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Selected Recommendations From the Michigan Student Study

When a study of the magnitude of the Michigan Student Study (MSS) is done, large amounts of data are generated. However, beyond the numbers and quantitative aspects of this project, MSS researchers, over the period of a decade, have had the opportunity to interview hundreds of students, faculty and staff; and share perspectives with other researchers and institutions. Moreover, countless hours of discussions have occurred among members of a multicultural and diverse team that represented a variety of personal and academic interests and life experiences.

The primary purpose of the following information is to share selected recommendations with a wider audience with the hopes that additional discussion will generate programs, strategies, ideas, and best practices which are appropriate to specific institutional types – no matter where they are along the strategic diversity planning spectrum. Bear in mind that the focus of this study was to examine the impact of institutional racial and ethnic diversity on students. To that end, the subsequent recommendations reflect our commitment to that overall purpose.

Institutional Planning Involvement

  • Don’t reinvent the institutional diversity wheel: Re-examine those diversity plans on the shelf. We have found that many institutions have developed numerous strategic plans for campus diversity. Many of these plans incorporate lofty goals and objectives, but often fall short on funding commitment, implementation strategies including periodic assessments, and institutional leadership.
  • Diversity efforts should change the institution, not just students: Diversity and multiculturalism shouldn’t be code words for the assimilation of students of color into the dominant culture - this doesn’t require any systemic changes on the part of the institution. Strategic diversity should also reflect an institutional willingness to examine its programs, policies, practices and procedures and how they impact various populations. How does campus diversity change the institution?
  • Who’s in charge of campus diversity planning? Diversity planning committees have to be comprised of individuals who are responsible for implementing changes and recommendations that emerge from the planning efforts. Often, campuses have comprehensive diversity planning committees whose members have no power to implement comprehensive institutional changes.
  • We can learn from students’ diversity initiatives: Don’t overlook opportunities to incorporate student organizational programming into the academic experience involving faculty and their classes. Students devote enormous energy to planning and implementing diversity activities with little involvement from faculty and academic units. These efforts are often perceived as not germane to the academic mission – thus, potentially valuable learning opportunities are passed up.
  • Equity is more than access and numbers: Measured success of institutional racial and ethnic diversity has to go beyond issues of access and increasing numbers. It must include strategies that address persistence, retention, and disparities in graduation rates as well as address academic success issues. Additionally, student satisfaction over the four-year experience can strongly reflect perceptions of the overall institutional climate.
  • Everyone on campus has a role: Diversity planning implementation has to involve the entire campus. This critical task, if it is truly an institutional priority, can’t be the sole responsibility of a single office or delegated to one person.
  • Importance of committed leadership: Without visible and sustained commitment from the campus leadership, there is little likelihood that institutional approaches to campus diversity can be effective - make sure that the leadership knows about the successes of your diversity activities and how they impact the strategic diversity plan.
  • Assessing diversity programs: Conduct ongoing assessments of your diversity programs and make appropriate changes based on these assessments. All too often programs exist for many years without the benefit of continuous program improvements to reflect the changing constituencies who are to benefit from these efforts.
  • Link diversity with other campus priorities: Look for opportunities to link diversity activities with other programs and activities that might not have any obvious relationships with diversity initiatives. Additionally, successful diversity programs and initiatives often are transferable and can strengthen other non-diversity activities on campus.
  • Don’t exempt any campus unit from the diversity plan: Strategic diversity planning, in order to have sustained success, has to touch the entire campus: Eliminate the "untouchables" that seem to be exempted from efforts to expand and enhance diversity opportunities throughout the campus. This can eliminate perceptions that key units are not required to have commitments to overall campus diversity initiatives and are largely not involved in or impacted by these efforts.
  • Whose traditions and practices? Explore the impact of institutional traditions, customs, policies, procedures, and practices that often pose significant barriers to achieving campus diversity successes.
  • Assessing the impact of diversity on all students: Increasingly, institutions are being asked by our judicial system and the public to demonstrate that campus diversity really has an impact on students. It is essential that campuses have both longitudinal quantitative and qualitative assessment data on how institutional diversity efforts benefit students (while they are on campus and years after they graduate). Too many institutions have little data other than anecdotal stories that have little value in demonstrating the importance and effectiveness of diversity efforts.
  • Importance of having faculty and staff of color in leadership positions: Oftentimes, institutional diversity strategies focus on increasing the number of students of color on campus. It is essential that emphasis also be placed on hiring more faculty and staff of color into leadership positions. At the same time, institutions have to be sensitive to the fact that campus diversity is everyone’s business and that faculty and staff of color should not be the sole bearers of campus diversity efforts.
  • Integration of diversity priorities with institutional mission: Diversity priorities should be aligned with the institutional mission. Otherwise, campus diversity efforts can be disconnected from the mission, and easily viewed as not important to achieve successes in the overall mission.
  • Communicating the importance of diversity to the campus community: Most institutions have lofty statements proclaiming their support for campus diversity. However, lack of clear communication or mixed messages to the campus community can convey the message that diversity is merely tolerated. How do campuses introduce the importance of campus diversity to new students and faculty? What impact does diversity have on the curriculum and academic priorities? How are diversity successes and achievements celebrated and communicated to the campus and external populations?

