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Context Diversity: Reframing Higher Education In The 21st Century

Context Diversity: Reframing Higher Education In The 21st Century

Theme: Access & Success

Roberto Ibarra
Assistant Vice Chancellor Emeritus University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Associate Professor Sociology, University of New
University of New Mexico, NC
Constituent Group:

One of the enduring challenges for higher education during the 20th century was learning how to accommodate the increasing demand for education from populations that had been excluded from pursuing a college degree in the past. Social movements and legal mandates such as the GI Bill, Civil Rights, and Affirmative Action pressured institutions to incorporate educational equity for the greater good of our society. But progress has been slow, and an inherent reluctance to modify systems that sustain traditional academic cultures has diffused efforts for institutional change. So far, the results for achieving diversity have been mixed. There are increasingly more women than men going to college and graduate school today than ever before. But despite the efforts, many segments of our national population remain grossly underrepresented, especially in our science, math, technology, and engineering programs. And as we enter the 21st century, our national government is backtracking on the progress made toward advancing diversity in higher education. Academe faces a dilemma; some say it is a crisis, and we have become stalled at a cultural crossroad unable to determine which direction to go.

However, around the turn of the century, higher education encountered developments in distance learning technology that could change its ways forever. The development of the Internet forced institutions to consider new ways of teaching, learning and doing research. As so-called “virtual universities” emerged, many have had more success in attracting diverse populations than traditional colleges and universities. Despite their for-profit business models, their missions and Internet-based degree programs are grounded in core values emphasizing social change and community engagement that is highly attractive to historically underrepresented groups (Ibarra 1999b).
In fact, evidence is mounting that academic programs or institutions that emphasize people-oriented relationships, family/community engagement, supportive psychological environments, working in groups, and collaborative learning environments, to name a few characteristics, are not only attractive to underrepresented populations, they also provide conditions for them to thrive and achieve academic success in fields where they have been traditionally unsuccessful in the past (Bowen & Bok 1998, see also Ibarra 2001, Treisman 1988). The dynamics of diversity has changed over the last decade, and a new paradigm is emerging that I call Context Diversity, which could provide solutions for achieving equity without relying on traditional methods of affirmative action. To begin solving our conundrum, we must first understand the three-dimensional nature of Structural, Multicultural, and Context Diversity.

Dimensions of Diversity: Structural, Multicultural, Context Diversity

The concept of cultural diversity as we know it today assumes that we need do little more than recruit and retain people of different gender, heritage or ability to achieve equity in our institutions. Since 1965, affirmative action encouraged us to create equitable access for those who previously lacked admission to our institutions. This concept, often called Structural Diversity, is characterized as compliance-oriented and recruitment driven, and is measured mainly by increasing the number of minority or underrepresented groups of students, faculty or staff. The solution for increasing diversity was to create special programs for recruiting, retaining and remediation of minority populations, to help them overcome barriers to access and success.

Accomplishing structural diversity seemed simple: refine and expand support operations and business functions of our institutions to accommodate diverse populations. This strategy rested upon three basic assumptions: (1) A critical mass of underrepresented populations was needed to achieve diversity; (2) Underrepresented students were disadvantaged and needed remediation; and (3) Underrepresented populations would eventually assimilate into the culture of our institutions. The policies were derived from a deficit-thinking model; that is, minorities lacked skills, experiences and resources, and needed additional help to adjust to the system. While the number of underrepresented populations increased gradually on our campuses over the years, these programs rarely achieved projected outcomes.
Because structural diversity emphasizes human resource functions such as access, support and remediation, diversity initiatives were often marginalized in our institutions as business operations far removed from the main business of academic work. In time, diversity initiatives simply became a human resource function?hiring faculty and admitting students to achieve a critical mass of underrepresented populations. Although increasing critical mass can be achieved, just having more women or minorities or people with disabilities in an organization, does not necessarily change the way of doing business. It does not guarantee a diverse environment nor does it assure institutional cultural change. This model cannot alone achieve its implied outcome. Consequently, structural diversity has limited applications for influencing academic culture change, but it is still a vital and necessary part of our current diversity paradigm. Consequently, structural diversity is the primary source for providing Best Practices models.

