The most diverse place on campus is a shiny, happy spot that exists in two dimensions: the brochures, viewbooks and annual reports that colleges and universities produce for public consumption. Glance through these glossy publications and you’ll see smiling out at you a plethora of minority member faces. Such images are meant to convey these institutions’ warm embrace of diversity to prospective students, employees and supporters. But research suggests that when the images don’t line up with reality, the use of minority member photographs can backfire, generating an effect exactly opposite of the one intended.
In an article published this month in the journal Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, researchers investigated the reactions produced by the “overrepresentation” of minority images in a flyer advertising a local university. The study, led by Jennifer Spoor of La Trobe University in Australia, found that white students felt more positively about a flyer that overrepresented the proportion of Asian students on their campus than about a flyer with more accurate depictions.
However, students of Asian ethnicity (a stigmatized minority group in Australia) felt less favorable towards the advertisement that showed many Asian faces than toward a flyer that showed a more realistic number. “Minority group members may be frustrated by the fact that overrepresentation gives an overly rosy picture of majority-minority relations,” Spoor theorized, while members of the majority group may feel only a gratifying glow upon seeing their university portrayed as diverse.
Images that present a misleading vision of diversity are common in college publications, finds Timothy Pippert, an associate professor of sociology at Augsburg College in Minnesota. In a study published last year in the Journal of Marketing for Higher Education, Pippert and his colleagues analyzed more than 10,000 photographs found in the recruitment materials of 165 four-year educational institutions in the U.S. The majority of schools, Pippert reports, “provided images of diversity” that were “significantly different than the actual student body.” In fact, the whiter the student body at a college, the more often images of minorities were featured in its publications.
At times, this misrepresentation of reality has verged on the fraudulent. Both the University of Wisconsin and the University of Idaho have been caught digitally pasting minority faces onto photographs of white students used in marketing materials. Diallo Shabazz, an African-American student whose face was Photoshopped onto the cover of UW’s admissions brochure in 2000, sued the university and received what he called a “budgetary apology”: the university earmarked $10 million for the recruitment of minority students and the implementation of diversity initiatives.