That approach means a freshman engineering student could theoretically satisfy his diversity requirement during the first year and spend the next three years in classes that avoid the topic entirely. But the ultimate goal is to cultivate a roster of courses and a campus climate that are sensitive to different backgrounds and beliefs, Block said. “This is understanding the audience that you’re teaching to and making sure everybody thrives in the environment. There are large classes and students with very diverse experiences.” When he teaches now, Block, a scientist known for his research of circadian rhythms, makes sure his slides reflect the diversity of the students in his course. “We’re all looking for me in those pictures,” he said.
NCSU’s Easley, who as a young black man at the University of Georgia in the late ‘90s said he didn’t feel like he belonged or saw himself reflected in his classes, echoed Block. “Our black students are sitting in class wondering how [they’re being perceived by their professor],” he said. “Those thoughts impact how students perform.” But Easley is optimistic that “the conversations are changing,” which he thinks could ultimately help universities retain more students. More faculty seem to be paying attention these days. When faculty, he said, are socially conscious and create safe spaces for people to share their experiences, more students feel a sense of belonging. “I think that some of our faculty, those who are self aware, know that they don’t know everything,” he said. “You basically make small pockets of progress.”
Even though the process is messy, students, particularly those from communities that have been traditionally left out of conversations on college campuses, seem generally pleased by diversity curriculum requirements, and view them as more impactful than the feel-good statements in favor of diversity some schools put out after they faced student protests. Raamish Saeed, a 20-year-old who graduated earlier this year from St. Louis Community College’s Ferguson campus and will soon enroll at St. Louis University on a full scholarship to complete his bachelor’s degree, said he doesn’t “see any negatives with a diversity course about understanding people with different backgrounds.” After Michael Brown was shot and killed, Saeed said conversations about diversity and inclusion took place among students on campus but not necessarily in all classes. “If we did have some sort of open dialogue,” he said, “it could’ve helped.”
As Easley explained, “everybody is an intersectional being.” These conversations are a way of giving people more information to understand colleagues or classmates that hadn’t previously been brought into the light, allowing similarities to emerge and relationships to flourish.
Whether the courses will ultimately prompt students to be culturally aware and deliberately inclusive of people from different backgrounds is unclear. Some schools’ requirements are so new that it’s too soon to tell. But the picture isn’t entirely rosy. The University of Michigan’s literature, science, and the arts faculty, for instance, approved a “race or ethnicity” requirement back in 1991. The university’s broader Michigan Mandate, unveiled in the 1980s, called for diversity among faculty, staff, and students. Yet students recently issued a list of demands, saying in part that the university had failed to adequately include black students and low-income students in campus life. In other words, the courses may be an important step, but actually upending institutionalized racism requires more than demanding that a student sit through a course that’s vaguely focused on “diversity.”
Still, their apparent rise is encouraging to many educators. Nathan Wright would like to see not only students, but politicians, educators, pastors, and law enforcement officials participate. “I think,” she said, “it should be mandatory.”
Hayley Glatter contributed reporting.