US uni­ver­si­ties ‘us­ing data tricks to hide lack of di­ver­sity’

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - Jack.grove@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­

Lead­ing US uni­ver­si­ties are con­ceal­ing their low num­bers of eth­nic mi­nor­ity stu­dents by us­ing re­port­ing tech­niques that ar­ti­fi­cially en­hance the ap­pear­ance of di­ver­sity on cam­pus, a study has claimed.

By analysing the web­sites of 156 lead­ing US uni­ver­si­ties and lib­eral arts col­leges, re­searchers at Penn­syl­va­nia State Uni­ver­sity iden­ti­fied the wide­spread use of data col­lec­tion prac­tices that they be­lieve “present a more pos­i­tive pic­ture of the ethno-racial di­ver­sity on cam­pus” than the raw fig­ures sug­gest.

In­sti­tu­tions with low lev­els of di­ver­sity in their stu­dent co­hort are much more likely to em­ploy these tech­niques, says the pa­per by Karly Sarita Ford and Ash­ley Pat­ter­son, pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Di­ver­sity in Higher Ed­u­ca­tion.

Among the tech­niques ex­am­ined are the “ag­gre­ga­tion” of eth­nic mi­nor­ity stu­dents into one sin­gle racial sub­group when pre­sent­ing racial di­ver­sity fig­ures, cre­at­ing a

“sin­gle large num­ber” which “ob­fus­cates read­ers’ un­der­stand­ing of which racial groups are on cam­pus” and “may en­hance the ap­pear­ance of di­ver­sity”, the study says.

“Uni­ver­si­ties that present their un­der-rep­re­sented mi­nori­ties as a sin­gle statis­tic may be mask­ing the dearth of stu­dent mem­bers in sub­groups that com­prise the larger to­tal,” the study ex­plains.

Pre­sent­ing stu­dents “through the lens of a ‘white/non-white’ bi­nary” is also part of a “racial project” in which “white is nor­mal and neu­tral and any­thing non-white is other”, it adds.

Re­search-in­ten­sive in­sti­tu­tions where stu­dent di­ver­sity is low are 50 per cent more likely to use this prac­tice, and 45 per cent are do­ing so, com­pared with 30 per cent of in­sti­tu­tions where di­ver­sity is high, the study re­ports.

The study also high­lights the “omis­sion” of a white stu­dent cat­e­gory at many in­sti­tu­tions – a prac­tice that “sends a sub­tle mes­sage about which stu­dents are ‘raced’ and which are not” and “clouded rather than clar­i­fied” un­der­stand­ing about di­ver­sity on cam­pus.

In­sti­tu­tions with low lev­els of eth­nic di­ver­sity, in­clud­ing sev­eral Ivy League uni­ver­si­ties and large pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties, are three times more likely to omit white stu­dents as a cat­e­gory com­pared with providers where di­ver­sity was high, the study says.

An­other ques­tion­able prac­tice was the in­clu­sion of in­ter­na­tional stu­dents as a separate sub­group in racial pro­file ta­bles, which “qui­etly com­pli­cates” any assess­ment of di­ver­sity be­cause, as in the case of white South Africans, they are not nec­es­sar­ily from an eth­nic mi­nor­ity.

“The ad­di­tion of in­ter­na­tional stu­dents to rep­re­sen­ta­tions of US ethno-racial stu­dent di­ver­sity [is] an ef­fort to en­hance the ap­pear­ance of di­ver­sity on cam­pus with­out ad­dress­ing the per­sis­tent un­der-rep­re­sen­ta­tion of do­mes­tic mi­nori­tised groups,” ar­gued the re­port’s au­thors, who have urged uni­ver­si­ties to give more gran­u­lar data on stu­dent groups.

“In a land­scape where di­ver­sity is both de­sir­able and elu­sive, this work un­der­scores the lengths to which uni­ver­si­ties will go to rep­re­sent ethno-racial cat­e­gories in ways that en­hance the ap­pear­ance of di­ver­sity on cam­pus,” Dr Ford and Dr Pat­ter­son con­cluded.

“We char­ac­terise this as a cos­metic re­sponse rather than one which ad­dresses the larger prob­lem: the per­sis­tent un­der-rep­re­sen­ta­tion of stu­dents of colour at four-year in­sti­tu­tions.”

Not what they seem re­searchers found that US uni­ver­si­ties and lib­eral arts col­leges use data col­lec­tion prac­tices that they be­lieve ‘present a more pos­i­tive pic­ture of the ethno-racial di­ver­sity on cam­pus’ than the raw fig­ures sug­gest

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