Racial groups

A New Manhattan Project

The seemingly endless debates about the pros and cons of race-based affirmative action point to two essential conclusions. First, without denying the relevance of moral or philosophical arguments and legal principles, it is important to confront claims with empirical evidence. This is what we do in our new book, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal — a study of how students’ racial and social class backgrounds are intimately intertwined with the selective college experience. We find, for instance, that:

  • Compared to white applicants at selective private colleges and universities, black applicants receive an admission boost that is equivalent to 310 SAT points, measured on an all-other-things-equal basis. The boost for Hispanic candidates is equal on average to 130 SAT points. Asian applicants face a 140 point SAT disadvantage.
  • "Descendant" black applicants (those who are in the fourth-or-higher immigrant generation and single race — to a first approximation, the descendants of the American slave population) are admitted to selective colleges at significantly higher rates than "vanguard" black candidates (students who are multiracial and/or first- or second-generation immigrants). Even so, vanguards make up close to 60 percent of all black students on private college campuses and nearly 25 percent at public universities. Vanguards represent even larger shares of black applicant pools.
  • We find evidence for and against a "mismatch" hypothesis. Students who are the beneficiaries of race-based affirmative action are more likely to graduate, more likely to enroll in professional or graduate schools, and more likely to have higher lifetime incomes if they attend a more selective college. However, class rank at college graduation for a given student is likely to decline as college selectivity goes up. On balance, we conclude that a higher graduation rate and the other advantages of attending a more selective institution more than outweigh the potential disadvantages of lower class rank at graduation.
  • Doing away with racial preferences for underrepresented minority students would substantially reduce the number of such students at selective colleges. No admission policy that we have examined is able to replicate underrepresented minority student shares at selective universities if affirmative action is eliminated. This includes policies that substitute class-based for race-based affirmative action.

A second and more important conclusion is that debating the relative merits of affirmative action deflects attention away from something much more fundamental — America’s racial gap in academic achievement. Fixing the achievement gap would obviate the need for affirmative action to create racially diverse campuses. This gap is observed in the pre-college academic records of applicants in our study, and it persists among first-year students. For instance, the average SAT score among entering Asian students in the sample of competitive colleges we studied is 225 points higher (on a 1600-point scale) than the average for black students. More than three-quarters of Asian students graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school class, in contrast to less than one-half of black students. Academic performance in college shows similar racial disparities, whether it is measured by six-year graduation rates or by class rank.

What we see at selective colleges and universities is just the tip of the iceberg. It is symptomatic of a much broader societal phenomenon. Racial gaps in academic skills and knowledge begin to develop soon after birth. They are reflected initially in children’s inventories of vocabulary words and later in tests of math and reading. By the time of kindergarten entry, black children lag about one year behind whites. Gaps continue to grow throughout the elementary and secondary school years in a pattern of cumulative advantage and disadvantage. By 12th grade, black students on average have fallen roughly four years behind whites. Hispanic students perform slightly better than blacks but not nearly at the level of white and Asian students. The likelihood of repeating a grade, lower-track placement in high school, and graduating high school are differentiated by race in the same way. Social class differences account for some of these gaps, but the gaps remain when income and other measures of socioeconomic status are held constant.

A skeptic might reasonably ask: "How much does this really matter?" For one thing, the racial academic performance gap lies at the heart of many adult forms of social and economic inequality. What starts off as a racial gap in school readiness quickly becomes an academic achievement gap, which is followed by a graduation gap, a labor-market skills gap, a wage gap, and eventually a poverty gap. The chain of cumulative causation extends well into adulthood. Racial gaps in academic accomplishment have been linked to racial differences in educational attainment, crime, health, and family structure. There is every reason to believe that these differences in adult outcomes would be reduced if a way could be found to narrow racial performance gaps among children and adolescents.

