Maintaining diversity and a welcoming campus environment is an institutional value at UCLA and many other universities. No wonder, then, that education professor Sylvia Hurtado’s research on the effect of campus climate on student academic progress and student and faculty retention has caught the attention of many in higher education.

As director of UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) — home to the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, regarded by many as the most comprehensive source of information on American higher education systems — Hurtado has helped to expand research programs with the goal of addressing the success of diverse student populations in postsecondary education. She has spent more than 10 years conducting research for the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation to identify the conditions for student success in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields and the science behind interventions for underrepresented students in higher education. Another national project has focused on understanding degree attainment and helping diverse campuses increase graduation rates for low-income, first-generation students and underrepresented groups.

Joanie Harmon, editor of Ampersand in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, spoke with Hurtado recently about her research and the challenges campuses face as they engage students, faculty and staff on issues of diversity and campus climate.

How does racial composition affect the college experience?
It’s not really only about racial composition but the degree to which people interact. You can bring diverse people together, but it’s not a truly desegregated institution unless students are engaging with each other. HERI’s databases and also the previous work I’ve done with universities look at the impact of interaction and how it affects students in terms of their activities, democratic sensibilities and their academic work.

What was your experience as a minority student at Harvard and Princeton?
I think I do the climate work I do because I am still trying to unpack that experience. That led to my first project on looking at [racial] climate using large-scale national data, and understanding how it is different for Chicano, African American and white students. The work I do now looks much more at the broader environment in terms of institutional support and practice, but it still focuses on student identities and ways to make our institutions more responsive.

You would think that the broader access, more diverse campuses don’t have a problem. But what we’re finding is that racism and stereotyping don’t go away because they are part of society. As institutions become more diverse, the real work starts. Educationally, we still have to provide ways for students to learn about difference, manage it, accept it and develop more tolerance.

How can faculty and staff support students in developing tolerance and embracing diversity?
We just finished a climate study at a well-known university. Basically, the [underrepresented] students tried to make [other] students comfortable because they know that people have a lack of awareness about differences and backgrounds, and [carry] lots of assumptions. Those students who are really bright know how to negotiate [differences in a system of privilege], and they know the issues when they come up. Only on occasion did they have educators facilitate discussions and provide more knowledge. When it comes from an authority, it probably has more weight.

We do ourselves a disservice when we don’t encourage students to question the way things are. What is so important about what we do at HERI and what is evolving in my work is thinking about the students we educate as social change agents. The choices we make every day are either reconstructing the status quo or keeping things the same within institutions.

When you led the discussion on Hispanic-serving institutions at the American Educational Research Association, you spoke about cultural capital. How can the value of cultural capital be emphasized for students?
The benefits of diversity that we’ve seen in the literature and in our research are clear, but the conditions have to be right. We’re thinking about every person’s role in constructing a climate.

Developing a welcoming environment is very important. And I think that those institutions that have adopted that as part of their culture really have diversity as a core value. This means they value what students bring and validate their perspective in the classroom, even if these do not reflect “middle-class” norms.

That means, for example, that when we talk to students, we ask, “What do you learn from your peers who are different from you?” They talk about some of the typical outcomes (e.g. a broadened perspective), but they also talk about the barriers and difficulties. There is learning happening, but the conditions for successful learning have to be created, and that means having opportunities for authentic conversations.

How can campuses overcome the barriers that prevent STEM learning and careers among minority students and to encourage the recognition of diversity as an asset?
We’re going to have to think more broadly about identifying talent in the STEM fields.

Our research puts us in contact with people who have a broader understanding about what it takes to be a scientist. It takes determination; it takes imagination. You have to not be afraid of failure. There are faculty who can identify those traits among students from underrepresented groups who have a natural interest and ability.

I’m not saying that everyone has the skill to be a scientist, but I think that there are some traits that make people really good scientists — and it’s not about simply being able to memorize a lot of information in a short amount of time and to get that right on an exam.

I’m hoping that the work we’re pulling together for STEM will be able to show, as students enter college, how their interests and pathways change and also the kinds of things that institutions can do to make a difference for students in the first year, fourth year and beyond.

Read Ampersand's complete interview with professor Hurtado.