At Seattle University, diversity is more than a buzzword—it is part of the institutional fabric of the university. But a new task force is looking at how we define diversity, how it is part of the SU culture and ways we can expand our programs to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student population.
By Nick GalloNovember 30, 2007
“Real diversity occurs when people can express differences even from within a particular racial or ethnic group.”—Jacob Diaz, assistant vice president of Student Development/dean of students, It was born not out of any real crisis but because SU wants to make a meaningful assessment of diversity, a hard-headed evaluation of how it's integrated into daily life at the university, says
Robert Kelly, co-chair of the task force and vice president of
Student Development. “When some people think about diversity, they stop at
the numbers—the racial or ethnic makeup of people—but we're going beyond that to
look at how diversity ties into the entire education enterprise,” he says. “There's a feeling we're not doing enough to use our diversity to benefit
“This is complex because there's a wide range of things to consider when you think about faculty members 'buying in' to diversity,” Fitts says. “If you're a sociology professor, it's pretty likely that you're going to be addressing diversity issues—racism, sexism, injustices—but how do you do that if you're a physics professor? It's tempting for some faculty to say, 'Oh, diversity, that's not my issue.'”
However, cultural differences arise in almost every classroom and can affect learning. Two years ago, the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) launched regular workshops on diversity to spur faculty's professional development. They've included topics such as “Strategies for Enhancing Intercultural Learning and Teaching.” During the first year, 30 faculty members attended such sessions. Last year, the number doubled. The center also provides reviews of research literature for faculty. It reports that about one-quarter of the requests for literature reviews from faculty are related to diversity topics. Diversity is woven into numerous coursework offerings as well. This year SU introduced a major in Women Studies, adding to a list that includes International Studies, Global African Studies, International Business, Asian Studies, Cultural Anthropology and Modern Languages and Literature. Additionally, the College of Education recently approved a social justice class as a requirement for all its degree programs. Students also engage diversity through service-learning initiatives, which have become ingrained in the educational fabric of SU. More than three-quarters of all SU undergrads take a course with a service-learning component before they graduate, reports Kent Koth, director of the Center for Service and Community Engagement. Most of the service-learning opportunities take place within a few miles of the SU campus, in neighborhoods with sizable populations of blacks and Asians, says Koth, noting that such experiences push many students out of their comfort zone and force them to grapple with issues of race and class.
Other SU initiatives point an increasing trend toward internationalization. As the world shrinks, and the local and global are increasingly intertwined, educational excellence requires a global dimension, says Lawrence, associate provost for Academic Affairs. Already, several programs have global elements. For instance, students can engage in intensive international study in countries throughout the world as part of the undergraduate International Development Internship Program or graduate Research for Development Fellows Program. Students also have numerous opportunities to join Campus Ministry's immersion programs in places such as Nicaragua, Belize, Ecuador, Mexico, the Philippines and Vietnam. Now, says Lawrence, it's time for SU to take the next step and integrate global learning in a more systematic fashion. “We have lots of good things happening, but it's in an ad hoc way that often depends on a particular person's passion.”
Clearly, diversity has flourished at SU. But how often do students from different groups go beyond incidental, superficial contact—sitting across from each other in a classroom—to have personal, meaningful exchanges with one another?
The 2006 National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), an annual nationwide survey of college students, sheds some light on this.
Of students surveyed, 68 percent of SU seniors reported frequent conversations with students of a different race/ethnicity, compared to a 57 percent average at Jesuit peer institutions. When students were asked whether their institution substantially encourages contact among diverse groups, 67 percent of SU seniors said yes, compared to 49 percent at other Jesuit schools.
Last year, OMA also started “Courageous Conversations,” a series of open discussions meant to foster intergroup dialogue. The once-a-month sessions, led by students who have been trained in diversity issues, focus on controversial topics. “With diversity comes possible conflict, so we have to be able to confront that in a safe environment.”
In December, the Engaging Our Diversity Task Force will make recommendations that will be incorporated into SU's new strategic plan. They will likely address ways to promote diversity inside the classroom and in other areas of campus life, too, says Kelly. Such efforts are bound to be part of an ongoing process, says
President Stephen Sundborg, S.J. “In the last five years, I think we've made
some gains, in terms of creating an environment where minority students feel at
home here, where they feel this is their university,”