An additional reason to be concerned is that racial gaps in academic success have implications for workforce quality and the competitiveness of the U.S. economy. Poorly educated Americans face a number of growing hurdles. There are important racial and ethnic differences in the distribution of job-related skills; nearly half of all new jobs being created in the U.S. require a college degree; and the Hispanic plus non-Hispanic black share of the workforce is increasing. Added to this is the fact that global forces are putting pressure on American families with inadequate education. The end of the cold war and the integration of China, India, and the former Soviet-bloc republics into the international market-oriented, capitalist production system effectively doubled the number of workers in the global economy from about 1.5 billion in 2000 to 3 billion. Whereas unskilled U.S. workers once had to compete only with other unskilled Americans, now poorly educated Americans have to compete with unskilled, low-wage workers anywhere in the world. At the very time we need a better educated population to compete with other rapidly modernizing countries and to avoid a decline in living standards, growth in the quality of the U.S. workforce has slowed or stagnated.

The challenge facing all Americans is to identify the factors responsible for the racial academic achievement gap and close this gap as soon as possible. Time alone is an unreliable ally. Given the slow rate of convergence in black-white test outcomes over the past 30 years, it is likely to take another century to reach parity. The No Child Left Behind Act aims to eliminate the racial gap in academic achievement by the end of the 2013-14 school year, but no serious observer believes this goal will be met. Test scores have been rising for all students, but racial gaps persist. There is general agreement about the broad set of factors responsible for the achievement gap. Home environments, schools, and neighborhood conditions, among other determinants, have been implicated. But no one knows for sure how all of these factors interact or what their relative importance is. Most critically, there is no consensus on the most effective intervention strategies.

So What is to Be Done?

To address this problem, we propose in our book the equivalent of a Manhattan Project for the social and behavioral sciences — a project with the same scale, urgency, and sense of importance as the original Manhattan Project. Its aims should be twofold: (1) to identify the causes and cumulative consequences of racial gaps in academic achievement and (2) to develop concrete steps that can be taken by parents, schools, neighborhoods, and the public sector all working together to close these gaps on a nationwide scale. We should not be satisfied with demonstrated success in pilot studies on a local level.

The project we envision is an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking, likely on a scale previously unimagined in social or behavioral science research. It will have to monitor the lives of a large sample of children — perhaps as many as 50,000 — who are followed from birth to roughly age eighteen, or onto the first rung of their postsecondary plans. Data generated by this project will doubtless consume the time of hundreds of graduate students, faculty, and research scientists at our leading research and teaching institutions.

All Americans stand to benefit from the knowledge and action plan derived from this project, especially individuals whose life chances will be made brighter as a result. But there are several groups that have a particular stake in its success:

Higher education. As we have shown in our simulations, if black-white and Hispanic-white achievement gaps are closed, affirmative action policies would no longer be needed at selective colleges and universities to preserve current shares of underrepresented minority students on campus. This issue takes on greater urgency because of the 25-year sunset provision for affirmative action suggested in Sandra Day O’Connor’s 2003 majority opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger and the realization that students going to college in 2028 will be born next year.

Corporate America. Achievement gaps impede diversity in the workplace, not only in entry-level positions but up and down the corporate ladder. All too often one finds a shrinking diversity pipeline as one looks at upper levels of management. Closing the achievement gap would help expand this pipeline.

U.S. taxpayers. Many of our public policies and programs are directed to combating the symptoms of the achievement gap, but this approach is both expensive and inefficient. Individuals with improved education and greater labor market success have higher earnings, pay more in taxes, and make fewer claims on public services.

Philanthropic sector. Identifying successful intervention strategies will give foundations concerned with child welfare and, especially, the education of children and adolescents a clearer idea of where to target resources.

The racial gap in academic performance plays a much more central role in problems that loom large today than almost anyone realizes. That is why we call this gap “the most pressing domestic issue facing the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century.” Closing the achievement gap has the potential to do more for race relations and racial equality in this country than any other initiative currently under consideration.

