Racial Diversity in Higher Education

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by Julie J. Park

In 1978, affirmative action in higher education went before the Supreme Court in Bakke v. University of California. With the Court split down the middle, the opinion written by Justice Powell stated that universities had a “compelling interest” in attracting racial diversity. While the Bakke case struck down the use of quotas for different racial/ethnic groups, it allowed universities to still consider race as a factor in admissions decisions. Powell’s defense of the policy was upheld again in the University of Michigan affirmative action cases and most recently in Fisher v. Texas.

Why does diversity matter for higher education, and why should Christians care about it? First, diversity strengthens university education. Studies by Gary Orfield of the UCLA Civil Rights Project indicate that the vast majority of students come to college with little meaningful experience with people of other races. Engagement inside and outside of the classroom with diverse perspectives helps spur student learning by interrupting students’ assumptions, challenging them to consider multiple points of view and come to a more complex understanding of issues. Numerous empirical studies document the educational benefits associated with engagement in a racially diverse student body, although racial diversity on its own does not necessarily spur these benefits. Students must engage with each other, and such engagement across racial/ethnic lines cannot occur without the literal presence of students of other races.

Engagement in a racially diverse student body also prepares students for global citizenship in a diverse democracy. Our country has diversified at a rapid rate, and students need to be ready to engage with people of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds. While affirmative action affects only a small fraction of higher education institutions (i.e., selective institutions), these universities educate a disproportionate percentage of those who will advance to leadership and influence in society. Thus, encountering diversity in the university setting is critical to preparing students for the world that they will encounter post-graduation.

Finally, diversity in higher education is needed because of the acute lack of diversity that most people experience both prior to and following college. Due to our country’s history of systemic injustice, neighborhoods and K-12 education are often divided along racial lines. The same goes for churches and friendship groups. One study found that in 2004 only 15 percent of US adults reported having a friend of another race with whom they discussed important matters (find the study at bit.ly/18hwiJR). Racially diverse universities can help stem the cycle of segregation, and studies show that a number of long-term gains are associated with college diversity.

As Christians we have a stake in ensuring that our nation’s universities are equitable and welcoming environments for students of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds. Given that most Christian students will come to college from not only racially homogeneous high schools but also racially homogeneous churches, the university years are an essential time for Christian college students to learn from people of other backgrounds, racial/ethnic and otherwise. In my research, I found that students who identified as religious, affiliated as Protestant, and were involved in religious student organizations were significantly less likely to have close friends of other races during college. This is tremendously troubling. While there is a place for ethnic churches and ethnically based campus fellowships, Christians need to be equipped to leave their comfort zones in order to learn to understand and empathize with those from different backgrounds.

College is a special time. Especially for those who attend a more traditional four-year institution, there is probably no other stage in life when people have this much time to “do life” with the people around them. From late-night talks in the residence halls to spontaneous encounters in the dining hall to attending class together, university life provides a natural community that is difficult to find in post-collegiate life. My book, When Diversity Drops: Race, Religion, and Affirmative Action in Higher Education, documents how students can foster rich, racially diverse communities that provide avenues for interracial friendship, honest conversations about race, and shared vision. As students form relationships across campus and learn to love their (literal) neighbors of different backgrounds, they will encounter a bigger picture of God’s kingdom and of God’s love that knows no boundary.

We will continue to grapple with the original sin of racism this side of heaven, and we long for God to bring renewal of all that is broken. As young people enter adulthood, college is a pivotal time for them to grapple with the big questions of the day and to prepare for citizenship in a diverse democracy. Christians cannot afford to sit on the sidelines; we are called to be reconcilers, and there is no better place to begin that journey than in the university.

Julie J. Park is an assistant professor of education at the University of Maryland and the author of When Diversity Drops (Rutgers University Press, 2013).

One response to “Racial Diversity in Higher Education”

  1. Mike Nacrelli says:

    Please give a real life example of how a university can “consider race a factor in admissions decisions” without doing so at the expense of fairly evaluating academic qualifications. Do you see any inherent dangers in public institutions practicing such social engineering, no matter how well intentioned?

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