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Without a precise definition of diversity, progress difficult in higher education

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

LAWRENCE — Diversity has long been a hot term on university campuses. But ask different people what diversity means, and answers will vary. A recent study by a University of Kansas professor finds that diversity is viewed with a broad, all-encompassing definition in higher education but that race and ethnicity still are the key components.

In the wake of student protests and activism regarding students of color and minorities feeling unwelcome, universities have intensified their efforts to address topics of diversity. Yet varying definitions of what diversity is and how to achieve it make progress much more difficult, says Eugene T. Parker III, assistant professor of educational leadership & policy studies. Parker, who recently authored the study and presented it at the Association for Study of Higher Education conference, has also recently presented findings on students’ interactions with faculty and how they influence their perceptions of campus climate.

Diversity can include race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, geographical representation, religion, political beliefs and more, Parker found. However, the study showed race and gender are always near the top of concerns for those working in the field.

“I’ve asserted we don’t have a standard definition of diversity. I want to find out more about how colleges and universities view it and see if we can come up with a way to define it,” Parker said. “We can’t make progress on being an equal campus if we don’t have a standard definition of diversity and can’t move forward if everyone is on a different page.”

Parker previously conducted research into how chief diversity offices are formed, what they are charged with, how they evolve and how they view their roles. In that study, he interviewed chief diversity officers at two research universities and gathered input from a number of administrators about their conceptions of diversity. Respondents almost uniformly said they view diversity as all-encompassing. Parker found they also tend to muddle terms such as diversity, equity, equality and justice, using them almost interchangeably. Diversity statements within departments at the schools also varied widely, leading to no single expression of what diversity is, how the institutions plan to achieve it or where deficiencies may lie.

However, even with such wide-ranging views of diversity, respondents also said their main focuses still are on race and ethnicity. Ensuring equal or increased representation from different races and ethnic backgrounds is an honorable goal but does not look at the entire issue, he said.

“They’re concerned about representation and getting students here to the campus,” Parker said. “Universities are different now than they were 20 and 40 years ago. Once they’re here, if the climate is not welcoming, that’s a problem and diversity is still an issue.”

Campus climate and student experiences were the focus of another study co-authored with Teniell Trolian of the University at Albany, State University of New York. The study examined data from the Student Experience in Research University Survey to assess the in-classroom experience and students’ perceptions of the climate for diversity. The survey is given annually to students at 23 participating research universities and addressed six items regarding campus climate:

  • Extent to which they felt free to express political beliefs on campus
  • If they felt free to express religious beliefs on campus
  • If they felt members of their race/ethnicity were respected on campus
  • If students felt members of their socioeconomic status are respected on campus
  • If members of their gender are respected on campus
  • If students felt members of their sexual orientation are respected.

The survey also measured whether students had certain types of interactions with faculty, such as if they participated in research with a faculty member, took part in creative work with a faculty member, how frequently they communicated with faculty, how frequently they talked with faculty outside of class about course topics, how satisfied they were with advising and if they were comfortable enough to ask for a letter of recommendation.

The data showed positive relationships between several types of experience and perceptions of campus climate, including frequently communicating via email or in person, experiencing fair and equitable treatment, having faculty who provided prompt and useful feedback and being satisfied with access to faculty members outside of campus. Several factors had negative associations with perceptions, and several of the positive outcomes were modest. That indicates that while certain experiences are certainly helpful in influencing perception of campus climate, no type of experience is a “magic bullet” that will automatically make students feel welcome and that further research into such experiences is needed, Parker said.

Parker is conducting research now addressing other types of interactions with faculty, how students perceive experiences with diverse peers, attitudes toward diversity and if they feel accepted based on their similarities and differences. The overarching goal is to present more information on student experiences and to build a framework for how higher education professionals can view diversity in more defined terms while helping ensure students are respected and feel welcome.

“I’m interested in looking at the heated types of discussion in class. The debates on course topics and what effects they have on how students view their campus climate and experience,” Parker said. “We know diversity experiences go beyond having a social event or having experiences with faculty sometimes. It’s about the quality of the interaction and how we view them. We need to think about the types and qualities of these interactions and for whom are these experiences beneficial.”

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