Transforming Understandings of Diversity in Higher Education: Demography, Democracy, and Discourse
reviewed by Derek Van Rheenen - March 09, 2017
Title: Transforming Understandings of Diversity in Higher Education: Demography, Democracy, and Discourse
Author(s): Penny A. Pasque, Noe Ortega, John C. Burkhart, & Marie P. Ting
Publisher: Stylus Publishing, LLC., Sterling
ISBN: 1620363763, Pages: 276, Year: 2016
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The timing of Penny A. Pasque, Noe Ortega, John C. Burkhart, and Marie P. Tings edited book, Transforming Understandings of Diversity in Higher Education: Demography, Democracy, and Discourse, is prescient. A divisive presidential election and a polarizing outcome have forced us to reflect on our shared values as a nation. Specifically, how do we value diversity in a country that is divided? Many people in higher education feel a pressing need to reinvigorate the discourse on diversity, particularly as it pertains to our college and university campuses today. This volume seeks to meet the current challenge and is committed to future possibilities of greater insight, justice, and opportunity in higher education.
If we seek to transform our present understandings of diversity as the title of the text asserts, we must first acknowledge where we are positioned during the current moment. Have we achieved the diversity we desire across higher education? What remains to be accomplished? Do we risk losing ground in the coming years? In some ways, American colleges and universities have made significant strides in promoting a more diverse student body. For example, efforts at greater access to higher education for undocumented students could be heralded as a success story. However, current changes in the executive branch of government signal that these successes at diversifying educational opportunity are at risk.
We find ourselves at a political, legal, and intellectual crossroads regarding diversity in higher education. The authors believe that it remains unclear what the term diversity actually means, who it includes, and how it encompasses them as students. This intellectual honesty from diversity scholars is refreshing in todays climate of angry political rhetoric and sharp divisions.
As such, Transforming Understandings of Diversity in Higher Education effectively contextualizes the problem of diversity. It demonstrates that the term has come to be viewed as an objective of, or even an agenda in, higher education today. Court rulings have been central to shaping how universities engage with diversity as part of a fluid discourse on this topic. Supreme Court decisions in Regents of the University of California v. Baake (1978), Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), Gratz v. Bollinger (2003), and Fisher v. University of Texas (2013, 2016) recognize diversity as beneficial to student learning. They also state that diversity is important in fulfilling the educational mission of the modern multiversity. Simultaneously, the Supreme Court has narrowed how race and ethnicity could be considered in college admissions decisions.
Prior to the burgeoning and important work of critical race theorists, scholars like Kimberle Crenshaw were critical of the legal discourse on diversity. In her seminal article "Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics" (1989), she persuasively articulates how the courts have often obscured the multidimensionality or intersectionality of peoples lived experiences. Relative to several court rulings, Crenshaw finds that the courts fail to recognize more nuanced understandings of discrimination, particularly when cases involve compound or double discrimination. As she aptly noted regarding discrimination several decades ago, the same might be said about diversity discourse in higher education today. In short, we need to re-center this critical discourse at these intersections.
Transforming Understandings of Diversity in Higher Education attempts to contribute to this process and make the discourse more nuanced. Similar to the courts, diversity scholarship has frequently focused on single axis social identities as separate subgroups, rather than as relational and multifaceted categories of experience. On the one hand, the book suffers from the very challenge it seeks to reveal and confront. By trying to capture the constellation or multidimensionality of diversity, the collection achieves breadth at the expense of potential deep insight into any single social system. It could also delve further into the complex relationships within and among these systems. On the other hand, the inclusion of multiple perspectives offers numerous understandings of diversity. This reminds readers that there are competing and complimentary perspectives within this important discourse.
The volume consists of a foreword, introduction, eight chapters from diversity scholars, and a concluding chapter. Each chapter is followed by an interview with the respective author (or one of the authors when the chapter is co-written). Emerging scholars, who are currently graduate students, conducted these interviews. This provides a biographical sketch of these diversity scholars and their contributions to this rich discussion. These written sketches deepen the discourse and reveal a number of interesting paths that lead towards this area of inquiry. These interviews are an effective combination of scholarship and engagement among intergenerational thinkers on the contemporary study of diversity. The book intentionally promotes the professional and intellectual development of young people as future faculty members, scholar-activists, and scholar-practitioners.
The volume is strongly influenced by the important work being done at the National Center for Institutional Diversity (NCID) at the University of Michigan (U-M). In particular, the NCID has established the Diversity Scholars Network. This is an interdisciplinary collection of more than 300 scholars who study diversity. The contributors to this text are drawn primarily from this network. These scholars represent various types of institutions, regions of the country, and faculty ranks.
The chapters focus on distinct social identities like students with disabilities, Latino and Latina students, Black male student-athletes, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning (LGBTQ) students, and African-American female community college faculty members. While the disparate articulations of diversity may appear to reproduce challenges inherent to the discourse, these authors have sought to unify their distinct approaches around the foundational themes of demography and democracy. These concepts resonate in the current political climate and frame an evolving diversity discourse.
For example, in one of these thoughtful chapters, Jarrett T. Gupton and Karen Miksch explore the tension between democratic and meritocratic values. They argue that court decisions related to college access for low-income students have weakened broader social efforts at promoting distributive justice and equity. The authors conclude that a narrow focus on academic merit has institutionalized discrimination based on social class. However, unlike racial and ethnic groups that build bonds of solidarity and identification based on common experiences of oppression or exclusion, social class operates as an unconscious collective (Bottero, 2004). As such, these contributing authors challenge the higher education community to develop a language within the diversity discourse that accounts for the unique ways that social class identities are formed.
In the concluding chapter, former NCID Director John C. Burkhardt and Associate Director Marie P. Ting portend the potential of a dystopian future. They recognize the pressing need to make issues of diversity, inclusion, and representation central to our public and political discourse (p. 226). The editors remind readers that the natural world flourishes only with, and because of, diversity. Environments that lack diversity are most at risk for extinction. American higher education finds itself in a changing and potentially dangerous environment. The stakes for institutional and cultural health, if not survival, are extremely high.
Transforming Understandings of Diversity in Higher Education is hopeful in the face of potential futures. The book encourages young scholars and student affairs professionals to contribute to our developing understandings of diversity. These emerging diversity scholars and practitioners, accompanied by several veteran trailblazers, are our best hope at envisioning a brighter future and transforming higher education for the twenty-first-century.
Bottero, W. (2004). Class identities and the identity of class. Sociology, 38(5), 9851003.
Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A Black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory, and antiracist politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989(1), 139168.
Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, 570 U.S. ___ (2013).
Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, 579 U.S. ___ (2016).
Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 244 (2003).
Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003).
Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978).