Recent protests on college campuses have exposed a paradox. Despite universities’ commitment to “diversity,” true inclusion — a sense of community across lines of race, class, and culture — can be elusive in higher education. Initially thrilled to receive offers of admission to selective universities, students from underrepresented communities often become disillusioned once on campus. Stereotyping, uninspiring leadership, uninviting pedagogical styles, and hypercompetitive institutional cultures leave these students cold and alienated.1
The alienation of students of color and those from low-income backgrounds on elite, majority-white campuses is hardly a new problem. The project of diversity and inclusion in higher education, controversial since its inception in the 1960s, has long been more an aspiration than a fait accompli. The problem strikes many as more urgent today because of the social context: in an era of social fracture and civil unrest, students’ expressions of discontent are louder and sharper.2
I. The Long-Term Benefits and Short-Term Costs of Diversity
The students’ protests should force universities to confront a reality that many frequently ignore: while diversity can confer benefits,3 it can also generate conflicts, as Professor Robert Putnam and other scholars have demonstrated.4 Colleges can achieve diversity’s benefits in the long term. In the short term, diversity on college campuses can generate mistrust and threaten social cohesion.5
Because many students encounter difference for the very first time in college, social conflict can be acute in higher education.6 White students are the least likely of college matriculates (relative to African Americans, Asians, and Latinos) to have interacted with other racial groups.7 Segregation in the real world begets social silos on campus.8 In addition, low-income students face unique challenges; when students from humble backgrounds encounter the lifestyles of wealthy peers, they frequently experience culture shock.9 White and middle-class students are not immune to academic and social challenges; substance abuse, mental health, and behavioral problems plague them in the same way they do other students.10 This daunting mix of social and interpersonal challenges makes understanding across social lines a “test of creativity, skill, and will.”11
II. Inclusion: Institutional and Interpersonal Approaches to Accountability
To surmount conflict and achieve diversity’s touted benefits — cross-racial understanding, increased productivity, and better critical thinking and decisionmaking skills12 — universities must engage in sustained efforts. Two types of inclusion strategies are critical. Universities must implement initiatives designed to promote both institutional and interpersonal accountability. Universities can pursue institutional accountability by ensuring that administrators and human resources departments adopt and implement policies and procedures designed to promote inclusion. Institutions of higher education can promote interpersonal accountability by seeking to improve the quality of relationships among campus stakeholders — students and faculty in particular.
Universities tend to devote significant time and resources to institutional accountability: administrators manage diversity as if it were like any other subject of a regulatory regime.13 Like governmental agencies and for-profit firms, colleges establish offices of “diversity and inclusion” to promote compliance with diversity rules and procedures.14 Diversity officers are tasked with ensuring recruitment of diverse candidate pools, implementing diversity training, enforcing antiharassment rules, and other such initiatives.15 Firms have employed this type of management-and-compliance-oriented approach to inclusion for several decades, and it is popular in many quarters.16 In fact, some contemporary student activists have campaigned for offices of diversity and inclusion, and in the wake of ongoing protests, prominent universities have agreed to establish new diversity offices.17
The management-and-compliance approach to inclusion can be an important element of a push for inclusion, but it should not be the only or most prominent element. Diversity offices are not a proven, long-term inclusion strategy.18 Once consigned to an office for management, diversity initiatives can fall off universities’ agendas. For true inclusion, universities must do more than manage diversity.
Universities should, I propose, focus more intently on interpersonal accountability — on, that is, building community by fortifying stakeholders’ relationships. Interpersonal accountability is fundamental to diversity efforts because inclusion succeeds or fails in the context of hard-to-police relationships that students develop with faculty and peers. These interactions occur inside and outside the classroom, beyond the immediate view and reach of a university’s diversity managers. Positive interpersonal interactions reduce racism and promote cross-racial community.19
Nevertheless, the interpersonal aspects of the quest for inclusion receive short shrift in conversations about diversity. In the haste to establish offices and enact procedures that showcase a commitment to (manage) diversity, universities overlook the salience of the hundreds of daily interactions that shape whether individuals actually feel welcome, safe, and at home on campus. Underrepresented students develop a sense of belonging — or of exclusion — as campus stakeholders experience each other in residence halls, cafeterias, social clubs, extracurricular activities, and, of course, classrooms. Students who do not feel like a part of the larger campus community therefore require personal engagement in all of these spaces. University administrators err when they ignore the centrality of interpersonal accountability to the diversity project.
Universities that do recognize the link between structural transformation and quality stakeholder relationships can pursue a variety of initiatives to promote inclusion through interpersonal accountability. Students and faculty can build quality personal connections and community through social gatherings, community service projects, and support groups.20 Each approach poses unique challenges and rewards. The remainder of this Commentary discusses the benefits and challenges associated with one particular approach — mentoring or, more precisely, closing the mentoring gap — as an inclusion strategy.
III. Interpersonal Accountability Through Mentoring
Mentoring — the pairing of a student with an experienced teacher to nurture talent and provide advice and support — can make all the difference in a student’s experience of higher education.21 Studies show that mentors help students navigate institutional bureaucracies, attain legitimacy, build social capital, and secure postgraduation employment.22 They can also enhance students’ academic skills and promote positive attitudes toward education.23 Students with mentors achieve higher grades, graduate at higher rates, and are more likely to attend graduate and professional school.24
Personal connections between faculty and students can be transformative because individual merit, while necessary, is insufficient for success. Individuals triumph at school and at work with the help of social networks and interested, knowledgeable, and well-positioned individuals. Mentors provide the boost that students need to fully develop their potential.
