Making Diversity an Academic Imperative
California College of the Arts was one of 28 independent colleges in California, and the only arts college, to receive support from the James Irvine Foundation's Campus Diversity Initiative (CDI). This multiyear grant (2003–6) provided support for CCA’s continuing efforts to reframe campus conversations about diversity and to develop effective practices to build and sustain a diverse college community.
CCA views diversity in terms of the perspectives that individuals bring to the college, which grow out of different life experiences. For prospective students, these qualities are identified in various ways:
language(s) spoken at home
parents’ educational level
portfolios that demonstrate civic engagement
CCA provides significant financial assistance to selected students, identified through the admissions process, who will diversify the campus. This is essential, but it is not sufficient. A college must not only be financially accessible but also must be a supportive community where diverse perspectives are reflected everywhere.
CCA’s diversity efforts over the past decades have been significant—and often inspiring—but, perhaps not uncommonly, they suffered from two limitations: they resided with particular, committed individuals whose activities were often isolated and exhausting; and they were significantly dependent on outside support that was difficult to sustain.
After some trial and error, it was determined that the most successful changes in campus culture at CCA would come through modifications to the infrastructure that would integrate diversity into the very fabric of the institution, primarily through changes in the curriculum, thus treating diversity as an academic imperative.
Here are some of the ways CCA accomplished this during the grant period—and how the college continues to address these issues.
Faculty Became Major Stakeholders in the Diversity Efforts
The overriding aim here was to increase faculty awareness that diversity is a key competency and that it contributes to excellence. We now include a senior representative from the Academic Affairs Office on each search committee for ranked and tenure-track positions, which helps ensure the process respects diversity concerns. Every search pool normally includes diversity candidates.
Faculty members are also encouraged to use existing resources creatively to enhance diversity efforts. Unranked faculty positions, for example, as well as visiting artist positions can bring a variety of perspectives to campus because of their flexibility with regard to project content, scheduling, and financial commitment.
Diversity Resource Database
CDI support also inspired a faculty retreat dedicated to diversity issues. Out of the retreat came a determination to include more non-Western materials in CCA’s courses. The faculty also expressed the need for assistance in identifying such materials. Several graduate students were hired to create a Diversity Resource Database to help faculty identify and integrate diversity materials into their courses.
To date some 700 images, 300 artist biographies, and other resources have been collected. Faculty members in the First Year Program have been trained to use the database, and access will soon expand among the faculty.
Course Evaluation Form Update
Finally, course evaluation forms were revised to include a narrative question that asks how effectively a course incorporated diverse perspectives. Drafting and approving this question was a significant effort on the part of the Curriculum Committee of the Faculty Senate.
The question reads: “The college is committed to supporting diversity through the cultivation of individual creative expression and the exchange of a wide variety of ideas and points of view. In what ways did this course incorporate diverse perspectives related to race, religion, culture, class, gender, and/or sexual orientation?”
This is an unusual strategy, but these evaluations are one of the primary means by which our faculty is assessed, so this question gives faculty members added incentive to participate in the curriculum reform effort.
Reposition the Center as Prominent Part of Curriculum
The Center for Art and Public Life was formed in 1998 and has been the hub of the college’s diversity efforts, largely by partnering with community groups to provide meaningful learning opportunities to CCA students through arts projects in underserved communities. It was time to weave the Center more deliberately into the curriculum.
Community Arts Program
CCA launched a new undergraduate area of concentration, the Community Arts Program, which is chaired by the director of the Center. This interdisciplinary major focuses on professional practice and theory with an emphasis on diversity and equity issues. The program attracts not only diversity applicants but also all kinds of students who want to make art in a context of community engagement. The Center’s director is now a much more visible presence on the faculty and in faculty governance. The director also sits on the Senior Cabinet.
SMART (Subject Matter in Art)
Also under the aegis of the Center, CCA launched the SMART (Subject Matter in Art) teaching-concentration program, which prepares students to pursue a teaching credential and a career in art education. Courses in this program are heavily enrolled, and they give prospective art teachers experience in underserved schools.
The Center has also assumed curricular responsibility for the area of Diversity Studies, which includes seminars that focus, for example, on critical theory with regard to race and gender as well as studio courses that provide opportunities for cultural collaborations. Six credits of diversity studies are now required for graduation.
These curricular efforts were complemented by intense efforts in enrollment services to attract diversity applicants:
(1) An assistant director of admissions / diversity recruitment was hired to oversee and update strategies and practices.
(2) The admissions application and essay question were dramatically overhauled to better identify diversity students.
(3) Since many diversity students come from underserved schools where the arts curriculum is weak, a new brochure was prepared to clarify and demystify the undergraduate portfolio requirement.
(4) Scholarship assistance was increased to attract prospective diversity students to CCA’s Young Artist Studio Program (YASP) and Pre-College Program. These programs serve students in middle school and high school and are a natural conduit to enrollment at CCA.
(5) A director of Career Services was hired to help prospective students and their families understand the potential for careers in the arts and the broad preparation an arts education provides for a variety of professional pursuits. Both this position and the diversity recruitment position have become permanent.
As a result of the above-listed efforts, CCA has seen a small but steady increase in diversity student enrollment. The college is committed to continuing these programs and supporting these students. Since the conclusion of the grant period, a cohort of diversity students has formed to assist retention efforts by providing mentoring, leadership training, and social support. We hope to see the positive results of their efforts in upcoming years.
The primary lesson learned is that diversity and diversity awareness are most effectively increased when they are woven directly into the institutional infrastructure. At CCA this was largely accomplished by making the curriculum the effective avenue of change. The strategy made diversity an academic imperative, with ongoing focus from the college community and support from the operating budget.
California College of the Arts thanks the James Irvine Foundation for its critical support. CCA would also like to thank the members of its Diversity Task Force—faculty, staff, trustees, students, and alumni—who assisted this effort with generosity and sustained commitment.