The increase in student activism on college campuses across the country has brought attention to the lingering effects of racism and discrimination in higher education. In particular, raised student voices have called leaders and administrators to task on their lackluster record of racial diversity and have strongly requested “real” change. As part of these requests, students have called for, among other things, an increase in racial diversity among campus faculty, staff, and administration.
Since these sentiments are not likely to dissipate any time soon, nor should they, many institutions of higher learning are looking to address these concerns. For example, Yale University announced in November their $50 million initiative to increase faculty diversity. And Brown University pledged to double the faculty from underrepresented populations over the next ten years.
I applaud these efforts. I think it’s extremely important for colleges and universities to diversify the members of their community. Research in and out of the field supports and confirms that having a more diverse campus community enriches learning and the overall college experience. In addition, the benefits of diversity reach beyond higher education into the American workforce and general society.
Personally, as a black student attending a predominately white institution, I always appreciated seeing a member of the faculty and staff who looked like me and possibly could relate to the experience of being the other or the only.
However, there’s a key component to this conversation I believe is missing, and that’s the place of inclusion.
Yes, increasing racial/ethnic diversity would be an amazing accomplishment for any institution. But, if the institutional climate is unwelcoming and hostile, the issue of increasing faculty and staff diversity is not enough. Institutions must also focus on creating an inclusive and welcoming environment.
Students of color have shared their experiences in and out of the classroom as one of hostility and isolation; citing classroom experiences where they’re asked to speak for their race to seeing the promotion of parties/events that perpetuate racial stereotypes.
Given this reality, one must and should ask, if students of color (gay, lesbian, Muslim, student with a disability, etc.) have this experience, aren’t faculty, staff and administration who identify similarly having the same experiences? I would say yes. But, perhaps not to the same extent and in the same manner as students. For example, the recently published article, Inside Academia: Black Professors are Expected to Entertain While Presenting, highlighted the discrepancies of expectations for professors of different races. In this article, research by Dr. Ebony McGhee, a faculty member at Vanderbilt University and Lasana Kazembe an adjunct professor at DePaul University, sheds light on the experiences of Black academics, finding that when presenting their scholarly work to predominantly white audiences, there is an expectation for them to be “entertaining” while doing so, whereas their non-Black counterparts do not have the same expectations placed upon them.
I say all this to point out what for me is obvious. It doesn’t matter if you increase racial, gender or religious diversity. If your institution is not inclusive, it defeats the purpose, and your efforts will be in vain.
As researchers Milem, Chang, and Antonio (2005) note in their paper, Making Diversity Work on Campus: A Research Based Perspective: A diverse student population (and may I add faculty, staff and administration) is necessary for student development, but the benefits of diversity are not automatic and do not simply occur from a diverse campus. Institutions must become inclusive places by working in intentional ways to increase educational benefits for students and for the institution.
For the purpose of this conversation, I think it’s important to define diversity and inclusion so we’re all on the same page, because as you may recall from my first post, defining diversity can prove challenging.
The National Education Association defines diversity as the sum of the ways that people are both alike and different. The dimensions of diversity include race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, language, culture, religion, mental and physical ability, class, and immigration status. While diversity itself is not a value-laden term, the way that people react to diversity is driven by values, attitudes, beliefs, and so on. Going a step further, the Merriam Webster dictionary adds that diversity is the inclusion of different types of people (as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization. If diversity is an act of inclusion, what then does it mean for an institution to be inclusive or have an inclusive environment?
If we follow the thinking of our colleagues at Texas A&M University’s Department of Multicultural Services, an inclusive environment "is one in which members feel respected by and connected to one another. All members contribute to the formation of the group’s goals and to the realization of those goals. Inclusivity (this is my favorite part) moves us away from simply the physical integration of people to the integration of people’s experiences, knowledge and perspectives.” I argue, as institutions of higher learning, this is the direction we want to go and place we want to be regarding diversity AND inclusion. So how do we get there?
To start, institutions of higher learning must be willing to ask some difficult questions regarding the climate on campus for all constituencies. For example, is our college/university a welcoming or hostile environment? These questions can be asked in a number of ways, however, conducting a climate survey of all members of a community has been industry standard. If you have the capacity, (human and financial resources), you can create and disseminate a climate survey internally or use outside consultants to assist you. A word to the wise, before you engage in any type of assessment on campus climate, determine if your institution is ready and willing to engage in such an undertaking, as a lack of support and buy in will hinder the process.
Once you have completed the assessment of your institution’s climate, prepare yourselves (leadership included). Not only do you need to ask these questions about campus climate, you also need to be willing to hear the answers; the good, bad and ugly. It will be important to share and act upon the information gathered from the survey with your community. Transparency and a commitment to act upon the results are key. In a recent article, Paying to Ignore Racism, Dr. Shaun Harper, Founder and Executive Director for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania, discusses his experience of conducting climate surveys and other assessments at colleges and universities across the country. He is often surprised and frustrated with their response, or lack thereof, to the unfavorable results, indicating the campus was never truly ready or willing to hear the answers.
Finally, it is important for campuses to do their homework. One of my favorite books, Creating Inclusive Campus Environments for Cross-Cultural Learning and Student Engagement, is also edited by Dr. Shaun Harper. (Can you tell I’m a fan of his work?) Although it is a “how to” of sorts for student affairs professionals and their efforts to provide meaningful cross-cultural experiences for students, it has very valuable information that can be applied to faculty, staff and administration. It provides practical, research based strategies to capitalize on the diversity that exists on campuses across the country and new ways to think about how to approach multicultural education. It truly is one of the leading resources for higher education professionals seeking to understand and facilitate cross-cultural learning. In addition to reading this compilation of research, you should also research what your peer institutions are doing to create an inclusive community, both their successes and failures.
This is not an extensive list. However, it is a great place to start. Keep in mind, there are no easy answers to this question. The really hard work comes after you've benchmarked, researched and assessed. Changing institutional culture is a daunting task and requires tremendous leadership, commitment and patience. University leaders must be committed to diversity and inclusion efforts as well as be willing to lead the change and be held accountable. Buy in from key stakeholders is key, and they must feel empowered to contribute to these efforts. Finally institutions must remain vigilant, it’s a long road to become a truly inclusive campus. “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and neither will creating a diverse and inclusive environment.
Read all posts from the Diversity & Inclusion Series here.
About the Author: Damita Davis serves as the Associate Director, Diversity and Inclusion in the Office for Institutional Diversity at Boston College. In this role, she is responsible for developing and implementing diversity and inclusion educational programs for the University, with a focus on the recruitment, hiring and retention of BC's diverse workforce. Prior to joining the BC community, Damita was the Director of Multicultural Programs at Emmanuel College-MA. Highly skilled in program design and implementation, Damita coordinated Emmanuel College’s diversity lecture series, Through the Wire, has written and implemented the College’s Bias Incident and Hate Crime Policy becoming the convener of the Bias Response Team; and for over four years has coordinated the Southern Africa Service Learning Trip and Travel Course. A native of Providence, Rhode Island, Damita received both her bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Rhode Island. In 1997, Damita received her Bachelors of Science in Human Development and Family Studies and in 2002 she received a Master of Science in Human Development and Family Studies with a concentration in College Student Personnel.