But students do not have equal access to mentors: a mentoring gap exists. Just as students are differently situated with respect to financial resources, educational opportunities, and academic performance, they are differently situated with regard to the ability to build a support network. The gap in access to mentors is frequently associated with students’ backgrounds — race, class, and gender. Wealthy, white, and male students are better positioned to attract mentors because they tend to have greater social capital.25 Students disadvantaged by race, income, education, gender, and other stigmatized social markers tend to have less social capital. These students find it more difficult to approach and secure mentors.26
Certain faculty characteristics and behaviors may perpetuate the mentoring gap as well. The demographic makeup of higher education — faculty are overwhelmingly white and male at most institutions of higher education — can compound the advantages of economically privileged, white, and male students.27 In addition, mentors sometime choose protégés who are “clones” of themselves or select mentees based on perceived ability. Either selection method can disadvantage students of color and low-income students (who face implicit bias and stereotypes).28
All of these dynamics make it less likely that economically disadvantaged, nonwhite, and female students will form mentoring relationships with experienced teachers. Consequently, these students are deprived of the academic, social, and professional advantages that flow from effective mentoring.
IV. The Mentoring Gap and Structural Inequality
The mentoring gap perpetuates structural inequality: disadvantaged, nonwhite, and female students need the guidance of experienced and caring individuals more than other students but are less likely to find it. The dearth of support networks in higher education for underrepresented and female students is, I suspect, a root cause of these students’ detachment from the very institutions that so eagerly recruit “diverse” students to join their ranks.
The work of the renowned social scientist Claude Steele illuminates why underrepresented and female college and graduate students, in particular, need support networks. Steele coined the term “stereotype threat” to describe the risk of negative stereotypes becoming self-reinforcing.29 Stereotype threat can undermine academic performance and cause alienation.30 In certain academic contexts, race and gender identity can trigger the threat; the highest-achieving students of color and female students are most vulnerable to the phenomenon. Studies have shown, for example, that when the race or ethnicity of a black or Hispanic student is noted prior to the administration of a standardized test, he performs worse.31 Similarly, when a woman’s gender is put at issue in high-level math courses, her performance suffers.32 Stereotype threat is an insidious part of higher education, undermining inclusion and universities’ missions.
Fortunately, the stereotype threat sometimes experienced by students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, and female students is not inevitable. It can be reduced in a variety of ways: by de-emphasizing the association between identity and performance, by encouraging self-affirmation, by reassuring students during the learning process, by adopting a growth — rather than a fixed — theory of intelligence, and by providing examples of high achievement by members of threatened identity groups — as well as, I propose, by mentoring.33
The validation that students can attain through mentoring promotes academic skills and a sense of belonging in higher education. Mentors can help create that elusive sense of community from the “communities of difference” on campus.34 Hence, I count effective mentoring as a precondition to meaningful inclusion in higher education.
V. Closing the Gap: A Plan of Action
Universities can advance their missions and genuine (as opposed to merely cosmetic) diversity by devoting significant resources to closing the mentoring gap. I suggest the design and implementation of a systematic program to connect underrepresented students with mentors, all on a voluntary basis. To make a significant impact as an inclusion strategy, the full range of institutions of higher education — undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools — should commit to mentoring programs, along with other practices designed to improve interpersonal relationships on campus.35
This proposal to advance inclusion through mentoring presupposes additional commitments from the universities. First, universities must implement strategies to remedy the current imbalance in mentor availability between majority and underrepresented students. In order to ensure that sufficient numbers of potential mentors volunteer to participate, mentors should be culled from the faculty as well as from the ranks of staff and alumni. Moreover, given the considerable demands on potential mentors’ time, incentives to participate are critical. Universities can incentivize mentoring by recognizing and rewarding it, just as higher education routinely rewards effective teaching.36
Second, universities must ensure that mentors provide students with quality support. In this regard, the choice of mentors is critical. Cultural awareness and consciousness of the phenomenon of implicit bias are prerequisites to successful cross-racial and cross-gender mentoring relationships.37 These qualifications can be cultivated in workshops led by trained professionals.
Third, mentoring programs should be appropriately designed to best ensure quality interactions. The functions and goals of mentors and mentees must be defined; parameters such as minimum number of meetings and appropriate types of engagement should be clear.38
These commitments are both ambitious and achievable. Already, some organizations have implemented mentoring programs to increase the numbers of women and students of color in undergraduate and professional schools.39 Many of these programs have demonstrated success in fostering students’ academic, social, and professional goals.
Interpersonal approaches to inclusion such as mentoring cannot, alone, create community on campus. As I have argued elsewhere, structural initiatives — including meaningful numerical representation of students of color, curriculum reform, and faculty diversity — are also important.40 However, structural initiatives will not succeed without interpersonal ones.
Moreover, the point propounded here — that interpersonal and institutional change are inextricably linked — is deeply rooted in our antidiscrimination jurisprudence. Over sixty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that students of color — like all students — need support from highly regarded faculty and well-positioned alumni to prosper in higher education. In Sweatt v. Painter,41 the landmark case involving the University of Texas Law School, the Court held that the law school had to admit the black plaintiff, Heman Sweatt, to the state’s flagship law school partly because of intangible and interpersonal elements of a quality education.42 The Court wrote that “qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness in a law school” included the “interplay of ideas and the exchange of views” between respected faculty and students as well as the availability of a network of esteemed graduates.43 Brown v. Board of Education affirmed that “intangible” aspects of education are invaluable to equal educational opportunity.44 My call to universities to close the mentoring gap is no more than a plea for higher education to fulfill — at long last — its mission of intellectual and personal growth for all students.45
* Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law and Professor of History, Harvard University.