Thomas J. Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford
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Thomas J. Espenshade is professor of sociology at Princeton University. Alexandria Walton Radford is a research associate in postsecondary education with MPR Associates Inc. in Washington.

Diversity's Next Challenges

In the early 1990s, two social psychologists conducted an experiment to see whether our society’s negative racial stereotypes affect the learning experience of students in our educational institutions. They selected a group of black and white Stanford undergraduates and gave them a test made up of items from the advanced Graduate Record Examination in literature. The students had been statistically matched for ability, and since most of them were sophomores, the GRE-based test was intentionally chosen so that it would be challenging and difficult for them.

The psychologists – Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson – wanted to see if there were differences in the way students of similar academic background but from different racial groups experienced a test that is supposed to be scientific and "objective." In particular, they wanted to see whether simple cues provided in the testing environment would affect the students’ performance. The cues they provided casually were intended to refer indirectly to negative social images; their goal was to see, in short, if negative social stereotypes were mere words, or if they had the power of sticks and stones (for a basic overview, see “Thin Ice”).

What they found was startling. When the test was given to the students as an abstract test of intellectual ability (the cue from the examiner echoing social prejudices about IQ tests), the black students in the group performed less well than the white students. When, however, they presented the same test as a study of "how certain problems are generally solved," with a clear statement that the task did not measure intellectual ability in general, the black students' performance improved dramatically and now their scores matched those of the white students.

Experiments such as this one have been carefully replicated by researchers in various countries and they consistently produce the same measurable effect – not only in the case of racial stereotypes but also those concerning gender and class. The series of experiments Steele and his colleagues conducted revealed to them that all our current beliefs about bolstering self-confidence and eliminating socially produced self-doubt are much less relevant to the learning context than we think.

Instead, what the black students revealed was that they were responding to their educational environment with "social mistrust.” “When they felt trust,” says Steele, summarizing the results of this series of experiments, the students “performed well regardless of whether we had weakened their self-confidence beforehand. And when they didn’t feel trust, no amount of bolstering of self-confidence helped." He goes on to suggest that educational policy needs to recognize how "different kinds of students may require different pedagogies of improvement."

Steele says that we need to think about “fostering racial trust” if we want to improve the educational environment for vast numbers of American college students. This proposal – and the groundbreaking research on which it is based – goes to the heart of the discussion of what we may call "the future of diversity." The proposal takes us beyond our current – perfectly justified – concern with providing more students "access" to college. It forces us to think about what our campuses feel like to those who come to learn.

Social trust or mistrust are not merely attitudinal matters, to be left up to those who are affected by them, that is, the students; trust and mistrust – as we see in the case of the cues provided in the psychology experiments – are produced by our actions as teachers and administrators, and they reveal much more than our personal intentions as individuals. As many have argued in recent decades, trust is a social achievement and it takes us beyond our contractual obligations to be legally fair. Trust and mistrust are often defining characteristics of the environment in which we all live and function, and they can exist even in the absence of overt discrimination. So the real question is whether our students experience our educational institutions as being trustworthy.

Far from being content with recruiting greater numbers of socially underprivileged students, staff, and faculty, we need to see the ideal of social trust as a positive challenge to re-imagine the culture of our campuses, to envision a culture that will be more conducive to learning precisely because it is more open, democratic, and genuinely attentive to the experiences of different social groups. Diversity needs to be conceptualized not only from the perspective of access (admissions, recruitment, financial aid, etc.) but also – and equally importantly – from the perspective of the campus as a learning environment for different kinds of learners.

