Broad support found for campus diversity Poll for Ford Foundation avoided using questions with 'affirmative action'

October 07, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Americans believe strongly in the value of ethnic diversity in the United States, but feel the nation is becoming more rather than less divided along racial lines, a poll released yesterday shows.

The poll conducted by the DYG Inc. for the Ford Foundation avoids any mention of affirmative action, a hot-button term that tends to draw strong negative reactions. Instead, the New York polling firm asked voters to disclose their feelings concerning the broader and less sensitive topic of diversity on college campuses.

While 71 percent of respondents said college students should learn more about other ethnic groups to bring the nation closer together, three of five believe the nation is growing apart rather than together.

Among the poll's findings:

Ninety-one percent agreed that "our society is multicultural and the more we know about each other, the better we get along."

Seventy-five percent said a diverse student body on campus has a positive effect on the education of students, compared with 18 percent who said it has a negative effect.

Sixty-nine percent said courses and campus activities that emphasize diversity and different perspectives have more of a positive effect on the education of students, compared with 22 percent who said it has more of negative effect.

"Despite the heated public debate over diversity, Americans are clear in their views," said Alison R. Bernstein, a vice president of the foundation, whose Campus Diversity Initiative sponsored the poll. "They support diversity in higher education. They recognize that diversity is important to student success and they believe that diversity education can help bring the country together."

Daniel Yankelovich, chairman of DYG Inc., said the study took pains to avoid using the emotion-laden term of affirmative action because it would have skewed the findings.

" 'Affirmative action' is the code word for a set of practices that are seen as zero-sum, where somebody wins and somebody loses," he said.

University of Michigan President Lee C. Bollinger said it would be wrong to assume that a majority of Americans favor anti-affirmative action programs like Proposition 209 -- approved by California voters in 1996 -- that outlawed all state support for programs based on race.

"Many people thought a poll like this would come out very differently," he said. " We may have misled ourselves about what people really think."

William H. Gray III, president and chief executive of the the College Fund/United Negro College Fund, agreed that "Americans may be way ahead of the political leaders, social leaders and economic leaders in understanding this change."

The poll, conducted among 2,011 registered voters across the nation, has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.2 percentage points.

Pub Date: 10/07/98

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