Liberal Education

Addressing Diversity and Inclusion on College Campuses: Assessing a Partnership between AAC&U and the Ford Foundation

About This Series
Marking the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the association, this four-part series of commissioned articles explores various aspects of AAC&U’s work over the past century in relation to contemporaneous developments within American higher education more broadly. This article is the fourth in the series.

In the late 1980s, after more than two decades of reform efforts to make the undergraduate curriculum more inclusive of the histories, roles, and experiences of women and minorities, several American colleges and universities were rocked by a series of racist and sexist incidents on campus that revealed the tense relationship between efforts to diversify the student bodies by race and gender, on the one hand, and those on campus who found these efforts threatening and disruptive to the status quo, on the other. Among the most troubling of these incidents were riots pitting white male students against black male students at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) and fraternity events at the University of Wisconsin in which white male students donned blackface and mimicked minstrel shows and slave auctions at which black women were ridiculed. Underlying these campus-based incidents were judicial battles, beginning with the landmark Supreme Court case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. The court’s 1978 decision in that case upheld affirmative action policies that allowed race to be one of several factors in determining college admissions policies. Needless to say, the Bakke decision did not settle this most contentious constitutional debate regarding higher education, as American society and the Supreme Court continue to grapple decades later with issues of exclusion and inclusion in college admissions processes. As contentious as these admissions issues were, the narrow and exclusive nature of the college and university curriculum also received heightened scrutiny in the late 1980s.

American philanthropy did not sit as a bystander as courts, colleges, and universities debated these diversity issues. For example, the aforementioned racist and sexist incidents led a national panel of higher education leaders reviewing the Ford Foundation’s grant making in 1988 to recommend that the foundation take a more activist stance to assist colleges and universities redouble their efforts to diversify the content of their undergraduate curricula as well as their student bodies through a series of grants that would highlight “best practices” to transform campuses, making them more genuinely inclusive. This recommendation was warmly received by the foundation’s trustees, who designated a special fund of $1.6 million for a new grants program that was launched in 1990. The president of the foundation, Franklin A. Thomas, celebrated this new program in his 1990 annual review:

To broaden the range of cultural and intellectual diversity in American higher education, the Foundation this year launched the Campus Diversity Initiative (CDI). With the help of a panel of national educational leaders, nineteen grants were made for projects weaving diversity more thoroughly into academic life. The majority of the projects seek to introduce multicultural perspectives into the core curricula, where they may not only affect the educational culture of the institutions but also reach large numbers of students. Many of the projects also combine curricula enrichment with faculty development, visiting scholar programs, faculty-student workshops on diversity, cultural activities, archival projects, and undergraduate internships and research grants.

Importantly, several leading college and university presidents had helped develop the program. They cosigned the letter embodying the foundation’s request for proposals, which was sent to two hundred primarily residential undergraduate colleges and universities. It was the first time in its history that the foundation had enlisted the advocacy of presidents to encourage other higher education leaders to submit proposals on this important and timely topic. The response was equally unprecedented: more than half of the institutions invited to apply did so. Eventually, nineteen proposals were recommended by an outside review panel for CDI funding.

In 1991, Edgar Beckham, who was then dean of the college at Wesleyan University and had advised Ford staff in developing the CDI, was hired by the foundation to oversee the initiative. Beckham, who was active in the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), was the prime mover in 1992 in devising a long-term partnership between Ford, the funder, and AAC&U, the key catalyst responsible for coordinating the work on the individual campuses and disseminating news about the implementation of the CDI projects.

AAC&U was an especially appropriate choice. It was the leading higher education association focused on undergraduate liberal education and had, for nearly a century, sought to be a force for “inclusiveness and interhelpfulness.”1 By establishing the Project on the Status and Education of Women (PSEW) in 1971, AAC&U had already laid claim to being in the vanguard of higher education associations concerned with the support and protection of women students. Moreover, AAC&U had proven itself to be especially effective in reaching a broad cross section of faculty from a variety of disciplines who were at least open to curricular reform in light of the recent changes in student demographics.2