A forthcoming volume, The Future of Diversity: Academic Leaders Reflect on American Higher Education (Palgrave Macmillan) contains essays by academic leaders from a variety of American institutions on both these perspectives – access and the culture of learning. How do we broaden access to more kinds of social groups? How do we make our campuses more genuinely inclusive? How do we conceive social diversity as a valuable educational resource, rather than a problem to be managed or solved? How, finally, do we replace the mistrust many feel – and the inequality of access, opportunity, and experience it points to – with the kind of social trust on which all learning, and indeed the very ideal of democracy, depends? These are big and general questions, and the prominent academics who have contributed to this volume – university and foundation presidents, deans, leading scholars -- address them by drawing in part on their own specific experiences. They review what we have all learned from recent history – from the Supreme Court’s verdict on the University of Michigan’s use of affirmative action to experiments on various campuses involving students from different cultural backgrounds – and they make concrete proposals for the future.

One of the challenges is to imagine a diverse campus as a valuable and unique learning environment, one that is in effect a social laboratory of sorts. Nancy Cantor – president of Syracuse University and former provost of the University of Michigan (during the critical period when the recent Supreme Court cases were being prepared) -- argues that university campuses have a special role to play in building the future of our multicultural and diverse society. Cantor argues that "healthy group dynamics" are critical "if we are to open up our institutions (and the power within them and conferred by them) and transcend the destructive fault lines of our society, thereby building the capacity for – and trust in – democratic culture beyond the campus." Cantor’s central point is that the campus culture needs to be organized in such a way that it respects the "delicate balance between strong group identification and vibrant inter-group exchange."

Like many psychologists, Cantor affirms the importance of group identification for the psychological well-being of those who are from socially marginalized groups, thus implicitly rejecting the popular notion that group identities are necessarily opposed to the non-parochial ethical perspective required of citizens of a democratic society. She also focuses on the importance of "normalizing" conflict, of raising – through "mutual respect and healthy interaction" – our consciousness of conflict so that we see it as a potential source of knowledge, a vitally important knowledge in a democratic society that thrives on difference (of background, of views, of life experiences).

A second issue arises when we think about the roles played by different kinds of universities, especially non-elite and regional institutions. Campuses like Rutgers-Newark or Michigan-Dearborn serve first-generation immigrant families and provide an educational experience in which socio-cultural diversity defines the learning environment, one that reflects the rich diversity of both American society in general and the increasingly globalized world in which we all live. But Steven Diner, chancellor of Rutgers-Newark, points out that while his alumni recognize the value of this environment and talk about it eloquently, the mainstream culture seems to lack the tools with which to measure its value. Daniel Little, chancellor of Michigan-Dearborn, makes this point in more general terms. While elite status and financial resources are valuable, he says, they do not guarantee a superior educational experience, for a quality education depends on a combination of factors, chief among which is the conscious planning and coordination by various levels of the campus leadership – the administration and the faculty. Diner and Little point to the crucial role played in any democratic society by regional and urban institutions in providing access and social mobility to immigrants and those from lower income groups. If the goal is to reduce social inequality through education, then regional and urban universities need to be both recognized and supported by policy makers at not just the state level but also nationally.

The scandalous truth is of course that American educational policy is weak precisely on a national level, since funding of public universities has generally been left entirely up to the states. What the recent economic downturn makes clear, however, is that American higher education, which has traditionally been the engine of the country’s economic development, has fallen behind dramatically, and that is mainly because of the erosion of federal funding and our myopic social policies about lower income groups. As the economist Paul Krugman points out in The New York Times, education and social mobility suffer because of largely invisible economic policy decisions, the net effect of which is that American higher education is no longer available to the population at large. Krugman considers this predictable result of myopic national policy to be “a large gratuitous waste of human potential,” and calls for Congress to take appropriate measures. “Education made America great,” he points out, and goes on to issue a timely and urgent warning: “neglect of education can reverse the process.”

Noting the need to address social inequality in the broader national context, Eugene Tobin [former president of Hamilton College and co-author – with William Bowen and Martin Kurzweil -- of Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education (2005)] recommends that at least the top universities, private and public, consider putting a "thumb on the admission scale" by taking low-income status at least as seriously as we now take race. Research shows that students from less affluent backgrounds, once admitted, go on to do at least as well as those from more affluent ones. Broader considerations of social justice would necessitate that colleges and universities take class seriously in their definition of social diversity. Income-based preferences in admission, Tobin argues, should be seen as a necessary complement to the race-based programs that have been so successful in diversifying the major colleges and universities that have initiated such programs in recent decades.

