by Debra Humphreys, AAC&U, for the Ford Foundation Campus Diversity Initiative

America's colleges and universities are educating a larger and more diverse group of students than ever before. As student bodies become more diverse, scholars are generating a plethora of new knowledge about the diversity of cultural traditions and histories in America and around the world. Some critics have misrepresented what these developments mean for today's students. Their reports ignore the renaissance in curriculum, teaching, intercultural understanding, and civic dialogue that characterizes how colleges and universities are transforming what and how they teach. College courses today offer students a deeper and more complete picture of America's culture and history. Professors are utilizing new texts and teaching techniques designed to prepare students for increasingly complex and diverse communities and workplaces.

Battles about what sorts of courses should be taught in college are not new and are no more heated today than they have been in the past. Critics calling for a return to a purportedly uncontested past curriculum of "timeless truths" present an inaccurate history. They charge that a core curriculum focused on "classic" texts and "western civilization" is threatened by current curricular innovations. As historian and author Lawrence Levine of George Mason University reminds us, however, "The canon and the curriculum . . . were constantly in the process of revision with irate defenders insisting, as they still do, that change would bring instant decline. The inclusion of "modern" writers from Shakespeare to Walt Whitman . . . came only after prolonged battles as intense and divisive as those that rage today."1

This paper explores current developments in curriculum transformation. It presents a brief overview of what these changes seek to accomplish and what they mean for today's college students. It ends with a list of additional resources on curriculum change in higher education.

More and more colleges and universities across the nation are transforming their curricula because college leaders increasingly recognize that knowledge about the diversity of American history and culture and knowledge about international diversity are essential for today's students.

In a survey of 65 institutions involved in a recent curriculum transformation project sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), almost 60 percent had instituted requirements that students take at least one course addressing diversity. Many more schools are moving toward instituting such requirements.2

Another study found that of 196 colleges and universities surveyed, 34% had a multicultural general education requirement, 33% offered course work in ethnic and women's studies, and 54% had introduced multicultural material into their departmental course offerings.3

The Facts About Changes in the College Curriculum

  1. Diversity courses teach students skills they will need to succeed in the 21st century. A course at the University of Michigan, "Intergroup Relations, Conflict and Community" teaches students how to address constructively conflicts that arise among and within different groups and explores the possibility for building community across racial and ethnic boundaries. This course and scores of others across the country are teaching students valuable skills they will need to function in a diverse world—listening, empathy, fairness, dialogue, intercultural communication, conflict resolution, and collaborative problem-solving. Courses that incorporate new historical knowledge are also preparing students to meet contemporary challenges. Some examples include the core course at Occidental College in California on "The History of Human Patterns of Migration, Emigration and Immigration." Students are learning about changes in immigration laws and the experiences of various immigrant groups. These students will be much better prepared to engage the challenges presented by immigration today.
  2. A diversified curriculum can help bridge differences, both on campus and in society. Learning about the diversity of U.S. and global cultural traditions brings groups of students together rather than dividing them. Students who have taken a new required course on "Self and Community" at Olivet College in Michigan report that they now find it easier to discuss issues of racial conflict outside the classroom. Students report that taking the course has encouraged them to reach out and socialize with students who have backgrounds different from their own. Campus leaders at SUNY-Buffalo report that a required course on "American Pluralism and the Search for Equality" has also had an impact beyond the classroom. Students consistently report that the course gives them an opportunity to discuss sensitive issues. In fact, in the midst of a heated campus debate in which race figured prominently, it was students from this course who were most informed about the issues and contributed most productively to the debate. Many campuses now sponsor programs that provide students with structured opportunities to work in diverse groups on pressing community problems. At California State University-Los Angeles, for instance, diverse groups of students, guided by their professors, worked with Los Angeles community members to design and conduct a needs assessment of Boyle Heights, a neighborhood adjacent to the campus with a largely Latino population. They studied student dropout issues and prevention programs in ethnically diverse high schools. They also surveyed and assessed the impact of the informal economy of local street vendors.
  3. Diversifying and expanding the knowledge base of the college curriculum does not prevent students from studying traditional texts. Contrary to some reports, faculty members are not ignoring traditional canonical texts as they expose students to new voices that have also shaped our history and culture. In fact, students are gaining a deeper understanding of classic texts through these new courses. "Inventing America," a course at Lewis and Clark College in Oregon focuses on concepts of equality and freedom, justice and authority, and conflict and consensus. Students study the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment in addition to key court cases and diverse commentators on democracy and the American experience including Alexis deTocqueville, Thomas Jefferson, Sojourner Truth, Ralph Ellison, and Ronald Takaki. Newly transformed American literature survey courses across the country still include texts by authors like Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. But by also studying the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, students in these courses are better able to understand the racial dynamics that informed the writing of more "classic" authors.
  4. Diversity courses challenge students to think in more complex ways about identity and history, and avoid cultural stereotyping. By offering increasingly sophisticated and comparative perspectives, new college courses challenge simplistic or stereotypical notions of cultural identity. Courses like "Hispanic Cultures in the U.S." at SUNY-Albany or "Sociology and Culture of American Ethnicity" at North Seattle Community College teach about cultural identity, but also consider the multidimensional nature of cultures. These courses work against stereotyping even as they teach students about cultural differences.4 Through courses like "Comparative Race Relations: A History of Race Relations in South Africa, Brazil and the United States" at Rowan University in New Jersey, students develop a more complex understanding of what shapes their own attitudes and beliefs, where their own cultural traditions came from, and how they interrelate with other traditions.
In addition to the testimony of students and faculty from across the country about these new and transformed courses, educational researchers are also beginning to document the positive impact on student learning that these curricular changes are having.

One comprehensive national study found that faculty emphasis on diversity in courses has positive effects on openness to racial understanding and overall satisfaction with college.5 Another study found that cognitive development improves among students participating in a multicultural course.6 A study conducted at the University of Michigan that investigated the impact of intergroup contact and course work dealing with racial and ethnic issues found that course work had the most significant positive impact on increased support for educational equity.7 A 1996 study examining the impact of multicultural courses on white students' sense of community, cultural awareness, interest in promoting racial understanding, and satisfaction with college also reported positive results in each of these areas.8 A 1991 study found that a comparative multicultural course requirement at the University of California-Berkeley led students to a greater appreciation of the complexity of artistic productions in various cultures.9 Another study found that students whose professors included racial/ethnic materials in their courses reported higher levels of satisfaction with their college experience.10 Finally, several studies reveal that women's studies courses encourage more debate among students than other kinds of courses and, in fact, improve women's attitudes toward men.11

This research and trends across the country suggest that, contrary to critics' claims, diversifying the college curriculum is resulting in a more rigorous educational experience for today's college students. While some new courses are being added, many of the changes in the college curriculum are improvements to existing courses.

Faculty members today are striving to provide a more complete and complex picture of culture and history. The growing evidence suggests that these efforts are paying off for today's students. They are fostering intellectual development, expanded cultural knowledge, and interracial understanding among college students.


  1. Lawrence Levine. The Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture, and History. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996): 15.
  2. Debra Humphreys. General Education and American Commitments: A National Report on Diversity Courses and Requirements. (Washington, D.C.: AAC&U, 1997).
  3. Richard Light and Jeanette Cureton. "The Quiet Revolution: Eleven Facts About Multiculturalism and the Curriculum." Change. (Jan/Feb, 1992).
  4. Debra Humphreys. General Education and American Commitments: A National Report on Diversity Courses and Requirements. (Washington, D.C.: AAC&U, 1997).
  5. Astin, A. What Matters in College?: Four Critical Years Revisited. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993.
  6. Adams, M., and Y. Zhou-McGovern. "The Sociomoral Development of Undergraduates in a 'Social Diversity' Course: Developmental Theory, Research, and Instructional Applications," paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, April 1994, at New Orleans, Louisiana.
  7. Lopez, G. E. "The Effect of Group Contact and Curriculum on White, Asian American, and African American Students' Attitudes." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, 1993.
  8. Tanaka, G. K. "The Impact of Multiculturalism on White Students." Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles, 1996.
  9. Institute for the Study of Social Change. The Diversity Project: Final Report. Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1991.
  10. Villalpando, O. "Comparing the Effects of Multiculturalism and Diversity on Minority and White Students' Satisfaction with College," paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, November, 1994, at Tucson, Arizona.
  11. Musil, Caryn McTighe. The Courage to Question: Women's Studies and Student Learning. Washington, D.C.: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 1992; and Bargad, A., and J. S. Hyde. "Women's Studies: A Study of Feminist Identity Development in Women," Psychology of Women Quarterly 15 1991: 181-201.
Additional Resources on Diversity and the College Curriculum Resources from the Association of American Colleges and Universities

The Drama of Diversity and Democracy: Higher Education and American Commitments
The first in a series of reports written by a National Panel of scholars convened through AAC&U's American Commitments initiative, this report explores higher education's responsibilities within a diverse democracy. Challenging conventional arguments that equate diversity with balkanized groups, the authors call on higher education to provide public leadership in helping the nation see the connections between diversity issues and the unfinished work of building a successful and inclusive democracy. The report provides a broad societal analysis of United States diversity issues and is recommended for trustees, general readers, and campus groups.

Liberal Learning and the Arts of Connection for the New Academy
The second report written by the American Commitments National Panel explores goals for liberal learning in a diverse democracy and argues that the liberal arts of the future will include ways of relating and learning across difference. Written for faculty members and curriculum committees, this report should be used in connection with American Pluralism and the College Curriculum described below. American Pluralism and the College Curriculum: Higher Education in a Diverse Democracy The third report explores curricular practices that help prepare all students for a diverse society. It makes specific recommendations for teaching diversity across the curriculum, in both general education and major programs, and describes effective diversity courses and requirements in a broad range of institutions — large and small, public and private, two- and four-year.

Diversity Works: The Emerging Picture of How Students Benefit
When a campus makes — and is perceived by its students to make — a significant commitment to diversity, educational gains are made across the entire student body. Student participation in campus diversity initiatives contributes to measurable changes in openness to difference, increased commitment to social justice, as well as to cognitive development and academic success. These results are explained in this report which also provides an overview and a critical examination of diversity research literature. The authors ask "What works?" and then provide answers, while also explaining the theory and tools available for studying diversity in higher education.

Diversity in Higher Education: A Work in Progress
This book represents the insights of four diversity evaluators—Caryn McTighe Musil, Mildred García, Yolanda T. Moses, and Daryl G. Smith—who assessed the institutional impact of the first round of grants awarded under the Ford Foundation's Campus Diversity Initiative to nineteen residential colleges and universities. With lessons from the field, this monograph is designed to assist institutions in thinking strategically about how to make diversity more integral to the mission and practices of higher education.

Core Curriculum and Cultural Pluralism: A Guide for Campus Planners
Written by Betty Schmitz, this rich study reports on emerging models for multiculturalism in core curricula and provides a roadmap for academic leaders looking to design and pass new general education programs. It includes sample syllabi, core proposals, curriculum profiles, and a step-by-step guide through the potholes of curriculum change and faculty development.

General Education and American Commitments: A National Report on Diversity Courses and Requirements
Written by Debra Humphreys, this overview of curricular changes at 65 colleges and universities involved in the first part of the American Commitments Curriculum and Faculty Development network provides concrete examples of new courses, programs and curricular models on U.S. pluralism. It also provides practical advice on the process and politics of curriculum change. To order any AAC&U publication, contact AAC&U Publications Desk, 1818 R Street, Washington, D.C. 20009; 202/387-3760; Other Resources on Diversity and the College Curriculum

Creating an Inclusive College Curriculum: A Teaching Sourcebook from The New Jersey Project, edited by Ellen G. Friedman, Wendy K. Kolmar, Charley B. Flint, and Paula Rothenberg
Includes over 40 syllabi and teaching resources for both two-year and four-year colleges and universities. Reflective essays rethinking pedagogy and course content cover such subjects as the structures of knowledge, feminist science, psychoanalysis and feminism, and affirmative action. The volume also contains information about initiating, sustaining and renewing curriculum transformation projects. Syllabi include course content, weekly outlines, reading lists, and assignments. (Teachers College Press, Teachers College, Columbia University, 1234 Amsterdam Ave., New York, NY 10027; 212/678-3919)

Diversity Within America's Catholic Colleges and Universities
A report of findings from the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities survey of its two hundred member institutions. Contact William Martineau at Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, 202-457-4650.

Selected Bibliography of the Cultural Pluralism Institute
This bibliography edited by Johnnella Butler and Andrew Bartlett, includes the major texts and readings of the joint Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education/University of Washington Cultural Pluralism Institute. Contents include sections devoted to: multiethnic literature; African American, American Indian, Asian American, and Chicano/Latino materials; curriculum transformation; and institutional change (January 1995). Contact: Johnnella Butler, Box 354380, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195-4380.

World Wide Web Resources
DiversityWeb serves as an electronic hub linking nearly 300 institutions' work on diversity via the World Wide Web. Developed by AAC&U and the University of Maryland at College Park, DiversityWeb includes a World Wide Web home page connected to campus-based diversity home pages, but also contains essential information about diversity efforts nationwide. DiversityWeb helps participating institutions explain, categorize and link their diversity priorities, practices and accomplishments. Finally, it includes a Leader's Guide—a topically organized consumers' guide to strong diversity practices and resources. (

Managing Diversity
The Program on Intergroup Relations, Conflict & Community (IGRCC) at the University of Michigan is a multicultural and diversity education program organized under the divisions of Student Affairs and Enrollment Services and Academic Affairs. IGRCC is an innovative effort to educate students and members of the University community about intergroup relations and various forms of conflict among social groups. It links formal education course work to the living and social experiences of students outside of the classroom. The program brings together people from various social and racial/ethnic backgrounds to discuss commonalities and differences, address issues of conflict, and learn how to deal with these issues constructively.

University of Washington Curriculum Transformation Project
The University of Washington Curriculum Transformation Project was initiated in 1991 and became an administrative unit of the Office of Undergraduate Education in January 1995. Its primary responsibilities are assisting both individual faculty and academic departments with curriculum change related to gender and cultural pluralism. The website has information about the project's current available resources and activities; several sample syllabi; a series of bibliographies; and a newsletter on curriculum transformation efforts at Washington and around the country. The site also links to other diversity related sites.

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