Four new studies show the positive effects of a varied student body
If you are looking for a campus that celebrates its diversity and sees strength in its mix of students from a variety of backgrounds, you need search no further than the University of Massachusetts Boston, which is located near the JFK Library in Dorchester.
Forty-one percent of UMass Boston’s nearly 16,000 students are ethnic minorities or student of color, explains Juan Nunez, the school’s director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Students hail from more than 80 countries, making it the most diverse university in Massachusetts and one of the most diverse public universities in the United States.
Now, four new studies on diversity, which were presented at a November meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, reinforce the value of a diverse learning environment as one that bolsters critical-thinking skills in the students. This comes as no surprise to Nunez, who became the university’s first diversity officer in 2010. “The more interaction you can encourage among students of different backgrounds, the more they profit from the experience,” he explains.
Several of the new diversity studies are based on a rich pool of data, the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education, which canvassed 2,212 students in 17 colleges and universities. One significant finding: In order for diversity to influence critical-thinking skills, interactions must be varied and recurring.
From his own work in the field, UMass Boston’s Nunez agrees with this finding. “We all arrive on campus with our unconscious biases,” he explains. “As a result, we have a tendency to gravitate to individuals who look like us. In order to dispel those biases, we have to encourage interaction on multiple levels: in the classroom, in campus leadership, and on variety of projects.”
One of the new diversity studies, provisionally titled “Conditional Good Practices,” looked at the number of times students interacted with others who differed from them by race, national origin, religion, values and political beliefs. Students were asked, for example, how often they had engaged in honest and meaningful conversations with students whose race or ethnicity differed from their own, and had taken cultural awareness workshops.
The greater the amount of student interaction, the authors found, the greater the improvement in the students’ critical-thinking skills, the more they enjoyed reading and writing, and the greater their intellectual curiosity.
Given the sheer number of diverse students on the UMass Boston campus, it would be difficult for any student to avoid interaction, but the college reinforces connections by requiring undergraduates to take a class that emphasizes diversity in its curriculum. Nunez also meets regularly with affinity groups of African-American, Hispanic, and Asian students to encourage them to work together on projects.
“The reality is that if we don’t teach students to work together, we are failing them,” says Nunez, who points to companies that are determined to hire a diverse work force. “The companies invariably work in teams that require diversity if they are to reach their business goals. The better we prepare our students, the better they will succeed.”
Perhaps because the US population is becoming increasingly varied, the new emphasis on the diversity has moved beyond the standard black/shite definitions that influenced affirmative action admissions policies in previous decades. Even as the Supreme Court meets to decide the merits of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, a case that claims a white student was denied admission to the university because of her race, the research on diversity has moved on.
At UMass Boston, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion focuses on a much broader picture, thanks, in part, to the leadership of UMass Boston Chancellor J. Keith Motley, the school’s first African-American leader. “The very definition of diversity continues to grow beyond the things we’ve known for centuries, like skin color,” Motley said in a recent Boston Globe interview. “I believe diversity has a much or more to do with experiences, habits, likes and dislikes, philosophies and personal belief systems, lifestyle, and so much more.”
Under Motley’s leadership, the share of people of color in executive administration roles has grown, as the percentage of minority graduate students, with students of color now making up 53 percent of UMass Boston’s STEM majors.
According to Tricia A. Seifert, one study’s author and an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, the greatest benefits of a diverse education accrued to students who entered college with a relatively low level of critical thinking skills, often students who had grown up in a monocultural environment. Thus, she explained, “the most pronounced cognitive benefits of the diversity experience during college may actually accrue to white students.”