During a time in American history when opinion and politics have become increasingly polarized, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) is asking its colleges and universities to examine their effectiveness in building a nation better able to dialogue and work across diverse viewpoints. Is higher education teaching and supporting students’ opportunities to weigh multiple viewpoints and examine different perspectives as part of its overall mission, or have our institutions limited themselves to teaching content within a narrow setting that ill-prepares students for the diversity of the real world?
The answer to this question – or an examination of diversity within colleges and universities – became available in September, when AAC&U published its report, Engaging Diverse Viewpoints. The culmination of campus climate surveys of 33,000 faculty, students, student affairs professionals and academic administrators on 23 campuses that chose to be a part of this large undertaking – it is the most recent of numerous reports and surveys conducted by AAC&U as part of its larger project, Core Commitments: Educating Students for Personal and Social Responsibility.
The overall Core Commitments project has set out to reclaim and revitalize the academy’s role in fostering students’ development beyond basic academic learning. It has looked on campuses at ethics and academic integrity, social contributions, and social and personal responsibility on campuses.
“Core Commitments is designed to help campuses create learning environments in which all students reach for excellence in the use of their talents, take responsibility for the integrity and quality of their work and engage in meaningful practices that prepare them to fulfill their obligations as students in an academic community and as responsible global and local citizens,” explained Caryn McTighe Musil, senior vice president of AAC&U.
“People agree that in our diverse, complex and global context where competing values clash and there are global consequences to unethical and irresponsible behaviors, it is not sufficient simply to acquire knowledge or prepare for professional lives that do not also consider the ethical and moral dimensions of applying knowledge and making choices in one’s work and civic lives.”
Engaging Diverse Viewpoints takes this commitment a step further, addressing aspects of the college experience that promote engaging difference and appreciation for multiple perspectives. It is about looking closely at how well students on campuses nationwide take seriously the perspectives of others and learn to be informed by what others think, as an integral part of a liberal education.
“Perspective-taking is a prerequisite for learning. Being well educated is not simply a matter of realizing that differing viewpoints exist. It is a matter of engaging with such viewpoints, even if you might disagree with them,” said Musil. “Understanding and being informed by differing viewpoints is an invaluable resource for learning, citizenship and work.
As one student in the PSRI survey explained, “Even just being in college with many new perspectives is very eye- and mind-opening because there is much diversity here, much more so than in my high school.” Another commented, “I have not necessarily changed my beliefs, but now I am aware of different ways to look at a situation.”
To determine to what degree campuses are actually engaging diverse viewpoints, AAC&U first asked colleges and universities to apply for grants to be a part of the full Core Commitments study. Twenty-three campuses nationwide ultimately obtained these grants from the Templeton Foundation and became involved in a very comprehensive process of discovering exactly how well they fared in ethics and academic integrity, social contributions, and social and personal responsibility. Within the surveys, AAC&U focused on four constituent groups: students, faculty, student affairs staff, and academic administrators.
The results of the most recent survey on Engaging Diverse Viewpoints revealed that the large majority of people within all constituent groups believed it was important to engage diversity on campus. Yet despite this belief, most schools seemed to be less effective in proactively doing so as an integral part of their campus curriculum, social offerings or a clearly stated intent that is fully acted upon.
More specifically, 93 percent of students and 97 percent of academic administrators, faculty and student life professionals agreed either “strongly” or “somewhat” that preparing students to take seriously the perspectives of others should be an essential goal of a college education.
In addition, nearly three-fifths of students (58.4 percent) and more than three-fourths of campus professionals (77.3 percent) “strongly agreed” that helping students recognize the importance of taking seriously the perspective of others should be a major focus on their campuses. Yet only about one-third of students (32.5 percent) and a similar proportion of professionals (33 percent) “strongly agreed” that their institutions currently made perspective-taking a major focus.
Among campus professionals, fewer than 29.6 percent of student affairs professionals strongly agreed that their institutions actually help students recognize the importance of taking others’ perspectives seriously, as compared to 36 percent of academic administrators and 33.2 percent of faculty. Also, among students, seniors were more likely to strongly agree (63.9 percent) that campuses should make perspectivetaking a major focus of college, compared to 58.1 percent of freshmen. But freshmen were more likely to strongly agree than seniors that campuses were doing this (41 percent compared to 26.3 percent).
When it comes to faculty advocating the need to respect different perspectives, nearly twofifths of students said that faculty frequently publicly promoted the importance of respecting different perspectives. Fewer students believed that other campus professionals did so as much as their faculty.
The AAC&U survey results also revealed student attitudes and behaviors. As to whether students were respectful of diverse perspectives, only 7 percent of campus professionals strongly agreed that they were, compared to students themselves, 63.1 percent of whom strongly agreed that they entered college having respect for different viewpoints. The majority of campus professionals and students strongly agreed that students did develop in this area during college.
Interestingly, only 35.6 percent of students strongly agreed that it is safe to hold unpopular positions, and fewer seniors than first-year students felt that this was the case. In addition, more students of color (36.6 percent) than White students (30.9 percent) strongly agreed that their campus made helping students recognize the importance of taking seriously the perspectives of others a major focus. And more students of color (69.5 percent) compared to White students (59.8 percent) strongly agreed that they came to college respecting diverse viewpoints.
When reviewing the overall data in the AAC&U report, it’s hard to tell exactly how this translates to individual schools. But when interviewing with schools involved in the survey, it became clear that the study results were similar on the ground level – and that the study is merely the beginning of a long process of building a campus environment that fosters learning from diverse viewpoints.