All these attempts to imagine a more genuinely diverse academic campus have an interesting implication: academic "excellence" can be achieved only if we recognize the social conditions in which learning takes place. Our efforts to promote excellence on our campuses are closely tied to our ideals of democracy and diversity, and these efforts cannot be successful if we do not question our deeper assumptions about what success is and what produces an effective culture for the work of scholarship and teaching. For such work is not done by abstract individuals but by socially embodied beings, with socially produced strengths and vulnerabilities, and any attempt to think about the educational culture of a campus must focus on the actual experiences of faculty and students from a variety of social backgrounds. This requires a rethinking of some of our most basic theoretical assumptions as well as a reexamination of our traditional habits and practices.

One of these theoretical assumptions concerns the nature and value of what is called "objectivity." It is possible to worry that while taking the subjective experiences of students and faculty of color, for instance, into account may improve the campus culture in some respects, it compromises the objectivity of our approach as senior faculty or administrators. That worry is based on the understanding of objectivity as pure “neutrality,” and there are reasons to doubt that this conflation of objectivity with neutrality is intellectually justified. Modern philosophers often talk about the need to see objectivity as a context-sensitive value rather than the product of an abstract and a-contextual attitude of neutrality. So in contexts where unfairness is built into the environment because of half-conscious habits and practices that echo and reinforce prejudices prevalent in the social mainstream, genuine objectivity may itself be the product of a conscious effort to examine our assumptions rather than of a neutral approach – as evidenced, for instance, in "color blind" or "gender blind" policies. What seems fair and just to a member of one social group is not in fact experienced in the same way by members of a group that is, say, the target of negative social stereotypes.

One of the most revealing experiments done by Steele’s colleagues showed that what targets of negative stereotype threat respond to most favorably is a clear message that while the test is tough the evaluation will be fair – that the students’ social identities will not be a factor in the way their academic performance is judged. In thinking about the culture of a genuinely inclusive learning environment, then, the first great challenge for us may be to remind ourselves that what is needed is not so much sentimental partiality as -- ultimately -- greater objectivity. The assurance of genuine fairness can restore social trust. The future of diversity on our campuses depends on our thinking hard about restoring to education and learning the healthy environment of mutual trust and respect in which alone they can thrive. And while social forces beyond our immediate control do much to diminish this trust, the joy – indeed the magic and mystery – of learning is that it can transcend such forces. The world pervades our classrooms and our laboratories, but it does not wholly determine what can be achieved in them.

Both recent research in social psychology and the academic leaders I have been quoting suggest that there is an urgent need for all of us to coordinate our efforts to re-imagine our campuses and to work toward making them the laboratories that they can be -- of the future society we hope to build. Social diversity is about more than just numbers. Most importantly, it is not a "problem" to be solved, but rather an enormous social and educational resource that is waiting to be tapped. From admissions to sports to the designing of the curriculum and of non-curricular interactions, the practical and theoretical challenges posed by a campus’s “diversity” are the gateways to a more democratic national future.

Satya P. Mohanty
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Satya P. Mohanty is professor of English at Cornell. He is director of the national Future of Minority Studies Summer Institute, funded since 2005 through grants by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Future of Diversity, which he co-edited with the philosopher Daniel Little (chancellor of the University of Michigan at Dearborn), will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in June 2010.

