6 min read

The Case for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Higher Education

As a white woman, there are a great many things I have never needed to consider when in public. For example, proximity to the elderly, being alone in a store aisle, or the consideration that the children in my shopping cart may not be my own flesh and blood. After nearly a decade of marriage to a man of ethnic background, I’ve discovered the ignorance that was ever present during my formative years concerning the need for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Saturated by predominantly white, middle class community members, exposure to DEI was not a strong point in southwestern Idaho. It is important to note that I did not have Klu Klux Klan for neighbors. In fact, most of my immediate acquaintances were the salt-of-the-earth farming type. We simply lacked exposure. Ignorance grows in the absence of exposure.

Robert Sellers, the Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Michigan defines DEI using the following anecdotes: 

  1. Diversity is where everyone is invited to the party
  2. Inclusion means that everyone gets to contribute to the playlist
  3. Equity means that everyone has the opportunity to dance/experience the music. 

A common American cultural practice is that of high school dances. Homecoming, Sadie Hawkins, Prom, etc. Though the high school I attended was broadly caucasian, there was a large percentage of ethnic students in our student body. Were these students invited to Prom? Did they know that they could attend? Possibly. Were they involved in the planning and the execution of the event? Not likely. Therefore, very few of my ethnic classmates ever attended school functions. 

The collegiate years have the potential to be some of the most impactful in life. When pursuing a degree at the traditional late teen or early 20’s age, adults are being developed. Through experiences gained in and out of the classroom, individuals transitioning from youth to adulthood often set themselves on a trajectory that will determine their success. Campus life ranging from clubs to athletics to academics can be a vehicle for future success. Are these opportunities being presented to all students regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation? Even if an individual decides not to attend a specific event, are they being invited? Are they presented with the opportunities to contribute in a way that would make them and those like them comfortable in their participation? 

Typically when addressing issues concerning DEI, most believe it to be an racial affair. While race does have a great impact on how DEI is implemented in the high ed systems, other diverse groups, like gender, sexual orientation, religion, and disability status, are also affected. DEI is designed to create equitable access to formal education for one and all.  

The purpose of this blog is to explore best practices as we discover a universal understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We must begin by asking the question “why is DEI important in higher education?” DEI creates a welcoming environment, encourages diverse perspectives, promotes social justice, fosters critical thinking, and ultimately, prepares students for a diverse workforce.

Creates a Welcoming Environment

Acceptance, in the case of DEI, begins at the top. As upper leadership implement inclusive policies, provide diverse and equitable training, and hire like-minded support staff, the ripple effect will be great. If university administration is supportive of DEI movements, affinity groups and support networks will be created. There will be an increased representation of underrepresented individuals and curriculum and pedagogy will diversify. More often than not, a university has a great impact on the community in which it is located. If a local university embraces DEI practices, there is an increased likelihood that the surrounding community will also adapt to a more inclusive environment.

Encourages Diverse Perspectives

The relationship between a local university and its surrounding community is a two-way, fast flowing street. While university events frequently draw community members’ support, community members often provide opportunities to students at the university in means of internships, networking connections, and even job offers. All in all, a diverse perspective at the university level will carry over as students accept local employment. 

A diverse perspective is also enhanced through exposure. As underrepresented populations are admitted to a university, the student body naturally diversifies and will provide experiences to the masses in the form of ethnic, religious, and identity exposure.

Promotes Social Justice

The National Association of Independent Schools noted in an article titled, Using a Social Justice Framework to Guide DEI Work, “ Taking action often centers on ceding power and control, but at its very heart, this work requires trust and acknowledgement that we watch have unique experiences in this work – and that no one knows their own problems better than they themselves.”

Representation is vital for the study and pursuit of social justice. How can I, as a white woman from Idaho, possibly understand the intricacies of an African American male who was raised in the Bronx? And ultimately, the reverse? While we may not be able to understand one another’s experiences first hand, we can develop a near perfect sense of empathy as we learn more about each other. From empathy is born inclusivity. Inclusivity will foster equity. Equity will naturally generate diversity and the process becomes cyclical.

Fosters Critical Thinking 

Similarly to the promotion of social justice, the exposure to diverse groups will construct questions needing solutions to problems that have not yet been solved. By encouraging inclusive dialogue and discussion, DEI efforts will allow for individuals from differing backgrounds to share their thoughts and experiences in a safe and respectful environment. DEI practices embolden active listening, thoughtful reflections, and constructive questioning. Might I suggest that DEI practices be written into legislation and implemented into congress, effective immediately? Can you imagine how different politics would be with active listening, thoughtful reflection, and constructive questioning? I smell world peace a coming.

Diverse Workforce Preparation 

DEI practices also will expand access and opportunities for those entering the workforce. Educational Institutions are not the only place where inclusive curriculum is needed. However, it is a practice arena where inclusive and supportive learning environments can be preserved through the intentional planning and instruction of a well represented faculty. 

DEI efforts in workforce preparation programs often involve engaging with employers and industries to promote diversity and inclusivity in the workplace specifically. This can include partnerships with companies and organizations that are committed to DEI principles and advocating for inclusive hiring practices.

Succinctly, DEI practices are needed so desperately in the sphere of higher education. Through the creation of welcoming environments and diverse perspectives are encouraged, social justice and critical thinking will be promoted, thus better preparing students for a diverse and inclusive workplace. So who can we invite to the party?

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