Commentary: Viewpoint diversity and racial/ethnic diversity

By Rebekah Adams, Princeton Class of 2021

PFS original content

Higher education institutions have long been devoted to truth-seeking, at least in theory. But they have become less and less hospitable to truth-seeking as they have become more and more politically homogeneous, because students are less and less exposed to ideas that challenge their assumptions. Princeton Professor Keith Whittington argues that lack of ideological diversity, particularly in the faculty, undermines the scholarly mission of universities. Additionally, he states that a greater diversity of perspectives would improve research questions and analysis. Furthermore, I would argue, ideological, or viewpoint, diversity, creates a more intellectually stimulating collegiate experience for students that fosters critical thinking and open-minded leadership. But many progressive students are opposed to increasing viewpoint diversity.

They give two main reasons: First, they see no value in entertaining positions that they see as morally incorrect -- on which more below. Second, they are concerned that viewpoint diversity stands at odds with the cultivation, celebration, and mission of racial and ethnic diversity. In fact, A 2020 Gallup Poll found that 49% of undergraduates said that free speech conflicts with diversity and inclusion occasionally and 27% said that it conflicts frequently.

But is that true? Or might increasing viewpoint diversity work together with the push to increase racial diversity, especially when the latter fosters educationally meaningful intergroup interactions?

In fact, studies show that these two types of diversity can actually work in tandem to promote learning,” Joseph Guarneri  wrote in the Heterodox blog,. “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, studies including a 2014 paper by Ernest Pascarella, Georgina Martin, and others have shown that viewpoint diversity is associated with gains in learning and critical thinking. It can also increase cognitive and personal development. “Put simply, racial diversity on campus can lead to viewpoint diversity,” and viewpoint diversity, “(which . . . encompasses differences in identity and personal values, and more) can promote positive learning outcomes.

To further explore this question, it may be useful to distinguish three types of racial diversity in the learning environment that are discussed in leading studies. A large body of literature has found positive effects of various types of diversity in college and professional settings. These positive effects seem most evident in settings that lead to healthy informal inter-group interactions.

Structural diversity can be defined as “the numerical representation of diverse groups” -- or the percentages of a student body, or of a class, that fall into the most commonly used large racial/ethnic categories of American students: African American, Hispanic American, Asian American, and white, according to a 2002 article by Patricia Gurin, the lead author, and others. That article asserts that “simply attending an ethnically diverse college does not guarantee that students will have the meaningful intergroup interactions that…are important for the reduction of racial prejudice.” This is because creating a racially diverse environment, for instance, does not guarantee that students will engage in intergroup interaction nor does it guarantee that those interactions are meaningful. Academic courses that attract highly disproportionate numbers of any one (or two) of these ethnic groups are not likely to inspire very many meaningful intergroup interactions. At many colleges, for example, hard science and engineering courses are taken disproportionately by Asian-Americans and whites, while courses in African-American studies and sociology are taken disproportionately by African-American students.

Classroom diversity, Gurin and her coworkers write, is active learning about diverse peoples and experience with diverse peers in the classroom. Studies have found that diverse classrooms combat prejudice and provide “a greater sense of security when in environments with other foreign cultures present.” It also helps students learn about other cultures and languages, encouraging them to be interculturally sensitive.  

Informal interactional diversity refers to the frequency and quality of interactions across racial or ethnic boundaries in informal activities outside the classroom, such as dormitories and dining halls. Studies have demonstrated the positive effects of interactional diversity and how it works in tandem with structural and classroom diversity. A 2012 study by Pascarella, Salisbury, and others, for instance, found that “interactional diversity positively influenced both social/political activism and liberal political views.” (The study also found that “the magnitude of the effects of both interactional and classroom diversity is substantially determined by individual student precollege characteristics.”) Other positive outcomes include a student body with a pluralistic mindset and increased civic engagement after college. A 2001 study by Pascarella, Betsy Palmer, and others (like the 2014 paper led by Pascarella) found that cross-racial and cross-gender interactions could also increase students’ critical thinking skills.

But not many scholars have turned their attention to the effects on student outcomes of ideological interaction in a climate of viewpoint diversity. Many students assume that viewpoint diversity stands at odds with the cultivation, celebration, and mission of racial and ethnic diversity. Bur scholarly research has in recent years undermined this assumption.

Perhaps the most interesting discussion of informal interactive diversity and ideological interaction – which could be called viewpoint diversity -- is a 2020 study by Jiali Luo,  “Interaction across Ideological Boundaries and College Outcomes.” Based an online survey of three alumni cohorts (classes of 1985, 1995, and 2000) from four private, highly selective research universities with common attributes and goals, Luo focused on the effects of ideological interaction on students’ collegiate and post-college outcomes. Of course, students are more likely to have ideological interactions if exposed in and out of the classroom to viewpoint diversity. Students who were highly interactive across ideological lines challenged their own political, religious beliefs, racial and ethnic beliefs. And the effects were striking.

