Black to School: Towards a Healthy Campus Climate for Diversity

julie-parkNOTE: This is the eighth part in our 8-part Black to School series which highlights African-American voices and experiences at Christian colleges. Please read Part 1 for context. Today's post comes from Julie Park, an expert on race, religion and higher education. Julie is assistant professor of education at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of When Diversity Drops: Race, Religion, and Affirmative Action in Higher Education, which explores how decreases in racial diversity affect everyday campus life. She also blogs for Huffington Post.


Every year our country continues to diversify and by 2050, Whites will no longer be a majority in the United States. Do our colleges and universities reflect this diversity? There are numerous reasons why racial diversity is important in higher education. From a social justice perspective, it is necessary to provide equal opportunity for students of all backgrounds to attend college and develop their minds to the fullest potential. It is critical for the future of our democracy, to prepare our young people for citizenship in our nation’s diverse democracy. Universities are training grounds for our country’s future leaders to understand how to interact across difference, and engaging with racial diversity during the college years is associated with numerous educational, civic, and developmental benefits, such as academic and cognitive skills; leadership and teamwork skills; prejudice reduction; social agency and civic development. Thus, to support our diverse society, college students need experience living and learning in racially diverse communities.

While many universities have made notable progress in racial/ethnic diversity, there are still troubling and widespread disparities. An unprecedented number of Latino/a and Black students, our country’s largest “student of color” population, are attending college, but they are disproportionately more likely to attend under-resourced institutions where the likelihood of graduating is low. As Georgetown researchers Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl state in a recent report, the higher education system works to reproduce inequality: Black, Latino/a, and low-income students are disproportionately more likely to start their college journeys at under-resourced two-year and other open access institutions. Concurrently, higher income students start college at the wealthiest institutions where they are most likely to graduate and gain access to the best jobs. The rich get richer and the poor have a hard time getting a leg up to break the cycle. This has especially tragic dividends for high achieving low-income students.

In order to nurture the benefits associated with racial diversity, all universities need to work to foster a healthy campus climate for diversity. The campus climate construct, developed by Sylvia Hurtado of UCLA and colleagues, identifies several interrelated components that contribute to a healthy campus racial climate. First is “structural diversity”—the racial/ethnic composition of a student body. We see optimal outcomes when student bodies are more racially heterogeneous, versus a student body that is lopsided in its composition (i.e., 90% White). At minimum, institutions need a “critical mass” of students of color, otherwise, these students may experience tokenization and marginalization. Also, research shows that student interaction across race is the highest at the most diverse campuses. As my book When Diversity Drops shows, demography matters because it provides the baseline opportunity for students to have racially diverse friendship groups. Students of color are gravely underrepresented at many Christian colleges, as documented by work by Kristy Paredes-Collins.

However, numbers are not enough. If you just bring together a diverse group of people without creating a supportive environment for them to interact, you may actually end up with more conflict and hostility. The other components of campus climate are the historic legacy of the institution, the psychological perceptions regarding diversity, and the behavioral dimension. The historic legacy speaks to how the university has addressed its past. As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s never past.” Christians can rejoice that we have new life in Christ; the old has gone and the new has come. However, to pretend that historic racial discrimination has no effect on present-day inequality is unwise. Christian colleges should be upfront in recognizing the dark parts of their histories and recognize how prior instances of institutionalized discrimination affect the present. Further, evangelical Christianity has its own deep history of racial divides, as documented in Divided by Faith by sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith. We still grapple with brokenness as we live in the tension between “kingdom now, kingdom not yet,” and this brokenness extends to racism at both an individual and systemic, institutionalized level. When we play down the effects of race-related brokenness, we diminish the seriousness of sin and minimize the need for God to make all things new.

Psychological perceptions, the next dimension of climate, are related to the perceptions that students hold about the institution and its commitment to positive race relations. Other dynamics of campus climate may overlap to influence perceptions. For instance, if Black students were barred from admission until a certain year (history), is it any wonder that an institution might have a reputation for being unwelcoming to students of color (perceptions)? My own research shows that students are more satisfied with campus and faculty diversity (perceptions) at more racially diverse campuses (structural diversity). Perceptions also link to the basic question of whether students feel that their administration and faculty care about them. Do they feel a sense of belonging (an outcome that research shows is especially pertinent to the well-being and success of students of color), or do they feel excluded from the traditions and mainstays of campus culture?

Lastly is the behavioral dimension of campus climate: The intergroup and within-group interactions that students have. An especially important dynamic to note is that in general, students of color have much higher rates of cross-racial interaction than their White peers. They may spend some time in same-ethnic friendship groups or student organizations, but research shows that these groups do not lower their cross-racial interaction: They may even enhance it. The logic is that if an ethnic student group (say, the Asian American Student Association) gives a student a “safe space” on campus to refuel with friends of the same ethnicity, the student will be able to engage in other parts of campus with friends and acquaintances of different races. However, it is important for these ethnic-specific groups to have ties to the broader campus community. Once again, structural diversity is essential: Cross-racial interaction is highest at the most racially diverse campuses. Studies by Mitchell Chang at UCLA show that White students actually have the lowest rates of cross-racial interaction and interracial friendship, a cause for concern.

Fostering racial diversity on college campuses is not just about alleviating the negative; it’s also welcoming the positive—a fuller picture of the people of God, fostering the beauty of God’s creativity and love for the nations. When we welcome and nurture diversity on our university campuses, we are fostering conditions that bolster student learning, critical thinking, and civic engagement. Currently, very few Christian colleges are known as leaders or exemplars in the area of racial diversity. It would be wonderful to see the reverse happen.

Check out Julie's website!