You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Diversity is a key issue for most colleges and universities today—how to achieve it, how to manage it. While listening to a report on NPR about Purdue’s acquisition of Kaplan University’s online learning platform, it struck me that generational diversity should be added to the list of the kinds of diversity that universities should value. Mitch Daniels, Purdue’s president, argues that the acquisition of Kaplan University extends Purdue’s land-grant mission by making the university more accessible to working adults. Kaplan’s average student is 34 years old, 14 years older than the average age of Purdue’s traditional students. The report also left me wondering what diversity means within the new, expanded opportunities for higher education where students can have a residential experience, a commuting experience, a virtual experience or any combination of these. What strategies can be used to insure that meaningful social interaction across the multiple dimensions of the modern university takes place? 

Too many universities merely host diversity without doing much to extract benefits from it. Simply assembling diversity on campus—racial, international, socio-economic, cultural, generational, etc.—accomplishes little. The juxtaposition of groups that identify themselves by race, nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc. does not necessarily lead to interaction, integration, mutual understanding or mutual respect. Rather, dialog across identity boundaries only seems to be growing progressively more contentious.

My work focuses on the international dimension of higher education. International enrollment has become a strategic goal for many institutions. The rhetoric too often amounts to a lot of “Blah, blah, blah” or, in other words, the supposed opportunity for American students to be exposed to different cultures and cultural perspectives. Too often engagement with these students goes no further than what is cynically called, “Fun, food and fashion,” as though an international week when students from abroad are meant to participate in a fashion show wearing “traditional” dress from their home country and prepare “traditional” foods for American students to sample is the same as broadening cultural perspective. During the rest of the academic year international students on many campuses tend to be invisible to their American peers. Studies show that few international students have American friends—a lost opportunity for all.

This is also often the case with students of color. Universities might be proud when statistics indicate that under-represented segments of America society are a significant percentage of overall enrollment, but then, so what? Walk into most student cafeterias and observe seating patterns. Typically, students divide themselves by race and culture. Am I suggesting that students should mix at tables in dining halls? Not necessarily, but the way students cluster may be symbolic of an issue that needs attention.

Purdue is introducing a different dimension to diversity, serving a population with unique needs that made access difficult in the past; online enrollment has created new possibilities. Older students bring valuable perspective that could enrich the experience of younger students. Is there a way to integrate adult students studying virtually with traditional-age residential students to create learning opportunities that result from the exchange of ideas and experiences?

We live in world that is rapidly breaking up into tiny factions that exist in parallel universes—even more so in virtual universes. Without interest or inclination to engage with others whose experiences are different from our own, we are headed for more conflict within our own society and with other nations. The current emphasis on “global competence” and “global citizenship” demands new skills to interact successfully with people whose perspectives and values differ from our own. These boundaries will not be easily crossed without intervention and facilitation.

It would be too easy to insist that encouraging social interaction between individuals and groups marked by some difference or another is not the role of higher education—that universities, community colleges, and technical schools are under pressure to do too many other things, not the least of them to place graduates successfully into the labor market. How can we expect these institutions with limited resources and limited time to add such an enormous responsibility to their priorities? Yet, I suggest that we ignore this objective at our peril.

Most American students grow up in homogenous communities. While diversity on many campuses is limited, it is often the most diverse environment that many students will experience as it is likely that most graduates will once again live in a fairly homogenous community. The student years are likely our best opportunity to engage them with diversity. This means finding ways to encourage the curiosity and inclination to approach an international student and engage in conversation, to ask if it's okay to join a table in the dining hall with people who look different, or to find an online study partner of a different generation. This means senior officers must find ways to motivate interaction among the broad spectrum of individuals on campus and to facilitate safe dialog between people (students, faculty and staff) whose values, opinions, and experiences differ.

The demonstrations led by teenagers around the country this past weekend proved extraordinary on many levels. What is relevant to this essay is that adults were actually listening to another generation—a very diverse group of young people demanded attention to their concerns, their fears, their needs. For one brief moment, this brought together people of different ages, colors, nations, and backgrounds in common purpose. This same diversity exists on the streets of Washington, DC every day of the week, but with little interaction or curiosity expressed between people standing shoulder to shoulder on the Metro. Part of the magic of the March for Our Lives event was that strangers conversed easily, inquired about how far they’d traveled to be present, expressed curiosity about one another. We need a lot more of this.


Next Story

Written By