The Complicated Process of Adding Diversity to the College Syllabus

From physics to forestry, schools are asking professors to reconsider the lens through which they teach.

UCLA recently passed a new diversity course requirement. (Lucy Nicholson / Reuters )

When Thomas Easley interviews people who want to teach statistics at North Carolina State University (NCSU), he poses a question most applicants probably aren’t expecting: How would you integrate diversity into your curriculum?

It’s a question more universities seem to be asking in the aftermath of student protests against the dearth of people of color on their campuses and in their coursework. Hamilton College in New York recently adopted a plan that will require professors across all disciplines to discuss diversity and inclusion in their classes. St. Edward’s University, a progressive Catholic school in Texas, is revamping a series of standalone diversity- and social-justice-focused courses it has long required in an attempt to urge professors across campus to work such conversations into a wider array of classes. And after a decade-long-plus discussion, UCLA will soon require all students entering its main undergraduate college to fulfill a diversity course requirement.

Proponents say that asking students to acknowledge and discuss ideas and concepts through a variety of lenses with classmates from different backgrounds is every bit as important in an increasingly global society as drilling the fundamentals of essay-writing into young minds. But the idea is predictably controversial, with critics saying the requirements are a left-leaning affront to academic freedom. And even professors who are generally supportive of incorporating conversations about diversity into their teaching sometimes say they don’t know where to begin; lots of schools like to talk about diversity, but it’s a nebulous if nice-sounding word, and schools that espouse the broad concept sometimes fail to define exactly what they mean or expect when they tell professors to weave it into their work.

As a professor and the head of the diversity office at NCSU’s College of Natural Resources, Easley spends a good chunk of his time trying to provide some clarity. The university has a diversity requirement right now, but myriad courses qualify and Easley thinks too many of them center on an undercovered topic (African American cinema, for example) instead of focusing on the interactions between people from different backgrounds that can help students navigate campus and, later, the workforce. And professors don’t necessarily buy the idea that they need to incorporate diversity into, say, an engineering class; right now, most universities have incentives in place, such as tenure, that encourage research, not inclusivity. To increase the substance of the courses at his own College of Natural Resources, Easley is in the process of rolling out a year-long pilot program to encourage and train more faculty to integrate conversations about diversity into curriculum.

Some instructors already do it naturally, he said. Others know their subject matter cold, but they “don’t know how to convey that message cross-culturally or cross-generationally.” So when professors or surprised job applicants clam up, he gives them examples. In forestry, for instance, people need to secure the trust of landowners from all backgrounds, and the process of earning that trust varies depending on who the landowner is. “Don’t complain about people if you’re not teaching them how to [discuss diversity],” Easley said. “Let’s teach them. Let’s show them so they have a blueprint.”

Providing that blueprint is more straightforward at some schools than at others. At St. Edward’s, students have been taking a class called “The American Experience” for years as part of the school’s core “Cultural Foundations” curriculum. As the syllabus spells out, “The purpose of this course is to examine this diversity in experience throughout the country's history, examining the struggles, achievements, and perspectives of marginalized groups in U.S. history.” There are explicit objectives, among them to “recognize the origin and evolution of the values, myths, and ideals that comprise American civic culture and their influence on society as a whole.”

But other universities that require students to fulfill a diversity requirement allow a number of different courses to count. Iowa State University, for instance, has said that “Archaeology of North America” and “American Sign Language I” satisfy the school’s diversity requirement. A cursory survey of several dozen other universities with diversity requirements suggests that most schools take a similarly generous approach. That can make ensuring that students are actually considering perspectives different than their own tricky. Far fewer colleges actually require individual courses with curriculum designed specifically to foster cross-cultural exchanges.

Diversity curriculum is sometimes championed more by faculty who care to develop it—often people of color who have had personal experiences with discrimination on college campuses—and less by university administrators. And while universities are often willing to pay lip service to the efforts, they’re not always prepared to empower the people behind them. Easley has visited a number of schools to talk to faculty about diversity, and often sees diversity offices that lack hiring power or their own budgets, and they can be constrained by preconceptions from administrators about exactly what they should do. At his own college, Easley was initially hired to focus on recruiting students of color, but they were among the most likely to drop out. After talking to students, he discovered some had had negative experiences with faculty and realized, he said, that he needed to help faculty learn to interact with people from different backgrounds. But it’s taken years of talking to faculty for that idea to gain traction. “You need both power and influence to actualize diversity,” he said. In other words, diversity initiatives can look nice on the surface, but dig in and there’s sometimes little substance.

