June 18 2019

The powerful alchemy of issues of access combined with the still-profound realities around diversity and inclusion in our country today presents higher education with one of the most compelling challenges in the history of its existence: how can we reimagine our institutions as models of opportunity and inclusion, committing deeply to the notion that a transformative education should be open, available, welcoming, and supported for all?

For decades, we have relied on high-stakes standardized tests that are racially, culturally, and socioeconomically biased. We structure our admissions and financial aid largely around these test scores and school-district rankings. As a result, we reinforce a culture of elitism across higher education, excluding vast populations of students for whom education is the single most critical element in their empowerment and socioeconomic mobility.

Additionally, the demographic data regarding the students that will be matriculating in the next thirty years paints a clear and compelling picture that should create urgency for leadership everywhere: the makeup of the student body of the future is changing rapidly, becoming more and more diverse across lines of race, ethnicity, religion, ability and disability, socioeconomic status, gender expression, and sexual orientation. We know that these diverse groups have been historically limited in their access to higher education, and/or not appropriately supported and served once on campus. Universities have too long been elevated by whom and how many they keep out, rather than whom they admit and graduate. Make no mistake: the new university will reallocate their measures of success from who is not admitted to the transformations of their students, and the good they do in the world after attaining their degree. The time to pivot in this direction is now.

The work here is ongoing, difficult, and eye-opening, and it takes leadership, patience, discipline, engagement, and self-awareness from all constituents: students, staff, faculty, the administration, and the board of trustees. But the central champion for diversity and access on any campus must be the president. Even an excellent chief diversity officer cannot drive institutional culture without the president’s passion, time, and focus. If there is not direct leadership and responsibility for fostering diversity and inclusion, there will not be sustained efforts and clear results. The leadership dimension regarding diversity translates into a deep, on-ground commitment.

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Leaders who focus on diversity and inclusion stay true to several key considerations:

  • They show up in the space on a consistent basis. Presidents must not announce a commitment to diversity then not show up where the dialogue is happening.
  • They harbor a deep belief that these issues matter and communicate this belief consistently to all audiences.
  • They understand that these issues are evolving and complex, and require thoughtful, ongoing discussion, analysis, and continual learning.
  • They ensure that their administration is acting proactively to shape the campus conversation and experience of underrepresented students, not reactively managing challenges.
  • In short, presidents show up, communicate the value of diversity constantly, commit to personal openness and continued learning, and drive the organization to responsible action.

Leaning into issues of opportunity and inclusion is not an add-on to a university’s mission, it is an imperative role of the new university. There are learners across disparate backgrounds who are deeply deserving of the types of transformative learning opportunities higher education can offer. As a consequence of lack of access, the talents and abilities of millions have been closed out of the system and denied their ability to flourish and contribute. Today, higher education has both the tools and the obligation to right that wrong, enhancing and ensuring a more diverse and inclusive university community. Colleges and universities can be the vehicle through which a vast resource of creative and intellectual energy is unleashed. It will take deep, consistent, and intentional commitment across the entire spectrum of strategy, operations, and learning, with leaders at the center of that commitment.

In other words, the new university requires courageous leadership.

Opportunity and Inclusion: Diversifying the Campus Culture Challenge Questions

  • Do you moderate access to your institution using standardized test scores?
  • Do you have processes in place that support a recruitment and retention culture?
  • Is the university as a whole moving toward a more representatively diverse campus community that is reflective of national demographic trends?
  • Does your institution have cultural barriers to diversity and inclusion?
  • Does the president own and lead diversity and inclusion at the highest level?
  • Have you moved your institution from a passive hiring culture to a recruitment and retention culture?
  • Are there campus dialogues around diversity and inclusion held on a regular basis?
  • Do all of your faculty and staff engage in ongoing training/workshops on diversity and inclusion?
  • Do you actively recruit and retain underrepresented groups into your senior leadership team?
  • Do you promote free debate and discussion within a framework of civil discourse and respect?
  • Do you create opportunities and experiences where students, faculty, and staff of diverse backgrounds and experiences can engage in conversations that enhance understanding and awareness?

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