Race, class, religion, gender, sexual orientation—not easy topics to grasp in their complexity, much less to discuss honestly with others. But with input from psychologists universities are tackling these issues through intergroup dialogues that appear to be opening students' eyes to others' views and deepening their thinking on these often nuanced matters.

"Many institutions of higher education are searching for ways that students from diverse backgrounds can go beyond simply co-existing to actually learning from each other and gaining the cultural competencies they will need to become leaders in a diverse democracy," says one of the chief architects of these efforts, psychologist Patricia Y. Gurin, PhD, the Nancy Cantor Distinguished University Professor Emerita and director of research of the Program on Intergroup Relations at the University of Michigan.

Such efforts include a nine-university initiative spearheaded by the University of Michigan that is the first to evaluate such programs using a randomized, multi-study design, as well as a major, multi-university effort to increase religious understanding and tolerance on campuses. Other programs are using social psychological principles to promote individual and group understanding of differences.

The Michigan model

A major player in these efforts is the University of Michigan, which has been fostering intergroup dialogues since the late 1980s. In the past few years, the university has expanded its scope by teaming with eight other institutions to build a uniform curriculum and to test its results through a project called the Multi-university Intergroup Dialogue Research Project. The other sites are Arizona State University; Occidental College; Syracuse University; the University of California, San Diego; the University of Maryland; the University of Massachusetts Amherst; the University of Texas at Austin; and the University of Washington, Seattle.

The programs use a model based in part on the social contact theory of social psychologist Gordon Allport, PhD. He believed that bringing members of opposing groups together under conditions of cooperation, equal status and personal acquaintance can improve attitudes toward others and foster intergroup harmony.

The dialogues—elective, two-credit courses for which students receive grades—take place over 14 weeks in a manner that gradually and organically builds a sense of group trust, notes Kelly Maxwell, PhD, co-director of the university's Program on Intergroup Relations.

Each group is headed by two highly trained facilitators, each representing one of the identity groups in the dialogue, which includes discussions on race, gender, sexual orientation and disability, for example. The team at the University of Michigan deliberately uses as facilitators students who receive a full year of training, so participants feel better able to share personal information that may be awkward or difficult, Maxwell says.

In a first phase of the class, students join in group-building exercises where they share personal stories related to the dialogue theme. Then, they learn about socialization, prejudice and stereotyping, partly through readings and partly through experiential exercises that demonstrate these concepts. They also share experiences of how they may have been stereotyped themselves, or what they know about stereotypes of other people and their own groups, Maxwell explains

In another phase, called "Hot Topics," students discuss issues related to the theme of their particular dialogue, which they raise anonymously via index cards. In race dialogues, for instance, students often want to talk about affirmative action—a particularly hot topic at Michigan, as the university was the center of a 2003 Supreme Court case that eventually upheld the right of universities to consider race in the admissions process. (Gurin was the university's key witness in the case on the educational benefits of diversity programs.)

Students enter the dialogue coming from pro, con and neutral perspectives but almost invariably end up with a more shaded view, says Maxwell

"People start to realize that there are all of these nuances in why people believe the things they do," she says. "A lot of it comes from sharing stories about experiences that have catalyzed their thinking in a particular way."

More personal topics arise as well, notes Gregory Whiting, an undergraduate psychology major who has facilitated three of the dialogues at Michigan.

In gender dialogues, for instance, women may relate narratives on having been sexually abused, for example. Men may be hearing about these topics on a personal level for the first time.

Such discussions often lead to a broader view of the issue, Whiting says. For example, one group eventually started talking about how the United States "is a very sex-negative culture"—people do a lot of superficial talking about having sex, but communicate very little about the relational aspects of sexual or gender relations, Whiting says.

Gurin and collaborators from the eight other participating institutions have just completed a study looking at the effects of 26 race dialogues and 26 gender dialogues across the nine universities. The study includes equal numbers of white women, white men, women of color and men of color. Because the study randomly assigned students who had applied to be in an intergroup dialogue to a dialogue or a waiting list or traditional-classroom control group, the results don't simply reflect the bias of students who would tend to choose such programs, Gurin explains.

"Given the design, any effects of the dialogues are above and beyond students' motivations to participate in these activities," she notes.

The team used several measures to evaluate the effectiveness of the program, including surveys given before and after the dialogues as well as a year later; final papers coded for students' experiences; videos of the dialogues coded for student interactions; and post-dialogue interviews. The evaluation teams at each institution were independent of the staff who implemented the dialogues, further adding to the study's objectivity, Gurin notes.