Meanwhile, at a time when schools face mounting pressure to help students graduate on time (and limit the debt they accrue), professors can be reluctant to get behind stand-alone diversity requirements that add to a student’s workload. St. Edward’s is in the process of rethinking and scaling back its much-lauded, decades-old diversity curriculum in part because of pressure to reduce the number of general-education requirements, make it easier for transfer students to graduate on time, and better enable students to earn minors.

But the school is also trying to get more professors—professors who may have dismissed the diversity-focused courses as the territory of a small cluster of faculty—to incorporate a focus on cross-cultural understanding into their own teaching. Laura Hernandez-Ehrisman is one of the professors at St. Edward’s encouraging more of her colleagues to incorporate cross-cultural conversations into their instruction. “We just want to ... broaden the community a little bit,” she said. But she acknowledges that the shift brings with it the challenge of training more faculty to effectively teach such topics and making sure that the courses actually delve into the topics they’re designed to cover, something she’s watched other schools struggle with from afar.

Even professors who have been immersed in that kind of curricula for years say guiding students through such conversations isn’t easy. Amy Nathan Wright, who teaches some of the school’s core diversity classes, said she tries to help her students, many from Texas high schools that haven’t spent much time examining the history of Latinos in the U.S. or the experiences of women, make connections between things like reconstruction and modern incarceration. Students talk about Trayvon Martin in the same breath as slavery and the convict lease system. “They leave with a very different sense of history and then it prepares them for looking at contemporary issues,” she said.

Yet Nathan Wright said there is some resistance from students who don’t initially see how such conversations are useful. And recently, facilitating conversations between students from different backgrounds has become more of a fraught process, particularly given the vitriolic political climate and deep racial tensions that have surfaced across the U.S. “Everything I’ve taught covers this, and the last year has been the hardest in my teaching career,” she said. “I’ve never had such a lack of answers for my students before because I don’t know what's going on. It’s hard to take the current reality and process it.”

The current tension may mean the courses are more important than ever, though.  “These are stories that you just don’t hear outside of these classrooms, and in order to understand what is happening on the streets, it’s important to explore the historical context of those struggles,” Hernandez-Ehrisman said. “Whether or not you agree with [Black Lives Matter protests], it’s important to understand where that’s coming from.”

Even with the challenges, a relatively small private school like St. Edward’s is able to point to its mission statement when students push back at the diversity course requirements. Promoting such instruction may be easier at institutions where diversity as a value has been baked in for so long. A large public university like UCLA has to weigh the concerns and opinions of a broader constituency.

The chancellor of UCLA, Gene Block, acknowledged the sometimes-slow struggle to move his university forward, but is optimistic the new diversity course requirement will foster a more inclusive, tolerant environment. “I hope it’s going to make a difference,” he said. The university offers a “wide range of opportunities for students to appreciate multicultural differences,” he said, noting the university’s diversity office and new vice chancellor for equity, diversity, and inclusion. The new requirement is an attempt to add an “academic component” he felt was “missing.” Drumming up enough support to create the requirement at UCLA was not easy and took several tries. Some faculty argued it imposed unnecessary burdens on students who are already going to school on a diverse campus in a diverse city. But Block insisted that “in the end, I think most faculty believe there was significant intellectual rigor in the courses.”

Unlike St. Edward’s, UCLA opted to allow a slew of courses to count toward the diversity requirement. Classes that satisfy the requirement must "substantially addresses racial, ethnic, gender, socioeconomic, sexual orientation, religious or other types of diversity." In response to a question about whether that will let students stick within their relative comfort zones, he said the classes are intended to be “comparative,” and suggested that allowing a variety of approaches was a “more intellectually rigorous” approach to diversity than “a prescriptive course.”

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.