The Climate Is in Your Head

“This is my favorite Jewish joke of all time and I share it with you…. In this Jewish restaurant in New York in the Lower East Side, on a very humid summer’s evening, one of the diners, a rather loud and not entirely civilized individual, schlepps the waiter over and says: 'Waiter, it’s too hot in here. Put the air conditioning on.' The waiter goes out and comes back a few minutes later. Ten minutes later he says: 'Waiter, it’s now too cold. Turn the air conditioning off.' The waiter goes out. A few minutes later he calls him over for a third time: 'Waiter, it’s too hot again. Turn the air conditioning back on.' As the waiter is about to go out for the third time, a man just by the door says: 'Waiter, I feel so sorry for you. This man must be driving you mad' and the waiter says: 'Well no, actually, I’m driving him mad. You see, there is no air conditioning.' This joke was enough to tell me that sometimes the climate in your head matters as much as the climate out there."

--The Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks of England, June 2010

For the second consecutive year, we have held a diversity "summit" for all 35 institutions in the state of Georgia. Our system is a large one, with over 311,000 students, and the faculty, staff, facilities, leaders, and communities it takes to serve them well. So an institution as sizable as ours can't help but capture the human diversity that is America – by race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, political party, country of origin, physical capability, and of course, ideas. At our first summit, in the fall of 2009, we tackled the chronic challenges most all colleges and universities face: faculty hiring, diversity plans, staff shortages in disability services, the relationship of diversity to state economic development, and various infrastructure and policy issues that are vital if not always scintillating.

This year, we decided to focus on the interpersonal dynamics of conversation about difference – what the Ford Foundation has labeled "difficult dialogues" and we called "courageous conversations." The goal was to put aside the structural matters, like hiring and setting up the right administrative arrangements, and get to the more emotional, fraught dimensions of diversity. To that end, our invited speakers -- academics, consultants, and students -- focused on the psychological and sociological aspects of difference and tolerance, with a great emphasis on the elusive stuff that is so hard to measure. I realize, now that our meetings have ended, that Rabbi Sacks’ notion of the "climate in your head" best fits what we were trying to tackle – all 200 of us faculty and administrators, gathered in the same room for dinner, breakfast, lunch, and conversation.

While everyone in attendance was game for some tough dialogue, and more important, learning how to introduce hard conversations onto campuses, few of us were prepared to do any introspection. After all, we already believe in diversity, which is why we organized the event, took two days out of our schedules to be there, and -- for many in attendance -- even hold positions with "diversity" in the title. While the sorts of leaders who head up diversity and inclusion efforts are as cynical as everyone else in America is right now, we are generally the upbeat types who do see civility and multiculturalism as central to what we do.

Three very different speakers – a historian (Tom Sugrue of the University of Pennsylvania), a psychologist (Layli Maparyan of Georgia State University), and a high-powered educational consultant (Glenn Singleton) all told us the same thing, in the most non-touchy-feely of ways: Don’t try to teach inclusion or lecture others about diversity unless you feel it in your gut. Do you? If you don’t, forget trying to be effective on your own campus. They were not asking us to go to church, or synagogue, or mosque, or the woods for perfunctory meditation to confirm with our own selves that we are in fact without prejudice. They asked more than that, urging us to evaluate our own attitudes in a rigorous, systematic way and, in Singleton’s words, "experience discomfort" and "expect/accept non-closure."

It wasn’t squishy at all -- far from it -- and our speakers gave us a variety of tools to conduct the introspection, and to pass on to others. But it was not the only practical advice we received, since we learned as much from each other during two magical days of thinking, reflecting, and no ringing cell phones. Maybe it is old wine in new bottles, but many hardened attendees, who had been to 20 and 30 years worth of diversity events, were inspired by, or at least reminded of, these notions:

There is the surface and then what lies beneath. Staying with the rabbi’s joke, and adding a distinction from my own field of public opinion research: It really is about climate and not about weather. Weather is the fleeting opinions of a person or nation, while climate is our underlying values and deeply-held beliefs. With diversity, the good and bad stuff that happens in a particular instance – the terrific MLK day event, a religious unity forum, or the flinging of some hate speech toward minority students – tends to be weather. Those are events, moments in time, and signify very little about your fundamental campus dynamics. They are distracting, time-consuming, and even frightening, but in many ways they don’t matter: I have been on many campuses with horrendous racial dynamics that managed to stage some pretty great diversity events. Alternatively, some of the campuses with the most harmony and diversity have very little programming or high-profile events, and just live tolerance, day-to-day. What goes on under the surface at your place, and have you made the distinction between climate and weather?