At the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB), a team has been working with the Core Commitments study for about five years now. The school chose to join the project because it was already working on making core values such as diversity an integral part of its curriculum for all students. The university had already begun to provide freshmen with handbooks emphasizing the importance of working with differences, and had established discussion groups and classroom curriculum that would provide students with methods for appreciating and understanding differences in discussions.
The data gathered on UAB’s campus through the AAC&U survey provided the school with feedback on how well it was doing in teaching students how to work with diverse viewpoints. The results experienced were similar to those nationwide.
“The report reaffirmed for us that at UAB, as at all the universities, there was a big gap between what people said was a priority and what actually was a priority,” said Marilyn Kurata, director of Core Curriculum Enhancement at UAB. “Many students said that diverse perspectives should be a priority more than they were a priority.”
Since the survey results became available to UAB a couple of years ago, the school has been able to see an improvement in its effectiveness in engaging diverse viewpoints. “There was a huge increase between 2006 and 2009 between freshmen and seniors reporting that diverse perspectives were included in classroom discussions, and in the amount they had serious discussions with students of other groups,” said Kurata. “The seniors had a higher percentage of pluralistic beliefs than students at other Southern universities or schools nationwide.”
Kurata pointed out that despite the fact that her school has been touted as one of the most diverse schools in the U.S. (by Princeton Review) – and despite the fact that we live in a diverse society – “communities are often segregated. ... This is why universities need to provide that transition,” she said, “into students becoming interactive and engaged and a vital part of society. It’s not just about living next to someone different, but about becoming friends, co-workers and colleagues. Universities need to instruct people on civil discourse, on how to listen to what other people have to say.”
At West Point University in New York, survey results were again comparable to the nationwide results. “What we found was that our students were much lower than our faculty in reporting the importance of perspective-taking and moral reasoning. Only 57 percent of our students rated that perspective-taking should be an institutional priority versus 72 percent of our faculty,” said Bruce Keith, professor and associate dean of academic affairs.
“It was surprising. Ethical and moral reasoning is a bedrock of our curriculum at West Point, but these results caused us to wonder why there were such differences in emphasis,” said Keith. “Our graduates need to be very good at perspective- taking. They will be deployed internationally within a year or year and a half after graduating and will be engaged in conversations with people with different experiences than their own.”
In looking at why the low emphasis on perspective- taking as an institutional priority (similarly to schools nationwide, and especially among students), Keith attributed some of this to the workload placed on students. “We wonder if they were low in these areas because they are overwhelmed with the amount of content they need to learn within 47 months (the average length of time for a typical college student is in excess of five years),” he said.
The survey results have provided West Point and other participating schools an opportunity to improve their ability to engage diverse viewpoints and expand the benefits of this on campus. “We have spent a lot of time trying to look at how to draw connections between different curricula components. We had the history and foreign language departments agree to work together and include ways of looking at history based on the people there that spoke different languages,” said Keith. “We have also been setting up cultural awareness goals and imbedding these into more institutional initiatives.”
In addition, West Point has created summer experiences by which students get to experience a village scenario in which they simulate a military operation in Afghanistan with Dari speakers in traditional dress. “We are also trying to create international immersion experiences. Five years ago, the number who participated in these was about four or five students a year, and now we are sending about 150 students abroad,” said Keith.
Other universities involved in the AAC&U project have developed initiatives and programs to improve their capacity to engage diverse viewpoints. For example, Sacred Heart University, a private Catholic university in Connecticut, has created a new Common Core in its general education curriculum that is built around a series of questions that invite different viewpoints. It has organized four different courses across disciplines that every student is exposed to that pose enduring questions such as what does it mean to be human, or to forge a more just society for the common good.
The University of Alabama-Birmingham has opted for a QEP (quality enhancement plan) for accreditation to develop a comprehensive and effective program that integrates academic instruction with diversity, respect for others, responsible dialogue and decision-making skills. Michigan State University is using a Chautauqua format and team-taught courses on big issues to engage a series of open dialogues across campus, exploring personal, social and institutional responsibility within issues such as environmental change, the political process, social justice, war and peace, and artistic freedom of expression. The co-curricular and course work include a transresidential college capstone course that mixes students from different programs to study the multidimensionality of professional and civic responsibility.
Increasing the availability of these kinds of programs and others on campuses is the first step toward closing the gap between the ideal campus that engages diverse viewpoints and actual environments that revealed themselves in the AAC&U report. The key, it seems, is that colleges and universities not only attract a diverse group of students, but also create an overall climate in which students are invited to engage differing viewpoints and learn from a variety of perspectives – whether inside the classroom or in the dorms. And beyond, students should be encouraged to participate in community activities, which proved to help expand student access to differing perspectives, in the AAC&U report.
While this Engaging Diverse Viewpoints report – and actions taken from the results of this report – are a step in the right direction toward building a more diverse and inclusive population, it is just that – a step. AAC&U has disseminated the report broadly, provided it on its website, and has further follow-up plans. Oct. 13 to 15, at Long Beach, Calif., it will host its second Educating for Personal and Social Responsibility national network conference. The organization is also involved in national and international civic initiatives to reinforce the importance of perspective-taking.
But for now, Musil hopes that “Many will make use of AAC&U’s findings to increase the opportunities for engaging diverse viewpoints at their institutions.”