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    What America Thinks
    Mixed Messages on Campus Diversity

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, Oct. 27, 1998

    Even as the number of minorities plunges at many universities around the country, large majorities of Americans say they value racial and cultural diversity on campus, believe that racial and cultural diversity enhances education and say students should be required to take classes in diversity in order to graduate from college.

    At the same time, a new national survey found that nearly four in 10 voters believe that diversity is often used as an excuse to admit and graduate otherwise unqualified students. And nearly half said "diversity education teaches multicultural elements of history and literature just to make some students feel included."

    Those are among the findings of a new national survey of 2,011 randomly selected, self-described registered voters conducted by pollster Daniel Yankelovich and sponsored by the Ford Foundation Campus Diversity Initiative.

    The poll, which its sponsors say is the "first-ever" survey of diversity in higher education, challenges and confirms conventional wisdom about diversity on campus. (To keep everyone on the same page, poll-takers asked respondents early in the questioning what the term "diversity" meant to them, and then provided this definition: "For our purposes, the term refers to differences among people with regard to their culture or background. This includes issues of race, ethnicity, social class or gender.")

    Overall, the survey found support for diversity as a goal in higher education, as well as widespread agreement that diversity benefits students. By better than a 3-1 margin, these voters surveyed said diversity on campus had a more positive than a negative effect "on the general atmosphere on college campuses."

    Rather than driving down educational standards, the survey suggests that most Americans believe diversity enhances learning. Nearly seven in 10 – 69 percent – said "courses and campus activities that emphasize diversity and diverse perspectives" have a positive effect on education, while 22 percent said the impact was negative.

    "Higher education fulfills a need by creating spaces where people from diverse backgrounds learn from and with one another," says Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. "Diversity challenges educators and students alike to reexamine our most fundamental assumptions. Above all, diversity asks us to address the links between education and a developed sense of responsibility to one another."

    According to the poll, seven in 10 said students should be required to "take a course that presents the point of view of societies other than those of Western Europe and North America." More than half – 55 percent – said students should "have to study different cultures" in order to graduate – identical to the proportion who said studying the classics of Western Civilization should be a graduation requirement.

    Two in three also said colleges and universities should "take explicit steps" to insure a diverse student body. An even larger proportion – 75 percent – said colleges and universities should make similar efforts to ensure a diverse faculty.

    One failure of the poll was to ask the hard questions about campus diversity: Just what "explicit steps" will people support? While diversity as an abstract goal may be highly valued, some efforts to enhance diversity on campus have been hugely unpopular. Preferential admissions policies for minorities, for example, have been successfully targeted for elimination in California, Texas and elsewhere. Yet national surveys suggest there are things that can be done. Outreach programs that target underrepresented groups win broad support, as do special efforts to keep minority students from dropping out.

    Social scientists are just now beginning to quantify the benefits of a diverse student body. According to a research summary that accompanied the release of the poll, campus diversity initiatives "have positive effects on both minority and majority students. They improve students' relationships on campus and affect positively their satisfaction and involvement with their institutions and their academic growth."

    "Beyond their proven capacity to improve access and retention of underrepresented groups of students," the report added, "comprehensive diversity initiatives also promote satisfaction, academic success, and cognitive development for all students."

    Americans believe diversity isn't merely a luxury, but a necessity. More than nine out of 10 voters surveyed agreed that "America's growing diversity makes it more important than ever for all of us to understand people who are different from ourselves." And a similarly lopsided proportion agree that the global economy "makes it more important than ever for all of us to understand people who are different than ourselves."

    But many voters expressed reservations about diversity. One in three respondents said "diversity education is nothing more than political correctness, which hinders true education." And a majority – 58 percent – said "diversity education always seems to have a liberal political agenda."

    Still, the survey suggests that the public clearly senses that diversity on campus, though difficult to achieve, is worth the effort.

    "This poll shows that, despite the heated public debate over diversity, Americans are very clear in their views," says Alison Bernstein, a Ford Foundation vice president. "They support diversity in higher education. They recognize that diversity is important to student success. And they believe that diversity education can help bring the country together."

    Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at morinr@clark.net .

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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