That said, while diversity programming may indeed be weather, and not indicative of climate, it must go on. I’ve become somewhat skeptical about events that celebrate diversity, because I am not sure they solve our problems or overcome all those anxieties. But I reversed myself at our summit, after hearing from our students. Just because we’ve been at hundreds of great events does not mean they have: a blind student from a sparsely populated rural area can find a lecture series about the struggles and triumphs of physically-challenged Americans life-changing and life-affirming. They are legitimated, they meet friends, they meet faculty, they are inspired.

Leaders, get out there for real. Those of us who are senior administrators are going to have to go spend quality time, not chatty superficial cocktail-hour-type time, with non-administrators. You are not off the hook by attending celebratory diversity events, or engaging in the bizarrely named non-management technique of "management by walking around." You actually should go have some meaningful conversations with faculty, staff, and students. Many campus leaders think that if they have a few minority fellow-leaders, they do have a circle for conversation. All set! But it’s just not good enough and it's too much pressure on your minority colleagues; they can’t represent all their many diverse peoples. Plunge into the late night dorm lounges – students are much more loquacious in these places after around 9 p.m. And if you want to get the most nuanced understanding of tolerance and intolerance on your campus, spend some time with a group of the more senior secretarial staff. They see and hear it all, and they can give you an understanding of climate that you will not just stumble into on your usual rounds or capture in a "climate study."

Rhetoric. Learn some language to use, to articulate what you mean by diversity and inclusion. One of the most difficult parts of starting courageous conversations is gathering the rhetorical tools for it. Most of us don’t have them, and did not pick them up in our chosen scholarly disciplines. This is not a secret jargon, just the words that really do describe how people feel in fraught situations – discomfort, fear, silence, intimidation, tension, anxiety. "Anxiety" is probably the overriding emotion, when it comes to difficult talk about difference, and it works on so many levels: we feel anxious ourselves, we see others struggle with it, and there is a broader social anxiety present in political discourse on television. Understanding its many manifestations and modes puts one a long way toward articulating diversity and challenges to it.

Diverse peoples, but also diverse ideas. It is about the diversity of ideas, in part. This is a tough one for many academics, but those who criticize higher education from the right are correct about the narrow conversation we enable. Of course the academy is dominated by liberals; it is an empirical reality. This demands we recognize what we know in our scholarly disciplines: that there is always diversity of thought, and it matters as much as the optical diversity we discuss so often – skin color, gender, dress. Enabling conservatives their place on campus is part of inclusion. Welcome it, encourage it, always work to tolerate any ideology that irks you. As long as it is not hate speech, and the ground rules are based in openness and civility, all ideologies get to occupy the legitimate level playing field, with all the other people and ideas.

Dating, sex, and maybe even love (occasionally?). You can turn red here because you are reading this alone. If you are over 30, faculty or administrator, you must face the fact that your understanding of students’ social world is deficient and most likely, near zero. You don’t get it. And don’t think that having teenagers at home yourself is educative, because they aren’t living in dorms yet. Students’ habits and approaches to relationships are foreign to us but very much about diversity: Who is doing what with whom? Who won’t do what with whom? Who talks about who does what and why? All the dalliances and what they mean are confusing. But don’t underestimate the centrality and hurtfulness of everyday sexual life to our students, as the awful suicide case of Rutger’s student Tyler Clementi underscored so dramatically. Diversity is conflated with sexuality in multiple ways, and while you are unlikely to understand it fully, you need to try.

