Are American Universities Really Interested in Racial Understanding?

A study completed two years ago asked college students at 17 colleges and universities: "How important to you personally is helping to promote racial understanding?"  The question was posed three times: upon arriving at college, at the end of freshman year, and at the end of senior year.   The researchers reported that each time the question was asked, the interests diminished: the longer students were in college, the less interested they became in racial understanding.

The researchers write:

These findings cast doubt on research and conventional wisdom that argues for the liberalizing effects of higher education on racial attitudes.  Instead, it suggests that, for some students, negative experiences with diversity may dampen the relatively progressive racial views they hold when entering college.

These findings should have been expected; American universities were warned earlier about the need for to anticipate the challenges that would arise from increasing campus diversity. 

In 1996 Ernest T. Pascarella, one of the researchers of the 2012 study, led a study entitled, “Influences on Students' Openness to Diversity and Challenge in the First Year of College (Journal of Higher Education 67.2 (1996) 174-195).” They found that women were more interested in diversity than men and nonwhite students were more interested than their white classmate. White college men were the least interested.

Their study of roughly 4000 students at 18 institutions over the course of four years led them to make a variety of fundamental assertions about what a university needed to do to become a place that promotes racial understanding.  They recommended putting racially and ethnically mixed students together to face controversial issues; such encounters positively impacted the participants.   Leaving them alone, however, only increased negative stances from disinterest to suspicions and intolerance.  They recommended “purposeful policies and programs that both sensitize faculty, administrators and students to what constitutes racial discrimination and demonstrate unequivocally that such behavior is anathema to the institutional ethos.”  In short they urged universities to create a nondiscriminatory racial environment, acknowledging that such an environment will not happen on its own.

Another study in 1999 found “that increasing the racial/ethnic diversity on a campus while neglecting to attend to the racial climate can result in difficulties for students of color as well as for white students.” And they found that, in fact, universities mistakenly think that increasing racial diversity increases a healthy racial climate.  

Nonetheless they found that in those select instances where diversity functioned well, students engaged in more complex thinking about problems and considered multiple perspectives.  The results not only bettered campuses’ racial climate but also students’ learning outcomes for students.  In a word, taking race seriously could be a win-win for American universities.

As Brown university taught us years ago, however, taking race seriously might be more work than university administrators and faculty realize.  American universities like Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Yale, Dartmouth, Pennsylvania, and William and Mary were connected to the mind and resources of slavery as Craig Steven Wilder reports in his Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities.  Racism runs deep in the American academy.

Both the 1996 and 1999 studies warned us that if we increased racial diversity without attending to the overall campus climate we would create a more negative atmosphere at the university.   Walking across many campuses today we often find a certain self-selected racial segregation that further confirms the 2012 investigation.


James F. Keenan, SJ, is Canisius Professor at Boston College. His most recent book is University Ethics: How Colleges Can Build and Benefit from a Culture of Ethics (Rowman and Littlefield).

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