This essay is an attempt to understand the special partnership between the Ford Foundation and AAC&U—its implementation, challenges, and outcomes—and how it affected the more than two hundred US campuses that became part of the CDI effort. Over the course of the 1990s, the Ford Foundation devoted over $10 million to this initiative, with AAC&U serving as the main recipient of the funds. This essay also briefly traces the international dimensions of the foundation’s diversity efforts in the early days of the twenty-first century, as two Ford field offices—one in India and the other in South Africa—developed their own versions of the CDI and worked collaboratively with AAC&U to share lessons learned from three divergent societies grappling with the challenges of addressing “diversity.” All had the goal of helping colleges and universities become more inclusive spaces in which to learn, critique, and practice democratic values. Before looking to international examples, however, it is important to understand the nature of this special partnership in the United States.

The Campus Diversity Initiative in the United States

In the first stage of the CDI, Ford worked directly with the nineteen single-campus grantees. Foundation staff wanted to stay in direct touch with the grantees. But as the initiative grew and expanded to include regional consortia, new studies of how diversity could affect student learning, and other multi-campus interventions, the foundation realized that it needed to partner with a major higher education association to coordinate efforts across a variety of grantees and to “mine” the initiative for lessons learned that could be shared with other institutions and campuses. AAC&U’s president, Carol Geary Schneider, immediately saw the value in partnering with Ford. She, along with Edgar Beckham, realized that diversity could be seen as an educational asset.

This recognition of diversity as an educational asset proved to be an important intellectual breakthrough. Promoting diversity was not simply about making student bodies more inclusive; it also was a means of enriching the learning experience for all students, not just those who came as a result of more welcoming admissions practices and affirmative action. During the early 1990s, many, if not most, American campuses were becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, as well as more diverse in terms of gender, sexual orientation, and religion. This meant that all students, not just minority students, were in educational settings different from those of their frequently homogenous high schools. Couldn’t this diversification of who was now attending college lead to a richer, more robust engagement with the curriculum than was possible in classrooms where most students shared a more common set of experiences and perspectives? The idea that diversity was an asset, not just a demographic, guided AAC&U’s approach to the CDI, and it was especially attractive to the foundation.

The foundation made its first grant to AAC&U for the Campus Diversity Initiative in late 1992. The proposal for this first grant to AAC&U clearly articulated the association’s goal, which was “to reframe diversity from a problem in society to be solved to an educational and civic asset necessary to create academic excellence and responsible democratic citizens.” The grant enabled the association’s staff to coordinate meetings of project directors, share information across campus sites, create faculty development institutes focused on reforming courses to include diversity content, and work directly as consultants with those campuses that had received direct funds from Ford. In other words, AAC&U became an intermediary between the projects and the funder, helping the foundation shape and interpret what was happening on the ground, while also helping each campus learn what was transpiring elsewhere through the initiative. With foundation funds, AAC&U also convened an annual meeting of CDI grantees. In 1993, the association adopted a new name for its partnership with Ford. The CDI was not very aspirational in its message. This led AAC&U to reconceive its effort as American Commitments: Diversity, Democracy and Liberal Learning. The name stuck for nearly a decade.

The initial funding provided by Ford helped AAC&U create a network of sixty-three higher education institutions that sought to imbue the general education curriculum with new diversity courses and requirements. It was insufficient to give lip service to the value of a more inclusive curriculum that served a more inclusive student body. General education courses needed to be infused with content that broadened students’ perspectives—especially content focused on race, ethnicity, class, and gender. Importantly, as revealed in Lucy Anne LePeau’s 2012 doctoral dissertation, “Academic Affairs and Student Affairs Partnerships Promoting Initiatives on Campus: A Grounded Theory,” one unique feature of the projects was the effort to combine the forces of academic affairs and student affairs leaders. The Ford guidelines had urged the creation of such partnerships, and for the most part, LePeau found that this suggestion was implemented on many campuses.3

Gathering information from the dozens of Ford-funded projects, AAC&U created the National Panel on Diversity, Democracy, and Liberal Education, which produced three monographs. The association published these monographs in 1995–6 under the following titles: The Drama of Diversity and Democracy, American Pluralism and the College Curriculum, and Liberal Learning and the Arts of Connection for the New Academy. Interestingly, the titles all referred to the relationship of campus diversity to broader civic education goals. AAC&U constantly tried to bridge the divide between academic insularity and societal needs. Engaging with diversity issues, according to the AAC&U, would help all college students become better citizens.