Obviously, you cannot – although students have led me there on occasion – go around and initiate delicate discussions of sexuality and diversity yourself. You need a student mentor or guide through the jungle, and they are happy to help. It is more than fine, on this topic at least, to be led by your students and follow their lead with regard to both planning discussions and holding them. After the first or second immersion, it’s easier and you may even be able to lead yourself, giving the preface that your own days of youthful partnering are long past! They will think you are very cool, but most of all, that you care enough to try and understand them.

Technology is overrated. We are turning to technology wherever we can – to save money, reach students through distance learning, improve contact in large lecture courses through "clickers," and the like. But when it comes to difficult conversations about diversity and inclusion, it is best to approach communication in the old-fashioned way. Individual uses of the Internet for comfort and advice are rampant and our students know precisely how to mine the web for ideas and data about race, ethnicity, and difference. But Internet advice and even online relationships are no replacement for face-to-face discussion on campus, where the students actually live. They do not live online, and we all know it. They live with other human beings in confined spaces, and the online world has not prepared and will not prepare them for the complexity of being with physical others. While web discussions are helpful, they are no substitute for courageous in-person conversations, and nearly every student I have raised this with agrees. They are, in fact, starved for difficult conversation on understaffed campuses, where everyone tells them to just "go look online" to solve their problems or get help.

Are women still part of “diversity”? One of the most interesting moments of our summit was hearing from a female student, on a panel of racially and ethnically diverse students. She argued that women's issues are lost in the rush to celebrate all cultures, and was baffled as to why. It is still, as it always has been, difficult to interest male students in "Take Back the Night" rallies or discussions of gender inequality. Women students and faculty note a common view on their campuses that issues of female equality and oppression are old hat, and should take a back seat to other struggles for justice. Can't women pretty much do what they want, with some hard work, tenacity, and flair? Look at Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin or any number of women leaders in corporate America, in the media, and in the higher reaches of sports management. Well, the great equality hasn’t reached that far, when only 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and only 14 percent of research university presidents are women. Keep the "woman conversation" front and center in the discussion of diversity, and you will be addressing the ambitions of well over half the students in American higher education today.

At the end of the summit, we left feeling inspired and engaged, in part because of the fellowship and because the last panel was composed of students. We were so proud of them – their courage and their leadership. We don’t rely on them enough to teach us, and they are the ones who make us more sophisticated about difference. Students also underscore the nature of the work ahead, work that seems harder than ever because the last few miles are more complex to tread. Outright discrimination is fading, and hatred is more subtle and nuanced, as so many social scientists have demonstrated. We can tackle it still, and improve both weather and climate, but not unless we make the time for introspection and conversation, between the summits.

Susan Herbst
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Susan Herbst is chief academic officer for the University System of Georgia and professor of public policy at Georgia Tech.

The Mascot Mess

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NCAA crackdown on Native American team names and icons sends a message but sows confusion and conflict.

Different Kinds of Diversity

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Counseling centers are urged to pay more attention to subgroups of students whose needs may not have been considered previously.

Flip-Flop on Florida State

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NCAA approves university's use of Seminole name and imagery, citing tribe's support.

Generational Improvements

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Study documents educational progress for children of immigrants, and gaps among immigrant groups.

Price Increases Sharpest at Public Colleges

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Study also finds slight increases in share of degrees going to women and minority students.

Bradley's 'Braves' Stay on NCAA's 'Hostile' List

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The National Collegiate Athletic Association declared Thursday that it had rejected Bradley University’s appeal to be dropped from a list of institutions deemed to have “hostile” or “abusive” Native American nicknames or mascots, in a ruling that spells trouble for the rest of the 15 institutions that remain on the NCAA’s list. Bradley's teams are known as the Braves.

Identifying the Racial 'Unknowns'

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Over the past decade and a half, the number and proportion of college students opting not to reveal their race when asked have shot up, to 5.9 percent of all students in 2001 from 3.2 percent a decade earlier. The increases have raised two major questions: Who are these students, and why are they declining to identify themselves? The answers have implications for college officials and policy makers on a wide range of issues, including affirmative action and student life.


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