Multicultural Diversity is a dimension of campus diversity introduced during the 1970′s and 80′s to infuse cultural customs or gender issues (multiculturalism) into our institutions. Underrepresented populations were valued for their potential to recruit and retain others and to contribute toward making institutions more aware of multicultural issues. The problems it addressed were the negative campus climates for women and minorities, the lack of multicultural awareness and embedded institutional discrimination.

The solutions involved various activities: introducing campus-wide minority action plans, increasing the number and type of student service programs and creating new cultural awareness initiatives, and most importantly, creating new ethnic and women’s studies programs. The objective was to change campus attitudes toward more positive views on ethnic, gender and racialized issues. The focus was on student affairs, with some attention to curriculum change, but little if any attention was directed toward enhancing academic affairs?the primary educational arena of higher education. Diversity initiatives remained predominantly support functions or Human Resource functions, and the strategy was, as before, to strengthen educational support for recruitment/retention programs. The only notable change over the years was the shift from a negative perception of student remediation to more positive approaches toward student academic preparedness. Although ethnic/racial studies programs can influence academic core requirements, the increases in underrepresented populations on campus have been slow to materialize.

Rethinking the Problem

A major problem for achieving diversity today lies in the origin of academic cultures. The context of higher education in the U.S. is locked into a centuries old German research model imported from Europe and clamped on a British colonial college system. The predominance of a particular and preferred learning environment tends to exclude all the others, and thus defines the cultural context of higher education today. The outcome is not only a Euro-centric learning community, but also a hidden dimension of cultural context that has been invisible and ignored until now. Today, we must look beyond operational models based on outmoded ideas about one-size fits all educational pipelines and focus instead on changing the cultures of organizations to accommodate new kinds of populations that are attracted to applied or community-oriented education. There has always been a realization that educational systems need to change, but what has been lacking is a model for doing it.

Context Diversity describes an emerging transformative paradigm that emphasizes reframing rather than reforming academic cultures to address the needs of all populations, and especially underrepresented groups. Context Diversity strives to create a learning community with myriad ways to attract diverse populations, and have them thrive in an academic or workplace environment. The concern for access is still vital, but it is not the main problem. The lack of underrepresented populations (low critical mass) is a symptom, but not the problem. Underperformance issues and conflict over the cultural context of higher education surface as major problems. The solutions involve finding creative ways to change campus climate and academic culture, with the emphasis on systemic change. One strategy is to reframe (expand/shift) pedagogy and curriculum without giving up good educational practices. Another is to shift diversity initiatives from current concepts about recruitment and retention to concepts that emphasize attracting and thriving. Results are measured not only by how well we attract diverse populations, but also by how well we enhance our campus cultures to improve upon the academic and work performance among all students, faculty and staff. Rather than focus on just using structural models for increasing diversity, we should focus on ways to study, apply and eventually build diversity into the context of our higher education system, our learning communities and beyond. This vision correlated directly with the concept of embedded engagement described in the 20th Anniversary Visioning Summit framing essay by Barbara Holland and Liz Hollander for the Campus Compact.


Associated with the new diversity paradigm is a critical theory for changing academic culture I call Multicontextuality (Ibarra 2001). The concept, derived from research done since the 1960′s (Hall 1984, Ramirez 1991), is based on a set of dynamic principals of cultural context and cognition that can be incorporated into the fabric of our institutions (see Ibarra 2001). A growing number of individuals entering higher education since WWII, (and not just the Millennial generation born after 1980, Oblinger 2003), bring with them a mix of individualized characteristics described as their cultural context that is quite different, and even at odds with the cultural context of academe and college/university life. These learned preferences influence how they interact and associate with others, use living space, perceive concepts of time, process information, respond to various teaching and learning styles, perform academically or in the workplace, and include many other cognitive factors that were imprinted on them from birth to maturity by family and community, and that continue to help shape their world view.

Researchers identified a variety of national origin cultures that exhibit Specific or Low Context tendencies that include Northern European populations, such as English, German, Swiss, and Scandinavian people. Other groups exhibiting Generalized or High Context tendencies include Asians, Arabs, people from other Middle Eastern and Mediterranean-based countries, Africans, Latin Americans, and native North American Indian groups. US populations, derived from voluntary and involuntary immigrant groups exhibit to varying degrees the low or high context imprinting of their heritage origins. However, mainstream American culture, including higher education, is primarily low context, and North American men are generally, but not always, more low context than North American women. But research among Latino graduate students and faculty in the 1990′s, found they were neither high nor low context but instead Multicontextual — a learned ability to survive in low context academic environments while maintaining high context characteristics in other aspects of life. Though academically successful, the consequences of this dual-world existence lead to conflicts, compromises and even underperformance issues in academic life, which Bowen and Bok described in their book, The Shape of the River (1998).

