Feb. 25-March 2, 2000
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Leffler announces interdisciplinary programs in media, Jewish studies
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After Hours - Continuing Education producer fulfills Hollywood dreams
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Diversity in higher education: Why it matters
Speakers: faculty input essential to diversity efforts
Rent-a-rower for seasonal chores

Diversity in higher education: Why it matters

By Anne Bromley

Because the vitality of a democracy depends on the informed participation of its citizens, universities have an obligation to familiarize their students with the aspects of diversity reflected in our society, according to the guest speakers who opened U.Va.'s conference on diversity Feb. 18. William E. Kirwan, president of Ohio State University, and Sylvia Hurtado, associate professor of education at the University of Michigan, talked about why diversity matters and how it furthers the mission of higher education.

Kirwan, who was president of the University of Maryland when its program of race-based scholarships was successfully challenged in court and had to be disbanded, spoke about the economic, social and educational values of ensuring a diverse population, as well as an institution's moral imperative to eradicate prejudice. Michigan is also facing a legal challenge for using race among admissions factors, and Hurtado described research being done at Michigan that aims to show the benefits and educational value of diversity.

"I still believe the continuing effects of racism are the most important reason" for continuing affirmative action programs on college campuses and in society, said Kirwan. The argument used against Maryland's Banneker scholarships, however, and affirmed by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, holds that society has reached the point where race and gender shouldn't be considered.

There is ample evidence that prejudice and inequity still are problems, according to Kirwan. For example, salary inequities for minorities and women can still be found at most universities. But he also argued that if universities are to prepare students for citizenship and professional careers, they must take into account the increasingly diverse population and internationalization that students will encounter in their work lives.

"The moral imperative is matched by economic and social needs," Kirwan said. Hispanic and Asian-American populations are expanding 10 times faster than white populations and the African- American population is growing five times faster. Students of all ethnic backgrounds need to learn how to work together effectively. More people will need a college education for the jobs of the future, and more of those students will be from other than white groups. By 2010, half of the jobs will require a college education, which means universities will need to educate 30 percent or more minority students to have enough people for those jobs, he said.

To defend its admissions policies, the University of Michigan is seeking to prove that creating a diverse environment benefits all students. Researchers have examined a broad database of students nationally and at Michigan from longitudinal studies spanning 30 to 40 years, Hurtado said. They are finding that exposing students to new and unfamiliar people and ideas teaches them deeper, more complex thinking because they cannot rely on their usual ideas or habits.

"The best faculty know this, that you turn the tables on student expectations to get them to learn new things," Hurtado said. Through creating a more diverse population on campus, in the classroom and by providing more opportunities for interaction in informal settings beyond the classroom, universities produce students who are more likely to find commonality despite differences and are more likely to live and work in diverse environments.

"If we're going to survive as a democracy, we're going to have to find ways to understand each other better," said Hurtado, whose current research focuses on preparing college students for a diverse democracy. Helping students confront misunderstandings and controversies in the classroom is a good opportunity for them to learn how to work things out, she said.

Research looking at minority law students at Michigan over almost 30 years supports other recent national research that minority students who attended the most selective institutions were not only successful students, but went on to lead successful lives.

Hurtado also referred the audience to Michigan's web site devoted to information about the lawsuits and the research regarding diversity, http://www.umich.edu/~urel/admissions/index.html

As a minority student in college, Hurtado, who is Chicana, emphasized what an important learning experience it was for her. "One discovers who one is in the context of difference," she said. Both she and Kirwan stressed that students and faculty must be provided opportunities for interacting in mixed groups to help break down the tendency toward self-segregation. Such programs can't be imposed, Kirwan said, but require collaboration.


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