Compared with students in the control groups, students in the dialogues showed higher rates of intergroup understanding, intergroup relations and intergroup collaboration, Gurin says. In particular, they walked out with more empathy, greater motivation to bridge differences, a broader understanding of inequality and a stronger commitment to being socially active after college. The team is still collecting one-year follow-up data, which will show if the effects hold up over time.

'Difficult dialogues'

A number of universities, including Michigan, are also taking part in intergroup programs designed to tackle the polarizing topic of religion.

Called "Difficult Dialogues," the programs are funded by the Ford Foundation, which launched the project in 2006. In the first phase, the foundation granted 27 universities $100,000 each to create two-year programs aimed at fostering greater understanding of religious differences using an intergroup dialogue model. Since then, Ford has given additional funds to some of these universities so they can expand and improve their programs.

At Michigan, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, agnostic and atheist students all participate in these dialogues, which use the same model as the intergroup dialogues on race and gender (other campuses structure their dialogues differently).

Religiously conservative students may share their difficulty trying to make sense of science classes, for example, or their questions about how and why atheists believe what they do. Meanwhile, other students tackle thought-provoking issues related to America's religious culture, which tends to give greatest status to Christian and Jewish faiths, and less to any other religious tradition or to agnosticism or atheism, notes Nadia Viswanath, an undergraduate facilitator at Michigan.

In one exercise, participants were asked to write examples of how people of Christian or Jewish faiths might be at an advantage compared with those of other traditions. Participants cited examples like having or not having their religious holidays off from work, or the differential ways their faith practices are portrayed on television.

One Catholic student, for instance, said she had taken for granted the fact that Catholic services are portrayed normally and positively on TV, "whereas if she turned on the TV and saw a Muslim praying, it would probably be for something negative," says Viswanath.

"We see a lot of little realizations like this happen often, which is really encouraging," she says.

With a second round of grant funding, the team will examine whether providing students with added formal education on religion could improve the outcome of the religion dialogues, Maxwell says. To this end, some students will take classes in comparative religions before the dialogues, and others will not.

"Our hypothesis is that the coursework could deepen the dialogues because students would have a common understanding of religious traditions coming in," she says.

Spillover effects

Other campuses are holding successful intergroup efforts as well. The University of Wisconsin–Madison's counseling psychology department, for instance, has sponsored diversity dialogues for the past four years that help students at the predominantly white school move beyond "politically correct" posturing, where they feel they must say certain "appropriate" things with little understanding of why they hold these views. Instead, like the Michigan program, the Wisconsin dialogues employ a framework that helps students communicate more honestly about and gain a more authentic understanding of each others' differences, says psychologist Steve Quintana, PhD, who leads a team of student facilitators there.

However, unlike the Michigan dialogues, those at Wisconsin are part of an ethnic studies requirement for undergraduates, Quintana notes. That presents a special challenge because some participants have relatively little exposure to diversity or to talking directly about these issues, he says.

"Some of the approaches of traditional multicultural counseling, principles and practices have evolved for those who are intrinsically motivated to do this kind of work," he says. "Here, the challenge is how to reach out to students with little experience in diversity, to find out where they are developmentally on this, and to offer an experience that helps them engage in diversity topics in a meaningful way." Dialogues include those on race, sexual orientation, gender and disability.

By nature of their structure, the dialogues also tackle "racial microaggressions"—subtle, often unconscious racial slurs—in a way that can help white students see on a personal level how they may be offending people of color, he notes.

For instance, a white person might share her view that a person of color took a comment the wrong way, Quintana says. "And a person of color might say, 'But I hope you can understand how I see it, too.' People share things that are challenging, and others will pipe in so they don't feel so alone in their challenges and struggles," he explains.

The programs are starting to spread beyond the ivory tower, as well. Quintana's students have brought the dialogues into the corporate world, as well as to practicum and internship sites. Meanwhile, Quintana has facilitated dialogues with retirees, and his students facilitate dialogues with high school and middle school students.

For his part, facilitator Whiting of the University of Michigan says that some of the most resistant students in his dialogues end up becoming some of the method's most avid champions.

"After the dialogue, I'll see them on campus or at the grocery store," he says. "And they'll tell me, 'I'd really like to continue being a part of this.'"

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.