Luo found that a majority of respondents across cohorts reported some level of ideological interaction during college. And he concluded that “students who engaged substantially in ideological interaction during college indicated higher levels of skill development, reported higher career success and life satisfaction, and were more likely to assume leadership roles in civic activities.” Ideological interaction was also positively correlated with science literacy, questioning beliefs, likelihood of obtaining recommendations, monetary success after college, and life satisfaction.

Also of interest, Luo found, students in STEM fields were more likely than students in humanities to engage in such ideological interactions. So were Caucasian students, male students, and recipients of financial aid. Perhaps surprisingly, respondents who participated in Greek life or organized religious activities displayed a positive correlation with ideological interaction. This may seem counterintuitive, given the fact that students who join fraternities and sororities tend to be very homogeneous. Luo suggests that the Greek organizations’ emphasis on social activities and access to alumni and peer networks expands their interactions with people of diverse ideologies. He found that respondents who were involved in student publications, on the other hand, reported fewer ideological interactions. Perhaps, he suggests, this could be partially explained by the facts that these students were concentrated in the humanities, and that humanities students engage less in ideological interactions than students in other disciplines.

Luo presents several ways institutions can create an environment that fosters interactions across ideological lines. For one, he suggests that institutions should create an inclusive and productive learning environment and consistently communicate engaging diversity. Naturally, I do not think that universities lack in that department. Second, Luo says that institutions should provide training programs to guide students how to engage in productive dialogues about political and social issues and develop their conflict resolution skills, so as to understand different perspectives and differences with the objective of building solutions and seeking truth.

Institutions currently focus less on training students in conflict resolution, as Luo advises they should do, than in forms of diversity training that are more widely used but pay less attention to how we struggle with communicating and listening to one another. Certainly, diversity training has positive aspects such as increasing awareness of the different experiences individuals in an academic institution may have. But diversity training also has mixed results and has often proven to be ineffective. It has also been shown  to reinforce biases, according to a 2018 study by Leigh S. Wilton and others titled “Valuing Differences and Reinforcing Them: Multiculturalism Increases Race Essentialism.”

The 2018 study concludes that “across two experiments, we present evidence for an unexpectedly negative outcome of multiculturalism: increased belief in race essentialism, or the notion that racial group differences are valid, biologically based, and immutable. . . . These findings raise the ironic possibility that well-intentioned efforts to portray the value of differences may reinforce the belief that fixed, biological characteristics underpin them.”

Another point suggested by Luo is that “institutions should encourage students to extend their social activities beyond participation in only ideologically or culturally homogenous social groups and create opportunities for them to engage in deep reciprocal collaborative interactions.” Furthermore, faculty should be responsible for promoting student interaction. I think that this could be through the form of encouraging debate with students who share different viewpoints in the classroom or simply recommending events on either side of the ideological spectrum to students. We naturally want to cocoon ourselves into echo chambers and hear what sounds good to us or makes us happy just as much as we want to stay with our respective racial or ethnic groups. But interacting in ideologically heterogeneous social groups allows us to break out of the comfort zone and develop new perspectives.

Again, many students that think that some opinions are morally incorrect and not worth hearing. But, according to Erin McLaughlin, an educator in Pennsylvania, it is never a worthless endeavor to understand why someone may have those opinions and then share the facts. Ultimately, having students engage with one another allows them to develop nuanced perspectives instead of tribalistically defending their own unchallenged perspectives.

More fundamentally, how is one to know whether a position is morally incorrect if he or she has not examined arguments and evidence for it as well as against it? Reasonable people often disagree about whether a wide range of positions are morally incorrect. For example, while opposition to all racial discrimination was deemed morally correct by most progressives a few decades ago, including Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, now most (or at least many) progressives contend that it is morally correct to disfavor white people to remedy the pervasive discrimination against people of color for most of our history. That, many progressives contend, is what justifies using large racial preferences to admit more students of color to selective colleges. (The Supreme Court has upheld such racial admissions preferences not as a remedy but rather on the ground that a racially diverse student body has important educational benefits for all students. Grutter v. Bollinger (2003)).

Universities also have a responsibility not only to provide their students with novel experiences and tools to think critically about various ideas and opinions, but also to develop students professionally. College graduates should be armed with the ability to debate and engage civilly with those with whom they disagree or to confront those who speak offensively. Do universities want to create critical-thinking leaders -- or conformist robots? I can only hope that they will remain committed to the former.

Studies including those discussed above provide empirical evidence that rich viewpoint diversity creates an environment conducive to maximal learning and professional development. Furthermore, I think the evidence suggests that ideological diversity can reinforce interactive informal diversity and vice versa. But I hope that these phenomena will be explored more in the future, especially with modern alumni cohorts (whose ideological views and perspectives may differ from those of older cohorts and ideological interaction may be more limited) and because mine is currently a minority view among college students.

Rebekah Adams is pursuing a doctorate in mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon.