Theory in Practice

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by Dana Forde

He researched the history of Newark, N.J. He heard about Mayor Cory Booker’s efforts to lead a revitalization of the city. But it wasn’t until he arrived for an interview at Rutgers University’s Newark campus did professor Brandon Paradise grasp what all the enthusiasm had been about.

“When I walked on campus, I felt immediately at home. I felt that this was a place where I could make meaningful relationships,” says Paradise, who practiced law before landing an assistant professorship at the Rutgers-Newark School of Law three years ago. “(The Rutgers campus) is like you’re walking through the United Nations. It really has a global quality to it in one of America’s most historically rich cities.”

Paradise is not the only one to be inspired by the international appeal and uniqueness of the 38-acre urban campus. For more than a decade, Rutgers-Newark has been ranked the nation’s most diverse university by U.S. News and World Report. Officials say the institution’s diversity is fueled, in part, by the area’s growing immigrant population. In fact, 37 percent of undergraduate students report that English is not their first language.

Now, the university’s unique composition is allowing it to test a theory that diversity advocates have long argued but have lacked rigorous scholarship to support: students of all backgrounds benefit from learning in a multicultural and multi-ethnic environment. University officials are refining existing policies and implementing new practices to measure the precise academic benefits of maintaining a diverse student population.

“Rutgers University-Newark, because of its incredibly high level of diversity, is one of the few places in the country where you can actually do research on the impact of high diversity on the learning of college students,” says Dr. Sharon McDade, director of the American Council on Education Fellows Program. 

The idea to investigate measurable benefits of diversity in student learning or outcomes came from Rutgers-Newark’s experience with the ACE Fellows Program. In the past, fellows used hypothetical universities to examine a wide range of issues related to, among other things, leadership and decision making in higher education. However, the 2009-2010 fellowship class was the first group to conduct a full-scale live institution study. Rutgers-Newark was the organization’s pick for its first analysis.

“The fellows are learning about how leadership happens from the viewpoint of the senior level, and what better way to immerse them in that than a live institution study,” says McDade.

According to ACE officials, 18 fellowship teams worked with various units throughout Rutgers-Newark to “identify ways to advance the institution’s diversity and increase community engagement to further the mission of the college.”

University officials have implemented several of the fellows’ proposals, which include refining the development of the institution’s Diversity Research Center. Housed in the John Cotton Dana Library, two of the core missions of the Diversity Center are to conduct research related to diversity and organizational performance and to advance faculty research on diversity.

As a result of the success of the Rutgers study, ACE fellows now analyze a different institution every year. McDade says the Rutgers-Newark case helped provide a framework that fellows use in the program’s second institution study: Chicago’s Roosevelt University.

ACE Fellows also suggested that Rutgers-Newark create a systematic method of tracking outcomes related to diversity, which university officials are in the process of developing.

For example, the university is developing assessment tools to measure students’ “cultural awareness” when they enter and graduate from the institution. This approach, says Assistant Chancellor Mark Winston, will foster a more comprehensive method of assessing students’ feedback related to how diversity impacts their experiences. A comprehensive system would also provide university officials with a holistic process of recording anecdotal information from employers who credit Rutgers-Newark for adequately preparing students to enter the work force. 

“Instead of just leaving it to quasi-anecdotal data,” comprehensive diversity outcomes assessment is a necessity, says Rutgers-Newark Chancellor Steven J. Diner. “We want to gauge the cultural awareness of students … and really build it into various instruments (of the campus) and do it in the spirit of assessment.”

Graduating senior exit surveys consistently show students report benefiting from the diversity of the Rutgers-Newark campus. Officials are in the process of redesigning the survey to include more specific questions related to students’ academic and living experiences, Winston says.

The university also plans to continue administering its Faculty Professional Development Workshop on Diversity. Implemented in 2009, these sessions are designed to assist faculty members in devising new methods of using student diversity as a teaching tool. This year’s discussions are targeted for specific disciplines, including the humanities and social sciences.

“There is a need for faculty to be able to handle what we are framing as the unscripted moments,” says Winston, referring to class discussions that randomly turn to race and gender issues.

He adds that Rutgers-Newark’s initiatives do not focus on derailing the learning process but rather on ensuring healthy intellectual exchange in the classroom. “We want faculty to maximize the fact that students provide a breadth of perspectives,” says Winston.

Teaching Assistance

Whether diversity’s benefit can be quantified or not, Rutgers-Newark business professor Dr. Jerome D. Williams sees evidence every day that the rich student and faculty diversity informs the teaching and research taking place on campus.

“Rutgers does have a diverse student body, and the climate of diversity really resonated with me as a researcher,” says Williams, citing diversity as a primary reason he joined the Rutgers faculty.

Williams, whose research focuses on marketplace discrimination and multicultural advertising, says diversity is an inherent component of the business curriculum. By emphasizing diversity, he says, students learn how organizations can more effectively reach out to a broad customer base.

“Things have changed dramatically,” Williams says. “You cannot take the position anymore that diversity does not matter. Any business that is not looking at the multicultural perspective of business is not going to be in business long.”

Even though more than 100 countries are represented on the Rutgers-Newark campus, staff and faculty say race and ethnicity are not the only measurements of diversity. The fact that 10 to 12 percent of students are Muslim and 10  to 12 percent are Hindu further highlights the institution’s religious and socioeconomic diversity.

Rutgers-Newark senior Merve Fejzula says she can easily separate the freshmen from the upperclassmen on campus.

“When students come to the campus, they tend to stick with their own, but by the time they graduate everyone’s hanging out with everyone,” she says.

When Fejzula began researching colleges four years ago, a rigorous curriculum and a diverse student body were at the top of her wish list.  The double English and history major says she compares every Rutgers-Newark classroom to a laboratory.

“Diversity ends up helping others who weren’t looking for it,” she says. “What they end up realizing is that different kinds of people come with different kinds of views. The benefit is that you get exposed to so many different things and things you wouldn’t have thought about, which leads you to new discovery.”  

Officials also point out that Rutgers-Newark’s efforts parallel global dialogue related to issues of social climate and inclusion. In the past, diversity was typically discussed in racial and gender terms, says Winston. Over the past decade, the discussion has expanded to include religion and sexual identity issues, organizational success and international concerns.

For this reason, undergraduates today see a much different world than their parents see. Many millennials, Winston says, purposely seek out a multicultural environment.

“Seeing diversity in an organization gives them an indication that their opinions will be valued and respected,” he says.

Paradise insists that Rutgers-Newark is a place where all students are reminded that their points of view add value to the institution. Faculty and staff, he adds, are interested in knowing who students are without regard to race, ethnicity or religion.

Even though some may challenge the merit of diversity, Paradise contends that the cost of excluding it from the larger discussion would be disastrous for education. This is particularly true, he says, for students in the law school, many of whom are first-generation graduate students.

“Particularly at this time, in our nation’s history, how awful would it be for us to step backward,” he says. “What Rutgers shows you is that you can have both excellence and diversity at the same time.”

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