These publications were widely disseminated. Without a citation search or an independent evaluation, however, it is difficult to know in retrospect how they were received and how useful they were to campus leaders seeking to emulate the best practices of the Ford-funded projects. Certainly, they reached a significant audience of higher education leaders.

One of the more notable national efforts in broadening the CDI’s message about diversity as an asset entailed the commissioning of the first-ever national poll gauging public attitudes toward diversity in higher education. The poll was conducted in the summer of 1998 by the respected Daniel Yankelovich firm, DYG, and it was released in October of that same year at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. The questions posed in the poll were asked of a random sample of Americans. They included, “Does a diverse student body have a positive or negative effect on the education of students?” And, “Should colleges and universities offer courses on bigotry and prejudice?” In addition to the national poll, the initiative commissioned several state polls.

The results of the polls were especially rewarding to the Ford Foundation and AAC&U. As the press release headline noted, “two in three Americans say that it is very important that colleges and universities prepare people to function in a diverse society.” Moreover, the poll found that “nearly three in five (58 percent) say our nation was growing apart, and 71 percent say that diversity education on college and university campuses helps bring society together.” These findings echoed the goals of the CDI. Representatives of both Ford and AAC&U underscored the partners’ commitment to enhancing campus diversity as an educational and pedagogical tool. As Carol Geary Schneider observed, “diversity asks us to address the link between education and a developed sense of responsibility to one another.”4

Eventually, Ford encouraged AAC&U to design a new, highly innovative web-based dissemination component as part of the CDI. While coordination of the individual grantees remained a key goal of the foundation’s partnership with the association, staff at both Ford and AAC&U determined that the initiative needed a stronger, more immediate dissemination strategy to promote the value of the “diversity as an asset” agenda. Caryn McTighe Musil, AAC&U’s project director for Diversity and Learning, the shorthand name for the effort, worked with a private public relations firm and the University of Maryland to create a webpage called DiversityWeb and a quarterly print and online journal called Diversity Digest, with Debra Humphreys serving as founding editor. Both entities sought to glean the best of the campus work and share it virtually and in traditional print format with subscribers. The University of Maryland managed the website until AAC&U took it over and redesigned it in 1999. By that time, Diversity Digest had a mailing list of nearly eighteen thousand individuals across higher education. In 2007, AAC&U relaunched the quarterly under the new title Diversity and Democracy.

Following in the footsteps of the Yankelovitch diversity poll, AAC&U published the findings of its own national survey of colleges and universities in the fall 2000 issue of Diversity Digest. This survey examined efforts to reform general education with new content focused on diversity. The AAC&U survey was funded by the James Irvine Foundation and was sent to every accredited college and university in the country. AAC&U received 543 completed surveys from a wide array of institutional types and regions of the country. The most striking statistic revealed that 63 percent of colleges and universities reported that they either had a diversity requirement in place or that they were in the process of developing one. The trend was consistent with the Ford-funded opinion poll of registered voters in which 68 percent supported “requiring students to take at least one cultural and ethnic diversity course in order to graduate.”5

In short, college and university leaders and the public at large seemed to agree that a more diverse student body necessitated a curriculum that was more diverse in its content. A more inclusive curriculum was designed to introduce students to cultures, races, genders, and diversity issues that they had not typically encountered. Of course, it’s one thing to support diversity efforts in principle, but it’s quite another to encourage students to engage with the diversity controversies that inevitably arise when students find themselves challenging one another’s deeply held beliefs, values, knowledge systems, and comfort levels in classrooms and in lecture halls.

Thanks to the efforts of the CDI and countless other diversity initiatives undertaken outside the Ford/AAC&U framework, American higher education in the second decade of the twenty-first century is more inclusive in terms of student demographics and curricular requirements. Yet, that does not always translate into a campus climate that is more accepting of differences based on race, gender, ethnicity, or religious affiliation. But at least colleges and universities are not ignoring the nature of life in a diverse democracy and increasingly interconnected world. Indeed, in this era of ubiquitous social media, colleges and universities can no longer assume that they can control the flow of information, scholarship, and research that comes 24/7 into the residence halls and computers of students. It is better to engage with these outlets than to pretend that they don’t exist or influence how students navigate their undergraduate experiences.

