institutions, lessons can be learned from women's colleges and from historically
black institutions. Central to their success is the presence of many
African-American and female faculty and administrators.
WHAT ARE THE FUNDAMENTAL ISSUES OF ORGANIZING FOR
The basic conceptual framework for many of the more traditional
responses to diversity has focused essentially on student assistance. These
approaches address the particular needs or problems felt to be barriers to
students success. Many institutions have broadened these efforts to include
institutional accommodations, which acknowledges that some of the barriers to
success rest with the institution itself. While these accommodations are steps
in the right direction, they are not sufficient in themselves. They should be
viewed as part of a broader effort included in the capacity of institutions to
organize for diversity. At the core of this effort will be an organizations
ability to educate in a pluralistic society for a pluralistic world. To reach
such a place requires a shift not only in thinking but also in framing the
questions we ask. The challenges of such fundamental transformation mean
grappling with a number of complex issues:
* Diversity of faculty and staff. Diverse perspectives are
required to develop organizations sensitive to pluralism.
* Mission and values. The issue of values emerges at a
number of levels. Perhaps the most challenging has to do
with the ways in which students perceive that the values
and perspectives they bring are not appreciated and may
even put them in conflict with the institutions norms and
* Educating for diversity. The content of the curriculum,
styles of teaching, and modes of assessment are three
elements in this effort.
* Dealing with conflict. The conditions for conflict are
present on many campuses. Indeed, conflict may be an
essential part of the process institutions will experience
to clarify the many complex issues involved in creating
pluralistic communities. Conflict may be part of the
institutional learning process.
* The quality of interaction. A growing body of research
evidence reflects the importance of students involvement
with the institution and peers and between students and
* The perceived conflict between quality and diversity. The
continuing message that a fundamental conflict exists
between diversity and quality is perhaps the most
compelling argument for reshaping the questions and the
discourse about this topic. We can broaden our
understanding about quality without diluting expectations
for learning or for the curriculum, but to do so will
require reframing our understanding about the meaning
of quality, the definition of standards, performance
criteria, and assessment.
WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS OF THE CHALLENGE OF
The challenge of diversity is national in scope. Given the
complexities involved, no recipes are available to create truly pluralistic
organizations. Institutions and policy makers can take some steps, however, to
facilitate the process of adequately responding to diversity.
1. A comprehensive institutional assessment can provide important data from
which priorities can be identified.
2. Cross-institutional research can identify successful institutions,
identify ways in which involvement can be promoted, and clarify often
conflicting material in the literature.
3. Coordination among the educational sectors can improve articulation and
movement between levels and types of institutions.
4. Developing programs and funds can increase the number of students who
enter teaching at all levels.
5. Organizations that succeed in meeting this challenge can also play a
significant role in educating all future teachers and citizens to function in a
6. Providing increased local, state, and national financial aid will make
access more possible for virtually every population of students.
7. Sustained commitment and effort rather than episodic interest will be
8. Leadership plays a central role, not only in setting goals and providing
resources but also in framing the questions and setting the tone for
If a single lesson is to be learned from the literature on diversity, it is
that we cannot simply add and stir. The challenges are many, but it is clear
that the process of meeting them will bring great benefits to all members of the
community and to the institution itself. The resources of diversity within an
organization are more likely to prepare it for the future than any other
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This ERIC digest is based on a new full-length report in the ASHE-ERIC Higher
Education Report series, prepared by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education
in cooperation with the Association for the Study of Higher Education, and
published by the School of Education at the George Washington University.