As critical theory, Multicontextuality explains how the composite of peoples’ experiences throughout their lives affects their experiences and performances in higher education. But we pay little attention to the fact that institutions also have their own imprinted cultural contexts — a predominantly Euro-centered research model steeped in rational scientific methodology that favors basic science over applied science and civic engagement. For many, this is out of synch with the needs of students and faculty today, and as a result, it is an incomplete learning institution. But rather than have people adjust to the system, the system needs to adjust to the people. The new objective for increasing diversity is to reframe and balance the various principals of cultural context found within the current organizational ways we do scholarship in order to create a more inclusive and better teaching, learning and working environment for attracting diverse populations to higher education, so they may thrive.

However, producing students trained to conform to the traditional university model produces people unprepared to function at their best in an increasingly high context or multicontext world. In other words, the reward systems within academic institutions are not adapted to the kinds of rewards that will encourage success in a world that is different in almost every possible way from the nineteenth century European world that created the modern university system. As a result, few minorities, especially Latinos, are attracted to the traditional world of academe.

Context Diversity and Community-Based Learning

If a new diversity paradigm is emerging, how can we detect it? Anecdotally, many colleagues working with diversity initiatives, or in minority programs, would tell you about the important association between community-oriented academic work and their success in attracting underrepresented populations. Some research suggests that differences in cultural context could provide a logical alternative to explain why capable minority undergraduates tend to transfer from majors in science, engineering, math or technology to pursue degrees in the humanities or social sciences (Ibarra 1999a). But the data from faculty surveys collected by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) offer the best clues for observing the differences between the cultural contexts of diverse populations of faculty and the educational context of our colleges and universities on the issue of community-based learning.

For example, data in Tables 1 and 2 below are taken from the HERI Faculty Survey 1995-96 and are the most recent data disaggregated by gender and ethnicity (from Ibarra 2001, 210-217). From approximately thirty-four thousand respondents, (22, 000 males and 12,000 females), approximately 1,800 were minority males 1,100 minority females.

Table 1: Instill Commitment To Community Service (Important Value Question)
Majority Males 29% Majority Females 42%
African. American Males 54% African American Females 57%
American. Indian Males 44% American Indian Females 50%
Asian American Males 32% Asian American Females 47%
Latino Males 46% Latino Females 43%

Table 1 shows the percent of faculty who believe it is important to instill a commitment to community service in undergraduate education. From previous analysis derived through preliminary inter-rater reliability tests, this question was considered an element that differentiated cultural context (Multicontextuality) between ethnic and gender groups (Ibarra 2001). Majority males, notably the largest tenured population in the survey, represent the benchmark group, simply because their predominance in numbers over time has allowed them to set standards for performance and preferences for educational pedagogies. In the survey they appear to be the least interested instilling commitment to community service among all the groups responding. In fact, the differences between the Majority Males and all others are often twenty or thirty percentage point spreads, and they are significant enough to suspect that such differences play an important role in faculty evaluations, promotions and tenure for underrepresented populations.

Table 2, however, shows a very different picture. Despite the fact that female and minority respondents highly valued community service as a component of undergraduate education in Table 1, a scant number of them actually required it in their classes. In fact, the differences found in Table 1 almost disappear in Table 2. Although it cannot be determined from the data exactly why this occurs, one can suspect it is a consequence of limited time, space and resources. Despite the high value placed on community service, apparently few instructors can make it a class requirement for their undergraduate students. If so, one hypothesis is that an important experience for undergraduate education is likely being stifled in its application by the cultural context of our educational system that cannot provide multiple contexts (i.e. time, space, etc.) to allow for community service experiences. However, further research is needed to validate this hypothesis.