In this regard, even the US-based CDI grantees had to confront their own biases related to the meaning and implementation of diversity efforts when the Ford Foundation’s higher education staff decided to launch CDI-type efforts in India and South Africa in 1996 and 1997, respectively. From the beginning, efforts to support diversity initiatives overseas were not considered isolated projects; rather, these country-based projects were linked to one another in conference formats, and AAC&U served as the overall coordinator of information sharing across the United States, India, and South Africa.

The Campus Diversity Initiative goes international

The first international conference of CDI grantees was held in January 1997 in New Delhi, India. Twenty-three delegates from the three participating nations—India, South Africa and the United States—examined the relationship between what diversity means in each country and the historical context out of which its meaning had emerged. They also explored public policy issues relevant to each country’s national circumstances. To get a sense of how diversity was being addressed, delegates visited colleges participating in the Indian initiative. The New Delhi grants enabled two dozen institutions to participate in their CDI initiative. Half received $50,000 each, and the other half received smaller grants of $10,000 each. In South Africa, the Center for Higher Education Transformation (CHET), a nonprofit higher education agency committed to the systematic reform of higher education, became the AAC&U-like coordinator of the CDI initiative. And through CHET, the CDI in South Africa ultimately involved several campuses.

As participants quickly learned at the India convening, the issue of gender proved to be one of the more fascinating parts of the first tri-national diversity discussion. In India, women overwhelmingly attended single-sex women’s colleges at virtually the same historical moment as the United States was moving away from the model of single-sex women’s education. In other words, India was practicing the theme of institutional diversity, while the United States was becoming more homogenous in terms of institutional type. For example, in India, the number of colleges exclusively for women increased from 647 in 1982–83 to 1,070 by 1993–94. This trend was virtually the reverse in the United States, where the number of women’s colleges declined precipitously beginning in the 1970s. For example, in 1960, there were three hundred women’s colleges in the United States; by 1998, there were approximately eight left. Interestingly, in both the United States and India, the number of exclusively men’s colleges was decreasing.6

Meanwhile, in South Africa, all higher education institutions were coeducational by the 1990s. Thus, the disparities between men’s and women’s access to universities were not determined by institutional type, but rather by internal institutional policies.

Beyond gender, the most significant diversity issue in all three contexts related to disadvantaged classes or specific subgroups of people. In India, society was stratified by divisions of caste, class, religion, region, and language as well as gender. Interestingly, the word “race” was not commonly used by Indian CDI participants and leaders. That did not mean that pernicious forms of oppression in India, based on caste categorizations, did not exist. Perhaps caste in the Indian context served as a proxy for race. But beginning with Indian independence in 1948, it has been official policy in the nation to practice a form affirmative action, which provides for the reservation of enrollments for members of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and other Backward Castes (their language, not mine). As one higher education analyst wrote in 1999, “while the policies themselves are progressive, and designed to undo the accumulated distortions of the past, a wide gap exists between policy and practice.”7

By contrast, South African and US participants in CDI projects and at AAC&U annual convenings focused on the subject of race. It is easy to understand the salience of race as a marker of disadvantage in these two national contexts. In many ways, the United States and South Africa have somewhat similar historical narratives—slavery; the policies of segregation and apartheid; the promulgation of whites-only higher education institutions; and the existence of separate colleges and universities for blacks in both societies, through the middle of the twentieth century in the United States and through the early 1990s in South Africa. Of course, in the South African context, people of color—including black Africans and Asians—were the overwhelming majority, whereas in the United States that was not the case.

When thinking about race, however, the notion of “diversity” had very different meanings in the two other national contexts. As CDI participants learned at a second tri-national convening, held in Durban, diversity in South Africa was used to justify the fact that racial groups should be separated and treated differently. The fact that the majority of citizens were black Africans who were oppressed under white minority rule could be traced back to “diversity.” It was this demographic that gave the Apartheid state the excuse to create separate institutions of higher education for different racial groups.

