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Emerging Scholars: Setting the Diversity Research Agenda

Setting the Diversity Research Agenda


Mitchell J. Chang
Title: Associate Professor, Higher Education and Organizational Change Division, Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles
Education: Ph.D., Education, University of California, Los Angeles; M.Ed., Harvard University; B.A., Personality Psychology, University of California, Santa Barbara 
Age: 40

In 2003, a broad coalition of educational institutions, foundations, corporations and public figures came to the aid of the University of Michigan as the school argued two landmark cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger represented the most significant challenge yet to race-conscious admissions policies in higher education institutions. The work of educational researchers such as Dr. Mitchell J. Chang proved pivotal to the Michigan side, as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor cited their work in the Grutter  case opinion. The court’s decision upheld the use of race-conscious admissions policies in American higher education.

O’Connor’s opinion cited the book Compelling Interest: Examining the Evidence on Racial Dynamics in Colleges and Universities, which Chang co-authored and co-edited. He says the book represented the culmination of research efforts by scholars over the better part of a decade. The book, and O’Connor’s reference to it in the Grutter decision, has brought a measure of attention to Chang, a faculty member at the University of California, Los Angeles’ Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

“Mitchell Chang is one of a handful of scholars interested in diversity issues. [He’s] quite skilled at working with very large data sets and doing quantitative work,” says Dr. Don T. Nakanishi, a UCLA professor of social sciences and comparative education and a colleague of Chang’s.

Chang is a modest individual who spent much of his teen years and early adulthood surfing the waves off the California coast. Born in Taiwan, he immigrated with his family to northern California when he was five years old. His father was an engineer in San José, the heart of Silicon Valley. But Chang didn’t gravitate towards science and engineering. He was an adequate but unspectacular high school student, preferring the beaches to the books.

Ironically, Chang’s admission application was rejected by UCLA. He enrolled instead at UC-Santa Barbara, where he began to excel academically.

“I started to really like learning. I recall at times leaving the library and feeling really jazzed by what I was studying,” he says.

After completing graduate study at Harvard University, Chang  returned to California in the early 1990s. He worked as a school evaluator in the San José public school system, where he encountered students from impoverished communities as well as from a range of immigrant communities. The experience eventually led him to pursue a Ph.D.
Partly motivated by the national controversy over affirmative action, Chang turned his academic attentions to the question of diversity in higher education. When it came time to write his dissertation, he attempted to answer the question that arose during many of the affirmative action lawsuits. The question was, “Does racial and ethnic diversity add to the value of student learning outcomes?” says Chang.

“We thought [the question] could be empirically tested,” he adds.

As a result of his dissertation work, Chang was recruited by Dr. Kenji Hakuta, then a Stanford University professor, to work as a postdoctoral scholar on a diversity research project that would eventually lead to the writing and publication of Compelling Interest.

Last year, Chang teamed up with his renowned UCLA colleague, Dr. Sylvia Hurtado, to initiate another multi-year diversity research project. The National Institutes of Health is funding the $1.7 million project.
“Research humbles you. It makes clear what you know and what you don’t know,” Chang says.

— By Ronald Roach

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