Can We Diversify our Classrooms if We Fail to Diversify the Front of the Classroom?

The promise of higher education is great.  Perhaps more than any other factor, education gives people social mobility and creates opportunity.  However, our institutions of higher education are products of our society – and reflect its imperfections.  Groups marginalized in American society are often underrepresented, or left out altogether, of higher education.  Diversity trainings have become common place on American college campuses, but do they do what they were designed to do?

The results of these conditions can be seen manifested in national news.  The issues of privilege and institutionalized racism became the topic of conversation after the Duke Lacrosse scandal.  Social fraternities at the University of Oklahoma at Norman brought the conversation to new audiences.  True or not, Rolling Stone’s exposé on sexual assault and sexual aggression made hostilities towards woman a hot topic on campuses nationwide.  Most recently the Black Lives Matter movement and the unrest at the University of Missouri have illustrated that diversity issues must be addressed within higher education.

The conversation has started.  But it is not always a productive means to promote diversity.  Perhaps the best illustration of this is the University of Missouri.  The flagship campus in Columbia, MO became ground zero for a national exploration of racial tension on campus.  African American students, frustrated with the campus climate, created the Concerned Student 1950 movement (1950 was the first year the university admitted black students).  During the 2015 homecoming celebrations the group attempted to block the parade route in an effort to obtain a meeting with campus chancellor R. Bowen Loftin.  In the days following the protest the Chancellor’s Office refused to meet with the students, and the campus found itself in turmoil.  National media attention brought the issue to a head.  With students, community members, and faculty calling resignation, Chancellor Loftin announced he would step down.

What went wrong?  U of M had a history of incidents involving racial bias, to the extent that the university created a diversity program, One Mizzou, to provide training.  In 2015, the program was cancelled (this was one of the concerns cited by the Concerned Student movement).  A November 20th article in The Chronicle of Higher Education noted that the chancellor instituted a mandatory diversity training in response to the incidents.  While some students saw this as progress, public opinion believed that this was simply an effort by Chancellor Loftin to save his job.  In the article, author Steve Kolowich notes that diversity training is common, “Workshops, seminars, and lectures about how to respect differences at diversifying institutions have been commonplace at colleges for at least two decades. In 1997 a Bryn Mawr College study estimated that 81 percent of colleges had tried holding workshops at which students discussed their experiences of racial bias.”

If diversity training is so prevalent, why do issues of insensitivity, sexual aggression, racism, and other forms of hate continue to impact our campuses?  Kolowich suggests that trainings are offered, but perhaps don’t reach those who need the training most.  He notes that often, faculty contracts preclude faculty (mostly tenured and tenure-track) from being required to attend trainings.  Furthermore, when training is optional, those who elect to attend are likely not to be offenders.

Beth McMurtrie’s article, “One Campus Approaches Diversity Training with Hard Data and Careful Thought, which appeared online in The Chronicle of Higher Education, details one diversity training program that is working.  The University of Oklahoma has recently implemented a required diversity training for new freshmen and transfer students.  The five-hour program includes interactive sessions and is anchored by an intergroup dialogue.  The program’s creator, Dr. Wong (Lau), employed demographic data, principles of social science research, and meaningful conversation in an effort to create a training program that builds empathy in students and equips them to talk about issues as charged as race and privilege.

What’s Wrong with Diversity Training in American Higher Education?  Why do some programs work, but most fail to transform our campuses.

1. Diversity is claimed as a core value, but institutions do not live that value.

Look at any university website, mission statement, or promotional material.  You’ll see the buzz words: diversity, inclusion, multiculturalism.  But walk the campus and it’s often a quick realization that those “values” espoused by the institution are largely marketing and branding efforts.  For a college or university to value diversity, they need to live that value and actively work to diversify their campus.

I work on the campus of a large public doctoral university in Michigan.  When a search was announced for our chief diversity officer l asked to sit on the selection committee.  I was shocked by the response to my request.  I was asked, “Why?  You work with leadership programs, not diversity issues.” All too often, on our campuses diversity work is the “job” of the diversity office, when in reality, if we are living this as a value, it should be seen as everyone’s responsibility.  While our diversity offices may lead and coordinate efforts, diversity education should be done across the curriculum and throughout our student services division.

2. Diversity trainings have become boxes to check, rather than meaningful parts of the campus life.

While competency-based education is here to stay, diversity is not a competency.  It is something that is valued, and something that must constantly be practiced.  All too often diversity training is completed so that institutions can say that it is offered.  This is a hallmark of poor training – instead of asking what knowledge, skills, and abilities one should receive as a result of participating in the training, the training is the product itself.

3. Campuses reflect society at large, they should reflect our best aspiration.

Racism exists on our campuses because it exists in our society.  Higher education is a leader in advancing medicine, technology, and even serves as a training ground for our next generation of athletic heroes.  Our campuses need to be leaders in developing the types of communities where all are welcome.

4. You cannot diversify the classroom without diversifying the front of the classroom.

We need to hire more faculty and staff who are women and people of color.  True, the number of minorities and women with terminal degrees limits the pipeline.  Instead of pointing to this as a causative issue, we should see this as a symptom of our system’s failure.  We must ensure that we are providing more opportunities for women and people of color to find careers in academe.  It is important for students to see people that look like themselves in leadership roles and to have mentors.  Until we diversify the front of the classroom, we will continue to struggle.

Diversity training has a place in higher education. To fulfill its potential, it needs to be approached from a training design and curriculum design perspective, rather than being the product of a politicized process


Dan Gaken is a student affairs administrator, author, and leadership trainer with 10 years of professional experience, primarily in the field of student leadership development. Dan builds environments where others are able to create something that excites them.

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