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The Campus Divided, and Divided Again

"Nowhere do you hear the word 'diversity' more than on college campuses," wrote President Arthur Levine in a recent New York Times Op-Ed. "Yet ask for a definition and you will get a reply entombed in ideology and obfuscating rhetoric." Advocacy groups focusing on particular student populations are the fastest growing orgnaizations on college campuses, fragmenting the student population and creating many small factions that often feel victimized. Levine feels that college and universities are making real progress in diversifying their curriculums, but that the issue cannot be handled problem by problem. "If colleges don't set specific and reasonable goals, the poisoned atmosphere will continue to degrade higher education, harming the interests of everyone," said Levine. The article, entitled "The Campus Divided, and Divided Again" appeared in the June 11h edition of The New York Times.

Nowhere do you hear the word "diversity'' more than on college campuses. Yet ask for a definition and you will get a reply entombed in ideology and obfuscating rhetoric. Fearful college presidents hand off diversity-related issues to student affairs officers. At the same time, the students, the engine for action on diversity at most colleges, are making finer and finer distinctions among themselves. It is a generation that defines itself more by its differences than its similarities.

No type of organization is growing more quickly on campuses today than advocacy groups focused on particular student populations, according to a 1997 study of chief student affairs officers at a sample of 270
colleges and universities conducted by Jeanette Cureton, an independent researcher, and me. The larger and more selective the college, the greater the number of such groups. Each campus activity, said one administrator, "appeals to smaller pockets of students."

In a 1979 study, when I asked undergraduates to describe themselves, they focused on the commonalties their generation shared, like as being materialistic or career oriented. By contrast, current students, when asked the same question, emphasized the things that made them unique. A Korean student said he never thought about the fact that he was Asian until he came to college. In his freshman year, he thought being Asian was the most important aspect of his being. By his junior year, being Korean became his primary self-descriptor. On one campus I visited, a business club was divided into more than a dozen different groups-a women's business club, a Latino business club, a disabled-student business club, a gay student business club and so on.

This voluntary sense of segregation on campus, while real, is systematically overestimated by students, according to our research. We attended campus parties and asked white students how many black students had attended. They made comments like, "black students don't attend our events." We asked them to guess the number who attended anyway. The guess was 10; the reality was closer to 50.

At an event sponsored by the Asian student association, we asked how many white students attended. Once again the guess was a handful and the reality was that about a third of the audience was Caucasian. What could explain the discrepancy? Either students do not socialize even when in close proximity or they are so used to segregation they do not even perceive cross-socializing when it occurs.

A related characteristic is a sense of victimization. Men and women, majorities and minorities, rich and poor all think that someone else on campus is getting something they are not, and that they are forced to pay the cost.
Our surveys showed a majority of four-year colleges (54 percent) reporting a rise in the feeling of victimization among students during the late 1980s and early to mid-1990s, students felt more and more victimized, a trend that has only intensified.

Today diversity is the largest cause of student unrest on campus, accounting for 39 percent of student protests, according to our study. Discourse is dominated by two small, but vociferous groups-one yelling that diversity has eclipsed all other aspects of college life and the other shouting that colleges remain impervious to diversity. Meanwhile, the rest of the campus community tries to avoid the issue.

At best, our survey shows a balkanized campus, in which the zone of tolerance or indifference to offense grows increasingly small. At worse, our survey shows a more and more Hobbesian world, where each group battles against other for resources inside and outside the classroom.

In this environment, a climate of political correctness prevails. Diversity frightens university administrators. For several years in the early 90's, I directed a training program for senior administrators. Each summer I presented 100 or so presidents, vice presidents, and deans a case study on student efforts to get a women's studies program adopted at a small liberal arts college. I divided the class into three groups - one played the student leader, another played the faculty opponent, and the final group played the academic dean on whose desk the problem landed. Year after year those playing the administrator, regardless of the race, gender, or age, would say the same thing: "I just want the issue to go away."

Interviews I have had with 14 college presidents in the intervening years produced much the same response. The reason is not that they are trying to shirk responsibility. The reason is that college presidents are hired to solve problems, not to create them. But diversity is a Pandora's box. Solving one problem inevitably leads to another.

If the Bosnian students want Bosnian food in the cafeteria, this can be done. If the Croatian students want a wing in a residence hall, theme dorms are certainly an option. If the Slovenian students want a Slovenian studies program, a committee can be created to study the subject.

The problem is this. At one campus, there was a Puerto Rican studies program. The Dominican students wanted a Dominican studies program. The president proposed a Caribbean studies program. It was flatly rejected by all quarters.

Nonetheless, colleges and universities are making real progress in diversifying their curriculums. In another study of 196 colleges, Jeanette Cureton and I learned that more than a third of all colleges had a diversity requirement. At least a third offered course work in ethnic and gender studies. More than half of all institutions introduced diversity into their departmental offerings. A majority sought to increase the diversity of their faculty.

But the sheer quantity of activity hides the character of the changes, which are by accretion rather than by design. The result is a grab bag of diversity initiatives in which the whole may be less than the parts.

The issue cannot be handled problem by problem, Band-Aid by Band-Aid. If colleges don't set specific and reasonable goals, the poisoned atmosphere will continue to degrade higher education, harming the interest of everyone. College must confront the diversity issue with candor, and not hide behind programs that placate groups but divide the campus.


By President Arthur Levine

This article originally appeared in the New York Times Sunday June 11, 2000

Published Thursday, Jun. 27, 2002