Exposing students to diversity doesn't happen by accident

Intergroup dialogue forces students to engage in deeper, more meaningful conversations

Colleges and universities are encouraging students of different backgrounds to engage in intergroup dialogue as a way to break down barriers and bring people together, Sarah Brown reports for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

According to Patricia Gurin, a professor emerita of psychology and women's studies at the University of Michigan (UM) at Ann Arbor, students of varying backgrounds do interact with one another, but conversations tend to be superficial. Students must be able to discuss deeper subjects than, "What did you do on Saturday night?" she says.

Cornell University senior Aditi Bhowmick notes that students may hesitate to step outside of the "default settings" of certain groups because "it's almost seen as a betrayal."

UM first explored the concept of intergroup dialogue nearly thirty years ago when developing a new course. The class brings students from two different demographic groups together to learn how to engage in constructive conversation and distinguish debate from dialogue. Then, the students choose topics for the class to discuss as a whole. Lastly, two students from each demographic group collaborate on a project.

Gurin has noticed that many white students in race-focused courses fear being perceived as ignorant or intolerant, while many minority students are frustrated explaining concepts such as microaggressions to their white peers.

"They learn in a facilitated conversation that they can say things and make mistakes," Gurin says. "We would never call it a 'safe space,' but there's some assurance that they're not going to be attacked or made foolish by their ignorance."

Promoting diversity and inclusion in the classroom

The course has grown into a voluntary academic program and undergraduate minor. Several colleges have created intergroup dialogue programs modeled after the one at UM, and the university holds an annual institute for colleges that want to learn more about the concept.

At Cornell, Bhowmick has helped facilitate "Breaking Bread" events—which bring students of different backgrounds together over a meal—as part of the school's intergroup-dialogue project. At a recent event with Black Students United and Cornell Hillel featuring cornbread and challah on the menu, Bhowmick observed "a dialogue you don't see happening unless you bring those people together." At the end of another dinner with diverse fraternity members, "it looked like they had been friends for years."

Does intergroup dialogue bring people together?  

Intergroup dialogue is a step toward inclusivity, but not everyone is sold on the concept.

Increasing student diversity on campus doesn't necessarily mean that people from varying backgrounds will get along or better understand one another, says Beverly Daniel Tatum, clinical psychologist and former president of Spelman College.  

Measuring diversity climate and implementing diversity initiatives

"I think the expectation that some higher-education institutions have is that if we bring students of different populations together, they'll just stumble across each other and figure out how to do this," Tatum says. "But they don't."

Similarly, Gurin says that UM's intergroup-dialogue course can't be forced.

"It's about reaching those who are motivated to learn how to do this better," she says.

Continuing need for minority groups

Beginning this fall, the University of Connecticut (UConn) will launch the ScHOLA2RS House, or Scholastic House of Leaders who are African American Researchers and Scholars. While any male student can apply for about one of 50 spots in the community, the goal is to group black men together in an effort to foster support and boost their graduation rates.

Critics of such efforts argue that minority "silos" only serve to further isolate students within their own racial and ethnic groups.

Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, has written several letters to UConn President Susan Herbst criticizing the ScHOLA2RS House.

Developing a center for diversity and inclusion

"I don't know how they can make an argument that there's equal access and equal treatment if they treat certain students differently," he says, arguing that separate opportunities for students of different races amounts to segregation.

But Kathleen Wong (Lau), director of the Southwest Center for Human Relations Studies at the University of Oklahoma, believes that people don't understand the need for minority students to have their own groups and programs.

Minority students' "whole experience on campus is an experience of interacting with difference," she says, which is why it is crucial that they "have a safe place where people like them get it" (Brown, Chronicle of Higher Education, 5/15).

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