Table 2: Community Service In-Courese Required (Teaching Methods Question)
Majority Males 1% Majority Females 4%
African. American Males 5% African American Females 11%
American. Indian Males 6% American Indian Females 7%
Asian American Males 1% Asian American Females 3%
Latino Males 3% Latino Females 4%

The Challenge for Educational Access in the 21st Century

The Campus Compact is now celebrating 20 years of educating students for active citizenship, and building strong learning communities among scholars and academic leaders. The 20th Anniversary Visioning Summit framing essay by Barbara Holland and Liz Hollander includes a focus on bridging the opportunity gap by improving educational access and success for minority and immigrant populations throughout the nation. But higher education faces a major crisis, and it apparently cannot find solutions to the dilemma of diversity facing it today. The traditional residential university, its buildings and classrooms could become “relics” in the next twenty years according to predictions from the late management and business guru, Peter Drucker (Lenzer & Johnson 1997, 122). Those comments were predicated on the continued disregard for the impact of rising educational costs, for the rapid developments in distance learning technology, and for a total disbelief that for-profit Internet-based institutions could compete with traditional institutions in the future. Only time will tell the outcome, but the implications seem clear. Traditional institutions are too slow in dealing with major crisis’s, and may be incapable of making necessary course corrections in time to tackle fast-paced world events. The risk of rethinking the system could undermine the foundations that have guided universities for the past century and a half. Academic organizations react against change agents by accommodating them and co-opting their innovative programs in ways that will not lead to the destruction of the university itself. This is the failure of reform. Can Campus Compact’s focus on access and success develop breakthrough strategies to address complacency and resistance to change?

Perhaps reframing and not reforming is part of the strategy. Reframing suggests expanding, not necessarily eliminating or reforming those ways in which we teach, learn, and do research. To strike a balance with traditional learning and community service means accommodating more than one cultural context. This does not mean that colleges and universities should change from low- to high-context institutions, but that they must become multicontextual in order to align with and effectively educate learners of all types.

We start the reframing process within the divisions of Academic Affairs where both business and educational support functions take place. Affirmative action models tend to thrive in Student Affairs programs and Human Resource offices. But the academic units are the controlling systems of the institutional culture, and they are often devoid of diversity initiatives. If it is possible to reframe the context of Academic Affairs; that is, to rethink what we have ignored for over a generation of developing diversity programs, then Campus Compact will have a real breakthrough strategy. It will change the “faculty factory” model for producing the professoriate toward a model that helps contextualize faculty teaching and research. We can then generate new templates for our educational systems, all the way from k-16 to graduate school and beyond. We will be able to create new templates for business schools, government, and for science as well. Ultimately, the university itself could reclaim its place as an institution of civic engagement. To fundamentally change the operations of our current structures we need to move away from the outdated and inadequate German research model of disengagement. We must implement new diversity models that reconnect with our civic entities rather than dictate to communities how to behave. In short, it is time to reframe the Ivory Tower, and that is the challenge for Campus Compact in the 21st century.

References Cited

Bowen, W. G., and Bok, D. 1998. The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in college and University Admissions. Princeton, NJ,: Princeton University Press.

Hall, E. T. 1984. The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time, 2nd ed., Anchor Press/Doubleday Books, Garden City, New York.

Ibarra, R. A.1999a. Multicontextuality: A New Perspective on Minority Underrepresentation in SEM Academic Fields. Making Strides, (American Association for the Advancement of Science). 1, no. 3, (October): 1-9.

Ibarra, R.A. 1999b. Studying Latinos in a “Virtual” University: Reframing Diversity and Academic Culture Change. Julian Samora Research Institute, Occasional Paper, No. 48, October, proceedings from Latinos, the Internet, and the Telecommunication Revolution, East Lansing, MI: Julian Samora Research Institute.

Ibarra, R.A. 2001. Beyond Affirmative Action: Reframing the Context of Higher Education. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Ibarra, R.A. 2006. “Campus Diversity in Transformation.” Anthropology News, February, 47: 2, pg. 29.

Lenzer, R., and Johnson, S. S., 1997. Seeing things as they really are. Forbes, March 10, 1997, pp.

Oblinger, D. 2003. Boomers, Gen-Xers & Millennials: Understanding the New Students. EDUCAUSE review, July/August; pp 37-47.

Ramírez III, M. 1991. Psychotherapy and Counseling with Minorities: A Cognitive Approach to Individual and Cultural Differences, Pergamon Press, New York.

Treisman, U. P. 1988. A Study of the Mathematics Performance of Black Students at the University of California, Berkeley, in Changing the Culture: Mathematics Education in the Research Community. N. D. Fisher, H. B Keynes, and P.D. Wagreich (eds.), CBMS Issues in Mathematics Education, Vol. 5, American Mathematical Society.

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