Student Involvement

  • Campus diversity among students is complicated: Recognize the complexity of campus diversity - especially the interrelationship of equity/social justice issues and institutional efforts to demonstrate that diversity represents a benefit to all students. To have successful campus diversity, an institution must address both goals.
  • Address diversity misperceptions that students have: Tackle campus myths about diversity - especially racial and ethnic diversity. Additionally, campuses have to move beyond soft diversity programs (feel good activities) that really don’t result in systemic institutional changes and in many cases, reinforce stereotypes that students might have about different groups.
  • Importance of housing and co-curricula activities to student diversity: Students indicate that much learning occurs outside of the classroom and that the resident hall is the place where students learn to interact with each other in a natural setting.
  • Students hold the administration responsible for addressing climate issues: It is imperative that campuses be prompt, and where possible proactive, in addressing racial incidents involving students of color and other students, faculty, and staff. Students clearly expect the campus administration to resolve racial incidents in a timely manner. In the case of students of color, they hold the university leadership accountable for addressing overall campus climate issues at all levels. The perceptions of racially charged occurrences, if not addressed, have the potential for major and sustained conflicts that can quickly derail gains that have been made to improve the campus racial climate.
  • The importance of within group diversity: There is remarkable diversity within various student racial and ethnic groups. Because of this, institutions should support the need for students to learn about their own groups and explore complex issues that might exist within different groups – group identity and affiliation are not as simple as they often may appear. Emphasis must be placed on equally supporting students’ inter- and intra-group activities. Failure to recognize and appreciate within group experience can easily suggest that all groups are fairly monolithic in their values and experiences. It can also introduce backlash when some groups perceive that diversity is a code word for assimilation.
  • Disparities in graduation rates: There are often vast differences in the graduation rates of different racial and ethnic group on campus, and institutions rarely institute systematic efforts that are designed to close these gaps. Graduation parity has to be one of the key goals, and measures of success, of campus diversity efforts. Additionally, institutions need to have a better understanding of why these disparities exist. Too often, anecdotal stories (e.g., they couldn’t make it academically or adjust to the campus climate) have a way of becoming fact and masking other major issues such as the impact of financial concerns and climate.

Faculty Involvement

  • Academic units have to be major players in institutionalizing campus diversity initiatives that impact students: Too often, academic administrators and faculty have little involvement or roles in institutional diversity efforts. This lack of involvement can leave the impression that campus diversity initiatives only pertain to students and student affairs units. Success with overall institutional efforts can only be achieved when academic units are an integral part of the campus diversity strategies.
  • Importance of Informal Faculty Contact: Having access to faculty – and good mentoring relationships and opportunities – is extremely important to students of color. Students of color often cite having great difficulties and frustrations in developing mentoring and informal relationships with faculty and express feelings of being devalued and not respected. This problem is further compounded where there is an absence of faculty of color.

External Involvement

  • External support for campus diversity: It is essential that institutions seek external support from alumni, donors and the corporate community. These external groups are often overlooked as potential supporters of, and contributors to, campus diversity efforts. They can be powerful allies in fostering support for overall campus diversity initiatives. On the other hand, campuses often overlook the critical need to educate these populations on the importance of campus diversity and how these efforts benefit society in general.