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January 15, 2021+Joseph Guarneri
+Viewpoint Diversity+Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)

Racial Diversity and Viewpoint Diversity: A False Dichotomy

In the context of college student learning, racial diversity and viewpoint diversity are often seen as two wholly different approaches to promoting positive outcomes—with the latter even sometimes portrayed as a repudiation of the former.

This dichotomy is partly rooted in the debates over landmark affirmative action cases, which have continued to consider the relationships between racial diversity, viewpoint diversity, and student learning. Opponents of affirmative action have argued that by basing admissions decisions too strongly on race, institutions downplay other valuable identity characteristics like personal values, beliefs, and life experience, which may stifle viewpoint diversity. Proponents insist that more racial diversity on campus will provide the educational benefit of more viewpoint diversity. Over the years, however, the discussion has bafflingly evolved so as to place racial diversity and viewpoint diversity against each other.

In a 2017 study on cognition and viewpoint/racial diversity, for example, higher ed researcher Kathleen Goodman writes that, “an organized effort to challenge affirmative action and diversity-focused initiatives in higher education expanded soon after the Grutter v. Bollinger decision [on affirmative action]…While many reasons for challenging diversity in higher education persist, two criticisms are common. The first acknowledges that diversity has a positive effect on learning but argues that diversity experiences do not have to be based on race. These critics contend that viewpoint diversity…is just as valuable as racial diversity.”

The framing of viewpoint diversity as a challenge to racial diversity is misleading, not least because it implies that those who advocate for viewpoint diversity are somehow challenging racial diversity itself. It may also explain why student affairs professionals and other administrators focus so much of their attention toward racial diversity initiatives yet are reluctant to embrace viewpoint diversity. Racial diversity and equity are, and should be, major concerns in higher education; if another approach is said to minimize or threaten that focus, it is no wonder that practitioners are inclined to shy away from it.

But not only is such a contrast detached from the beliefs of many advocates. It is also not borne out by research. In fact, studies show that these two types of diversity can actually work in tandem to promote learning. A 2006 study by higher ed researchers Gary Pike and George Kuh showed that structural diversity on campus (i.e. a racially heterogeneous student population) was positively related to viewpoint diversity. In turn, a number of studies have shown that viewpoint diversity is associated with gains in learning and cognitive development. Put simply, racial diversity on campus can lead to viewpoint diversity, and viewpoint diversity (which, beyond one’s political leanings, encompasses differences in identity, personal values, and more) can promote positive learning outcomes.

A 2020 study even showed that college graduates who engaged in ideological interactions (i.e. interactions across ideological boundaries) had higher levels of skill development, more career success, a higher degree of life satisfaction, and a higher likelihood of taking on civic leadership roles. Unsurprisingly, students reap the cognitive and personal benefits of viewpoint diversity even after graduation. Those benefits extend beyond the professional realm. Students who are used to engaging with a diverse range of viewpoints and diverse groups of peers will, undoubtedly, be more inclined to exercise the kind of considered thinking needed to navigate today’s polarized climate.

In the past, I’ve argued that student affairs practitioners—especially key decision makers at the upper levels of the administration—need to incorporate viewpoint diversity into their initiatives and professional development strategies. I’ve argued that viewpoint diversity is key to building teams of informed and intellectually engaged professionals, which would benefit our students in the end. And I’ve held the position that increasing viewpoint diversity among college administrations will allow us to rid ourselves of the reputation for ideological close-mindedness we’ve earned among some professors.

What I realize now is that before we can do any of this, we must work to de-stigmatize the concept of viewpoint diversity among higher ed professionals. To do so, we must illustrate more effectively the ways in which viewpoint diversity can lead to student learning alongside racial diversity rather than in spite of it. If we don’t, many administrators who may be open to advocating for viewpoint diversity and the positive effects it can have on students will remain averse to it.

Reversing such a stigma is more difficult now given our heightened awareness of race and racism. What’s more, administrators seem to make up a smaller percentage of the viewpoint diversity advocacy crowd when compared with professors and researchers, which means our influence is limited. Those of us who are already engaged with the conversation, however, need to bring it to our workplaces and to our professional conferences.

There is no reason for viewpoint diversity and racial diversity to be seen as opponents. As we have known for years, both promote student learning and development. And if one connects the dots between the empirical studies on them, they even seem to complement one another.

Yet the relationship between the two seems to be another casualty of the “culture war,” to the detriment of student affairs work and, most importantly, students themselves. Until we can unite them once again, until we can reverse the pernicious belief that viewpoint diversity advocacy seeks to overshadow racial diversity, our efforts to prepare students for post-college life will continue to fall short.

As more institutions look to implement Diversity-Equity-Inclusion initiatives, they would do well to highlight viewpoint diversity as complementary–rather than antagonistic–to DEI-centered learning. DEI programs could, for example, cover the work of viewpoint diversity advocates who have championed racial diversity. They could also bring attention to the fact that there are numerous ways of thinking about DEI-related concerns, even if some are against the mainstream DEI grain. Simple changes like these can help administrators understand that the viewpoint diversity movement itself is not a challenge to racial diversity, and that viewpoint diversity is needed within DEI initiatives. Above all, these changes can help DEI programs to illustrate that those who advocate for viewpoint diversity and those who push for racial diversity share the same goal: a more comprehensive educational environment for our students.


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