Diversity and Democracy

Institutionalizing Core Values: Diversity, Ethics, and Civic Responsibility in the Curriculum

UAB students Ingrid Pfau and Linh Tran work on an ethnographic filmmaking assignment.
UAB students Ingrid Pfau and Linh Tran work on an ethnographic filmmaking assignment.

For the past three years, the Princeton Review has ranked the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) among its top ten institutions for diversity within the student body, and this year, UAB ranked seventh for interactions across race and class categories. These rankings reflect both UAB's ongoing efforts to recruit students from underrepresented groups and its institutional commitments to diversity, ethics, and civic responsibility, which have been inextricably linked in the university's vision since its founding in 1969.

Long before gaining notoriety in 1963 for law enforcement's use of dogs and water cannons against nonviolent demonstrators, Birmingham was infamous for being a hotbed of anti-Catholicism and the most segregated city in America. From its origins, UAB represented a counter to this reputation. With the help of prominent African American advisers, visionary leader Joseph Volker peacefully integrated University Hospital in 1965 despite state legislators who threatened the Medical Center's budget and community members who painted racist graffiti on its buildings (Fisher 1995, 74, 85). Convinced that taking leadership in the civil rights movement was both the socially responsible and only ethical course of action for an urban university, Volker built on that success when he transformed the University of Alabama's Medical Center in Birmingham into the modern university that is now UAB.

This commitment to diversity continues under Carol Z. Garrison, UAB's sixth (and second female) president. Since Garrison's appointment in fall 2002, UAB has appointed its first African American vice president to head the newly created Office for Equity and Diversity, required diversity training and certification for all employees, established a Commission on the Status of Women, and become the first university in the University of Alabama system to name sexual orientation as a protected category in personnel decisions.

UAB's commitment to diversity is further reflected in the Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) it developed as part of its 2005 recertification by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Using standardized tests, research studies, higher education literature, best practices, surveys, and focus groups with alumni, employees, students, staff, and faculty, the QEP development group identified a range of foundational competencies that all students should develop. These include competencies in ethics and civic responsibility (ECR)--areas that are essential for students' success in the major and beyond. The development group expressed "repeated concerns about students needing to explore the dimensions of ethical and moral choices, take personal responsibility, [and] give back to the community, nation, and world" (University of Alabama at Birmingham 2005, 21).

Thus the QEP called faculty and staff to make an institutional commitment to integrating ethics and civic responsibility across the curriculum. Through the QEP, UAB committed to creating a First-Year Experience (FYE) program that would introduce ECR and other targeted competencies to students. It also required UAB to enhance instruction and practice in ECR across the curriculum and to develop required capstones that would include a discipline-specific ECR component.

Cross-Curricular Enhancements

Promoting ECR outside the Classroom

Even outside the classroom, UAB has implemented changes to educate students in personal and social responsibility. For example, after residential advisers noticed that students living in suites with multiple private bedrooms often retreated to their rooms to avoid interacting with suitemates who were "different," UAB built a new first-year dorm that requires each student to share a room. This change promotes immersion in a university culture that values diversity and promotes active engagement as campus citizens.

Similarly, a second Difficult Dialogues grant in 2008–10 allowed UAB to create a cocurricular program called Film for Thought using short films produced by students in Digital Community Studies courses. Program facilitators use these ethnographic films to prompt dialogue about controversial social and ethical issues related to race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic differences. An archive of these films, which also help spark facilitated dialogues in classrooms and town hall meetings in the community, can be found at http://contentdm.mhsl.uab.edu/cdm4/

--Marilyn Kurata

Since 2005, UAB's First-Year Experience program has explored such topics as cultural competence, ethnic warfare, socioeconomic and health disparities, and immigration. The program requires all first-year students to read a common book (past selections have included The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, The Kite Runner, All Over But the Shoutin', Field Notes from a Catastrophe, Mountains Beyond Mountains, and Outcasts United). Students then attend a presentation by the author or another relevant individual and participate in small group discussions that model civil discourse on controversial issues. Sustained discussion continues throughout the academic year with monthly Discussion Book Dialogues, essay contests or publications, and off-campus events cosponsored by community partners like the Birmingham Museum of Art and the McWane Science Center.

UAB's new Freshman Learning Communities (FLCs) have provided additional opportunities for first-year students to explore ECR. In 2006-08, the first of two Difficult Dialogue grants from the Ford Foundation supported the development and implementation of two FLC programs grounded in UAB's history. One of these Ford-funded FLCs explored how knowing about Birmingham's history helps students understand the current city, its people, and its problems. Another focused on health disparities and other ethical issues in medical research. These and subsequently developed FLCs helped UAB identify a common academic foundation and introduction to university expectations, ECR competencies, and other learning outcomes that are now integrated into all FYE courses.

While the FYE program was in development, a university-wide committee spent a year creating a process for courses to receive ECR designation. The committee developed fourteen ECR learning outcomes that fall into four broad categories of ideal student outcomes:

  • Students understand and practice ethical reasoning and decision making. 
  • Students are knowledgeable about contemporary events and issues. 
  • Students understand civic responsibility. 
  • Students understand the role and value of diversity.

The committee then developed a process for programs to submit courses (whether new, enhanced, or existing) for ECR designation. Since January 2009, the committee has awarded ECR designation to seventy-six courses. All programs are responsible for ensuring that their majors take a minimum of two ECR courses between their FYE course and their capstone experience. Like all courses, ECR courses are subject to departmental or school review and must be approved by the appropriate curriculum committee. Programs and faculty retain control over course content and decide which courses will be submitted for ECR designation.

The final component of UAB's QEP is the development of a capstone for each major. Although capstones can range in format or focus--including internships, fieldwork, experimental research, portfolios, performances, and theses--each capstone must reinforce some ethical issue related to the student's disciplinary studies. Moreover, capstones must facilitate students' successful transition from college to post-graduation civic engagement. A grant from the Association of American Colleges and Universities' Core Commitments project supplemented institutional funds committed to supporting faculty as they developed or enhanced the ECR components of mid-curricular and capstone courses.


UAB's location, history, founding principles, and role as a research leader and major employer help explain the university's commitment to integrating diversity, ethics, and social responsibility across the curriculum. In order to achieve its goals for undergraduate education, UAB needs to incorporate learning outcomes for personal and social responsibility within its goals for students' disciplinary knowledge. By educating the whole person, the university best prepares graduates to enjoy productive, meaningful careers and lives that benefit a society that increasingly resembles a global community. 


Fisher, Virginia E. 1995. Building on a Vision: A Fifty-year Retrospective of UAB's Academic Health Center. Birmingham, AL: Crane Hill.

University of Alabama at Birmingham. 2005. Reconceptualizing UAB's Undergraduate Core Curriculum. Birmingham, AL: University of Alabama at Birmingham. http://sacs.ad.uab.edu/UAB_QEP.pdf

Marilyn Kurata is the director of core curriculum enhancement at the University of Alabama at Birmingham


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