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Opinion: Diversity in the Curriculum is the Next Step for Leadership in a Globally Interconnected World

The assault by minorities on unequal education first begun in the 1940s has resulted in a more diverse student body and faculty throughout academe. Yet without more, this matrix cannot succeed in including all students and preparing them for leadership in a globally interrelated world. To achieve full-blown diversity and fulfill the fundamental mission of higher education in America, the curriculum must change to keep pace with the dynamic of an increasingly diverse student body and professoriate.

People of color learned early that the road to opportunity leads through academia. Without education, opportunities for employment and advancement in society were limited. After they returned from World War II, African-Americans renewed their effort to vindicate their rights by enhancing their employability. The G.I. Bill that paid for veterans’ educations further spurred the effort. Longtime educational goals became attainable. Against this backdrop, the attack on “separate but equal” education began. Cases like Sweatt v. Painter (1950) and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education (1950) foreshadowed the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that separate educational facilities were “inherently unequal.” 

While Brown focused on the deficits experienced by minorities through exclusion from elementary schools, later court decisions in higher education have addressed diversity issues from a different perspective. In recent Supreme Court decisions, like Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), the reasoning has been that, without diversity, academe cannot achieve its goals of inculcating American values and preparing students for leadership at home and abroad. While the Supreme Court has ruled that diversity may not be achieved through rigid, formulaic means (such as quotas), it has reaffirmed the importance of diversity by pointing out that exposure to individuals with variant cultures is particularly important to sustaining the American edge in a globalized work environment.

While equitable access to higher education has not been fully achieved, the number of minority students in higher education has increased dramatically since Sweatt and McLaurin. There has also been an expansion in faculty diversity. Without diversity in the curriculum, however, students will not receive a complete 21st-century education. Colleges and universities have begun to develop courses that teach diversity of thought and include diverse voices. But bold change and thought about how to develop diversity in the curriculum is rare. We suggest that a three-step thought process — intentionality, infusion and iteration — can spur the crucially important process of fundamentally diversifying the higher education curriculum.

Intentionality: Focus on what we intend to accomplish in broad terms. The mission statements of virtually all American institutions of higher education reveal an intent to serve diverse students and communities and foster global leadership. This intentionality is not confined to lofty institutional mission statements or goals articulated by the Supreme Court. Professors know students need to see themselves in the curriculum in order to engage and learn. Thus, diversifying the curriculum starts when those in leadership positions embrace the intent to fulfill their institution’s fundamental mission and the well-established pedagogical goals of reaching and preparing a diverse student body.

Infusion: Develop courses that address diverse status, thought, and histories and relate diversity to significant concepts. The curriculum must be infused with content and discourse that take serious account of our differences and similarities. Leaders in academe must ask, does this course or program include essential diversity content? Does it fully address diversity of gender, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, or any other meaningful group difference? The curriculum must also be imbued with discourse about how diversity relates to other significant concepts. The concepts will vary according to field, but discourse that relates diversity to concepts such as prejudice, bias and exclusion is essential to a curriculum that prepares students for the challenges of a diverse world.

Iteration: Courses that prepare students to understand, serve and lead diverse communities work to iterate diversity goals. The academy must develop curricula that put diversity knowledge and goals into practice. The University of California’s new California Cultures in Comparative Perspective initiative actively reiterates diversity concepts and serves as a starting point for greater diversity competency in our society. Other examples of curriculum at leading institutions of higher learning that iterate diversity goals include the Columbia School of Journalism’s “The Authentic Voice,” and the University of Pennsylvania School of Education’s “Diversity in the Higher Education Curriculum.”

It is long established that an inclusive academy requires a diverse student body and faculty. The time has come for academe to infuse the curriculum with diversity content. Each course that serves diverse people reiterates the fundamental mission of higher education and our societal goals of equitable access and leadership in a globally interconnected world.

— Alison Akant and Sandra B. Durant are the principals of COMPETENT + COMPLIANT, offering diversity learning programs and consulting services to educational institutions, corporations and law firms.

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