Background Medical schools frequently experience challenges related to diversity and inclusiveness. The authors conducted this study to assess, from a student body’s perspective, the climate at one medical school with respect to diversity, inclusiveness and cross-cultural understanding. Methods In 2008 students in the doctor of medicine (MD), physical therapy (PT) and physician assistant programs at a public medical school were asked to complete a diversity climate survey consisting of 24 Likert-scale, short-answer and open-ended questions. Questions were designed to measure student experiences and attitudes in three domains: the general diversity environment and culture; witnessed negative speech or behaviors; and diversity and the learning environment. Students were also asked to comment on the effectiveness of strategies aimed at promoting diversity, including diversity and sensitivity training, pipeline programs, student scholarships and other interventions. Survey responses were summarized using proportions and 95 percent confidence intervals (95% CI), as well as inductive content analysis. Results Of 852 eligible students, 261 (31%) participated in the survey. Most participants agreed that the school of medicine (SOM) campus is friendly (90%, 95% CI 86 to 93) and welcoming to minority groups (82%, 95% CI 77 to 86). Ninety percent (95% CI 86 to 93) found educational value in a diverse faculty and student body. However, only 37 percent (95% CI 30 to 42) believed the medical school is diverse. Many survey participants reported they have witnessed other students or residents make disparaging remarks or exhibit offensive behaviors toward minority groups, most often targeting persons with strong religious beliefs (43%, 95% CI 37 to 49), low socioeconomic status (35%, 95% CI 28 to 40), non-English speakers (34%, 95% CI 28 to 40), women (30%, 95% CI 25 to 36), racial or ethnic minorities (28%, 95% CI 23 to 34), or gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered (GLBT) individuals (25%, 95% CI 20 to30). Students witnessed similar disparaging or offensive behavior by faculty members toward persons with strong religious beliefs (18%, 95% CI 14 to 24), persons of low socioeconomic status (12%, 95% CI 9 to 17), non-English speakers (10%, 95% CI 6 to 14), women (18%, 95% CI 14 to 24), racial or ethnic minorities (12%, 95% CI 8 to 16) and GLBT individuals (7%, 95% CI 4 to 11). Students’ open-ended comments reinforced the finding that persons holding strong religious beliefs or conservative values were the most common targets of disparaging or offensive behavior. Conclusions These data suggest that medical students believe that diversity and a climate of inclusiveness and respect are important to a medical school’s educational and clinical care missions. However, according to these students, the institution must embrace a broader definition of diversity, such that all minority groups are valued, including individuals with conservative viewpoints or strong religious beliefs, the poor and uninsured, GLBT individuals, women and non-English speakers.