The University Record, October 14, 1998

Poll shows Americans value diversity in higher education

By Jane R. Elgass

Results of a poll released last week that show a majority of Americans value diversity in colleges and universities “is something of great importance to the University of Michigan and equally important to society,” said President Lee C. Bollinger.

Speaking at a Washington, D.C., press conference Oct. 6, Bollinger said it came as “no surprise that many people value diversity” as society becomes more global and internationalized. It is “extremely heartening” to find that so many people value diversity and value it in universities, he said.

The poll on diversity in higher education was conducted by Daniel Yankelovich’s firm, DYG Inc., for the Ford Foundation’s Campus Diversity Initiative. The telephone poll of 2,011 registered voters was conducted July 14-Aug. 4.

“This poll shows that, despite the heated public debate over diversity, Americans are very clear in their views,” said Alison R. Bernstein, a Ford Foundation vice president. “They support diversity in higher education. They recognize that diversity is important to student success. And they believe that diversity education can help bring the country together.”

According to the results, two in three Americans say it is very important that college and universities prepare people to function in a diverse society. Fifty-five percent say that every college student should have to study different cultures in order to graduate.

By a margin of more than three to one, those who have an opinion say that diversity programs in colleges and universities raise rather than lower academic standards. Nearly three in five say the nation is growing apart, with 71 percent saying that diversity education on college and university campuses helps bring society together.

Bollinger noted that diversity has a long-standing history in colleges and universities, dating to the 19th century when the institutions sought to bring in diverse populations of students and faculty.

The ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education, which Bollinger cited as “one of the great moments in history,” went beyond saying it was wrong to officially segregate students, indicating instead that all students would benefit from an integrated education.

Colleges and universities work to ensure diversity, the president said, but not because it simply is a practical decision that works well. Rather, it is deeply rooted in our concept of education.

Education allows us to put aside our beliefs and see through others’ eyes, Bollinger explained. “It is very hard to learn how to do this. That’s why we have education. It’s tough and we work at it. It is a struggle of education as we know it and as it should be.” The poll, he added, “is an affirmation of education as we’ve come to think about it.”

Bollinger said the poll is “newsworthy” because many probably thought it would come out differently. “The poll is extremely revealing and powerful,” and the results indicate “we may have misled ourselves about what people think [about diversity].”

Also appearing at the press conference was William H. Gray III, president and CEO of The College Fund/UNCF, who said that “diversity is about America’s future. America is increasingly becoming a different place,” he said. “That’s our future. We can embrace it or circle the wagons.”

Diversity is basic to determining how we will compete in the 21st century, Gray said, to how we prepare leaders and how people get along with one another.

The study, he noted, “says that Americans may be way ahead” of their political, economic and social leaders in understanding diversity and the need for it in education. “The public says it needs access for getting ready for this future.”

Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges & Universities, said the poll shows “the public sees great value” in incorporating diversity in the college curriculum. This is especially important in light of the relentless attacks by conservative pundits.”

Diversity, Schneider noted, “is important to the vitality, the capacity of our democracy,” and colleges and universities offer an environment in which individuals can come together to learn from and about one another.

“Diversity is essential to learning,” she added. “It allows us to rethink our assumptions” about how we relate to one another, what our responsibilities to each other are.

Selected findings


Other findings of the DYG Inc. poll of 2,011 registered voters:

• 97 percent agree that “in the next generations, people will need to get along with people who are not like them.” 94 percent agree that the “nation’s growing diversity makes it more important than ever for all of us to understand people who are different than ourselves.”

• Clear majorities say that:

---Diversity on campus has a more positive (69 percent) than negative (22 percent) effect on the general atmosphere on college campuses.

---Having a diverse student body has a more positive (75 percent) than negative (18 percent) effect on the education of students.

---Courses and campus activities that emphasize diversity and diverse perspectives have more of a positive (69 percent) than negative (22 percent) effect on the education of students.

• Two-thirds (66 percent) say that colleges and universities should take explicit steps to ensure diversity in the student body.

• 75 percent say that colleges and universities should take explicit steps to ensure diversity among faculty.

• 38 percent agree and 52 percent disagree that diversity is used as an excuse to admit and graduate students who wouldn’t otherwise make it.

• One in five (22 percent) say the nation is doing a good job of preparing itself to meet the challenges that lie ahead.

• By a margin of more than three to one, respondents say that diversity education does more to bring society together (71 percent) than drive society apart (19 percent).

• 91 percent agree that “our society is multicultural and the more we know about each other, the better we will get along.”

• Nine in 10 (91 percent) agree that the global economy makes it more important than ever for all of us to understand people who are different than ourselves.

• 94 percent say it is important for colleges and universities to prepare people to function in a more diverse work force.

• 88 percent support offering courses in business schools on managing a diverse work force.

• One in three respondents (34 percent) says that “diversity education is nothing more than political correctness, which hinders true education.”

• More than half (58 percent) agree that “diversity education always seems to have a liberal political agenda.”

Source: Ford Foundation Campus Diversity Initiative poll results.



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