Indeed, the word “diversity,” American CDI participants at a 1999 conference learned, was a contaminated term in South Africa. It was devoid of progressive political content and didn’t reflect inequalities of power and resources. To South Africans who had been fighting racial categorizations, “diversity” was a word used by the state to reinforce exclusions based on race. A more appropriate progressive stance—one employed by the African National Congress—was rooted in the ideology of non-racialism and national unity.

These differences in understanding of the meaning of “diversity” proved to be one of the major lessons learned in the tri-national meetings and convenings of the CDI. And, looking back, perhaps the American participants learned the most from these horizon-expanding conversations. The discussions succeeded in decentering the US experience, proving that one nation’s approach might not be the only way to transform higher education to make it more inclusive—not only in terms of students served, but also in terms of goals and aspirations.

Conclusions about the partnership between Ford and AAC&U

Sadly, apart from the aforementioned LePeau dissertation, which only looked at the processes of implementing partnerships between student affairs and academic affairs staff, there is no comprehensive evaluation of all aspects of the Campus Diversity Initiative. Indeed, as LePeau concludes, “Fifteen years later, campuses continue to wrestle with ways to meet the needs of the diverse landscape of students enrolling in higher education. Issues of equity, access, and inclusion of students representing multiple identities continue to challenge educators in higher education.”8 This means that it is difficult to know the lasting impact of this work. We know that many of the campus-based projects in the United States were deemed successful by local higher education leaders and Ford Foundation staff, based on internal reviews or evaluations conducted by third parties. But, sadly, many of these reviews were anecdotal and, thus, not as rigorous as we might have hoped.

That said, one successful outcome of the initiative is the fact that AAC&U has managed to continue its commitment to an inclusive curriculum through subsequent projects and organizational efforts. This speaks to the critical importance of choosing a partner institution that was in sync with the goals of the Ford Foundation. Another outcome, the gradual involvement of several other US philanthropies in evaluating issues of diversity and campus climate, testifies to the influence this work has had on donors.

Finally, while words like increasing diversity and inclusion are widely employed to talk about reforming US higher education, they often have the effect of rendering invisible issues of power, privilege, and discrimination. As the eminent historian Joan Wallach Scott has recently written, “It is not ‘diversity and inclusion’ that will remedy the problems but programs aimed at racism, sexism, and homophobia. Let’s name the problems for what they are.”9


1. For discussion of “inclusiveness” and “interhelpfulness” as animating themes of the association, see Linda Eisenmann, “‘Making Better Colleges’: AAC’s Century of Change and Commitment,” Liberal Education 101, no. 1/2 (2015): 30–37.

2. For more on AAC&U’s history of supporting higher education reform, see the previous articles in this series: Norman Jones, “The Continuous Death and Resurrection of the Liberal Arts,” Liberal Education 101/102, no. 4/1 (2016): 44–51; Jerry G. Gaff, “The Role of Faculty in the Transformation of AAC&U: A Personal Essay,” Liberal Education 101, no. 3 (2015): 30–37; EIsenmann, “‘Making Better Colleges.’”

3. Lucy Anne LePeau, “Academic Affairs and Student Affairs Partnerships Promoting Diversity Initiatives on Campus: A Grounded Theory” (doctoral dissertation, University of Maryland, College Park, 2012),

4. Press release on poll results, Ford Foundation Archives.

5. Debra Humphreys, “National Survey Finds Diversity Requirements Common around the Country,” Diversity Digest 5, no. 1 (2000): 1.

6. See Irene B. Harwarth, A Closer Look at Women’s Colleges (Washington, DC: US Department of Education, 1999).

7. Jayalakshmi Indiresan, “The Dynamics of Diversity and Higher Education: Initiatives and Challenges in the Indian Context,” in Diversity, Democracy, and Higher Education: A View from Three Nations, ed. Edgar F. Beckham (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2000), 51.

8. LePeau, “Academic Affairs,” 18–19.

9. Joan W. Scott, Civility, Affect, and Academic Freedom (Providence, RI: Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women, Brown University, 2016), 7.

To respond to this article, e-mail, with the author’s name on the subject line.

Alison R. Bernstein is director of the Institute for Women’s Leadership and Professor of History at Rutgers University.

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