WASHINGTON — Many colleges and universities have found that admitting a diverse student body is just the beginning of creating a diverse campus. Without conscious attempts at educating students about how to get along with others, some students may feel threatened or hostile and do things that are destructive to other students and to the campus atmosphere. Often that can lead to lower retention and graduation rates for African American and other underrepresented students, something most campuses are trying to avoid.
But there are a number of things colleges and universities can do to begin the process of educating students about living in a diverse community, some of which can have definite benefits for both education and campus atmosphere.
That, at least, is the conclusion of a new report, Models of Diversity: Pursuing Tolerance in Colleges and Universities, authored by education researcher Michael T. Nettles and his colleague at the University of Michigan, Cynthia A. Hudgins. The two evaluated 11 programs funded by grants of $100,000 or less over two or three years, which had as their purpose to lessen racial and ethnic tensions on campus.
“While colleges have been successful in admitting a more diverse group of students,” Nettles says in describing the report’s conclusions, “it takes more than just admissions to create the kind of atmosphere that they want. These are examples of types of interventions in search of the quality of diverse environment that they are aspiring to.”
Some of the campuses involved in the project had had ugly incidents, such as anti-Semitic graffiti; others had had trouble retaining their African American students, who complained about feeling like outsiders. And Bethune-Cookman — the only historically Black college or university in the study — found itself the site of some hostile interactions among students over skin tones and geographic origin.
Creating a Harmonious Atmosphere
Each of the 11 campuses tried something different, with varying levels of success. One of the programs described as outstanding was at tiny Colby College in Maine, with so few minority students — 69 out of 1,752 — that the report called minorities “as rare as glimpses of the wildlife.” Colby had identified as one of its problems that the retention and graduation rates for minority students was only 60 to 65 percent, while for White students it was 85 percent. Although Colby had instituted several programs specifically to improve recruitment and retention of African American students, including a Ralph J. Bunche scholarship and symposiums which brought such speakers as Cornel West to campus, this had not resulted in the kind of harmonious atmosphere that the administration had wanted. African American students expressed sentiments such as those appearing in a letter in a campus newspaper:
“Many of us feel as though we are on exhibition and that we are here to teach rather than learn. We educate other students in the classrooms, we educate our friends, and then we go back to our residence halls and are expected to give even more of ourselves.”
After Colby received the $100,000 Tolerance Initiative grant, from the Philip Morris Companies, it bought film equipment, offered classes in scriptwriting and filmmaking, and funded two film projects. One of the films was about two African American men from the inner city who attend college in New England and how their friendship changes as one of the men is better able to assimilate than the other. The other was about the growing understanding of a White man who saw a Black man fired for refusing to work on Martin Luther King Day.
Because the films were on an ambitious scale, they required many people’s participation — not only on campus but also in the town of Waterville. Townspeople acted, served as members of the crew, and opened their businesses as sets. Because of their participation, they also attended the film openings. Such a high degree of interaction between the campus and town has, in the words of the report, “helped eliminate some of the barriers that separated the two communities in the past.”
And because the films touched on important issues faced by Whites and African Americans in settings like Colby and Waterville, they led to important discussions which, the report says, resulted in “greater cross-cultural understanding.” The films may be used in the future as part of student orientation.
Putting the Money to Good Use
Another of the programs that was described by the report as “stellar” was at Duke University, in North Carolina, which has for years faced divisions among the student body and faculty that have roots in the segregated past. For example, many students live and socialize as part of 20 fraternities and 13 sororities which, the report says, “furthers the homogeneity of student groups.”
When Duke received $85,000 for the Tolerance Initiative grant, it solicited proposals from all the people on campus — including faculty, students, and staff — for small grants of up to $3,000 that had as their purpose building tolerance on campus. Applicants were required to submit formal proposals, and priority was given to those projects, which brought different groups together. In the first year, 23 proposals were submitted and 12 funded; the second year 32 proposals were submitted and 15 funded. Student-originated projects needed faculty endorsement, which brought more faculty involvement.
Funded projects included such things as the production and televising of a play about service employees at Duke, augmented by a literary magazine written and edited by Duke employees and assisted by about 50 Duke students. Some money went to the Student Rural Health Coalition, which sends medical and nursing school students to free health care clinics in the community. Other money went to panel discussions and social functions that required leadership from different social groups.
Because the money was spread around so widely, many people on campus thought in terms of projects that would increase tolerance, which led to many conversations over what the report calls “potentially contentious issues.”
Other colleges used the grant to directly affect the curriculum. One example is Davidson College in North Carolina, where minorities make up at most 11 percent of the student body, and class differences are stark.
According to the report, most of the minority students work and are left on campus when it empties for the cotillion season, in which most of the White students participate. Davidson used much of its grant to expand its strong study-abroad program with the development of a program in West Africa. A team of administrators, faculty, and students went to West Africa and established connections with the University of Ghana, the University of Cape Coast, Ghana, the National University of Cote D’Ivoire, and the Universite Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar in Senegal. Eventually, they established a six-week program for 10 to 15 students to study humanities at the University of Cape Coast, mirroring an already popular program with Cambridge University in England. This plan involved extended discussions among faculty members, some of whom had to be convinced of the value of an educational experience in Africa.
Bethune-Cookman, with nearly all of its students being African American from all over the country, and many students from abroad, faced different issues from the other campuses in the study. But administrators identified some serious issues regarding discrimination by geographic origin and skin tone. The report quoted college administrators as saying, “Bethune-Cookman College students tend to be intolerant and narrow-minded concerning people of different national and cultural backgrounds, despite the commonality of race. This is manifested in relationships and mutually insulting behavior.”
The college used the grant for freshman orientation sessions in which students were exposed to current research and critiques on the historical, psychological, and sociological aspects of skin color and geographic origin of people of African descent. In addition, faculty conducted research on feelings, knowledge, and attitudes about skin color among students. Students also began exploring the issue in a scholarly way.
One of the few campuses where Black-White relations were not the major focus was at Northern Michigan University, located in the upper peninsula of Michigan. The largest minority group on campus — though still only 2 percent — is Native Americans, who, according to the report, often felt like outsiders. That feeling was exacerbated by such incidents as a faculty member not allowing a Native American poem to be used in a literary project because of its perceived “inferiority.” Native American students frequently said, according to the report, that faculty members would mistake them for Anglo students and make racial slurs in their presence.
Northern Michigan University used much of its grant to begin a Native American studies program as an interdisciplinary minor. To prepare faculty to teach, workshops were conducted by experts in various aspects of Native American traditions, like storytelling. The workshops were supplemented by lectures from a host of prominent Native Americans. This intense and scholarly attention to a here-to-fore neglected topic has, according to the report, improved the climate for Native American students.
The report is part of an evaluation commissioned by the Philip Morris Companies to see how well its grants were used. It will be available on the Internet at <www.nettles.org>. Currently, the site is still under construction.
Nettles, the principal researcher on the project, is a professor at the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan. Until recently, he was the director of the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute at The United Negro College Fund.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com