“Diversity” Goes Abroad (Or Doesn’t)

Casual or even close readers of the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed could be forgiven for concluding that higher education in the United States these days is fixated on — indeed, consumed by — an overweening concern with “diversity.” Indeed, if all the reports on and studies of and efforts to promote more “diversity” were suddenly to cease, the resulting reduction in productivity and increase in employment would make the recession in the rest of the economy seem mild by comparison.
Consider, for example, Peter Schmidt’s article in the Chronicle on Tuesday, Race Plays Key Role in Decision to Study Abroad or to Stay Home, Study Finds. “If colleges want their minority students to undertake foreign study at the same rate as white ones,” it begins, “they need to take into account big differences in how racial and ethnic groups respond to the forces influencing students’ decisions to go abroad, a new study concludes.”

If we are serious about trying to diversify study abroad, we have to reach students where they are and design programs which meet their varied needs and concerns,” said Peggy Blumenthal, chief operating officer of the Institute of International Education, which is joining the American Institute for Foreign Study and other groups in hosting a workshop on Tuesday in Washington for study-abroad directors and advisers looking for ways to diversify participation in their programs.


The article concentrates on the diversifiers’ efforts to explain why minorities disproportionately choose to stay at home and what could be done to induce more of them to venture abroad with their more adventurous white peers, but I think what’s most interesting are the unexamined assumptions lurking within and below those two big “If’s.”
Why should colleges care whether their minority students go abroad at the same rate as their “white ones”? Why should they be “serious about trying to diversify study abroad”? So what if, as of the 2007-08 academic year, data collected by the Institute of International education reveals that “about 65 percent of full-time college students were white” but that “white students accounted for nearly 82 percent of all participants in foreign-study programs”? Why, exactly, is this a major problem that needs to be corrected?
Well, as the old saying goes, if all you have is a hammer (the unexplained need for “diversity” everywhere), then every pocket and corner of academic life that is insufficiently “diverse” looks like a nail. And American higher education is certainly not lacking an army of willing and eager carpenters to beat those pockets and corners into shape.
But first, of course, the mysterious failure of minorities to act the way the diversifiers are certain they should must be analyzed and explained. And those explanations, as reported ably by Schmidt, can be more troubling than generally harmless teams of social scientists with solutions firmly in mind marching over the academic countryside in search of problems when they encourage the very negative racial stereotypes that “diversity” is presumably meant to alleviate.
Consider, for example, one of the findings in the study discussed in Schmidt’s article, conducted by Mark H. Salisbury, director of institutional research at Augustana College, in Rock Island, Ill., and Michael B. Paulsen and Ernest T. Pascarella, both professors of higher education at the University of Iowa:

a surprising negative correlation between ACT scores and black students’ decisions to study abroad. The higher their ACT scores, the less likely black students were to plan on foreign study, even though those with the highest test scores tended to be enrolled in small liberal-arts colleges with strong study-abroad programs.

I’m not sure why the investigators find this negative correlation “surprising” — why should students with higher ACT scores be more interested in studying abroad? — but their attempt to explain it is a revealing example of “diversity”-think today:

Nothing in the researchers’ analysis explained the finding, but they speculated that many black students at predominantly white institutions might fear that going abroad would expose them to the same sort of negative stereotyping they dealt with at their home institutions.

This picture both of minority students and the “diversity” to which they are exposed at home is profoundly if unwittingly unflattering. So cowed and intimidated are they by the stereotyping to which they’ve been subjected on their home campuses (they were imported, after all, because they are seen as “different”), this speculation suggests that they are unwilling to venture beyond their present academic plantations for fear of encountering the lash of the same stereotyping expressed in foreign accents.
Never mind that these same authors offer another explanation that is at considerable odds with this speculation:

“Minority students don’t need to seek out cross-cultural experiences by traveling to another country because, in most cases, they already regularly interact across cultural differences in their everyday lives,” says a paper summarizing the study’s findings, which were discussed in Chicago this month at a meeting of off-campus study directors belonging to the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, a consortium of liberal-arts colleges.

Ah, now “diversity” has so many enriching benefits, and minority students experience so much of it on their home campuses, they don’t need to travel abroad to receive its benefits.
Which brings us back to the question of why so many think it so important to diversify study abroad programs. In this regard it is worth recalling that “diversity” is justified on those home campuses because “we” need to be exposed to “them.” Insofar as “diversity” provides a coherent justification for treating people differently based on their race or ethnicity, it is that we benefit from being exposed to people different from us. In practice, as I’ve pointed out many times, this means that blacks and Hispanics have to be imported to selective schools so that Asians and whites can reap the benefits of being exposed to them. “They,” after all, would receive whatever benefits “diversity” has to offer if they attended less selective campuses, but those of “us” at the selective schools would be deprived of the benefits — benefits said increasingly to be fundamental to the mission of higher education — of being exposed to “them.”
But who benefits when “diversity” is exported and goes abroad? Is it really so important for American whites and Asians to be exposed to American blacks in, say, France that we must produce more studies of why they’re “underrepresented” abroad and launch more efforts to recruit them? Of course the minorities receive the same benefits from studying abroad as everyone else (or maybe different benefits, because “diversity” has decreed that they’re “different” from “us”), but should they be recruited just because international education educrats think it would be good for them? I thought in loco parentis had long since been discarded as offensive paternalism.

Diana K. Davies, Princeton University’s vice provost for international initiatives, said the study “shows us that we should not be following a one-size-fits-all approach to promoting study abroad,” even if it does not offer any clear guidance for translating its findings into practice.

Well, here’s some unsolicited guidance for translating the concern about a “diversity” deficit in study abroad: if “diversity” is as important as its advocates claim, concentrate — no, limit — minority recruiting efforts to historically black colleges whose students are deprived of the academic life-blood of “diversity” on their home campuses.

John S. Rosenberg

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *