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Defining Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: Insights from Powered by Publics

Diversity, equity, inclusion: what do these terms mean in higher education and why is it important to define them explicitly? How can leaders, who are committed to equitable student outcomes, embed these concepts into everything they do? Powered by Publics members tackled these questions and others through a series of foundational conversations. Although some of these conversations are still underway, there are some preliminary insights to share.

With the support of presidents at cluster lead campuses, Powered by Publics released a set of four strategic priorities in June to guide clusters as they resume collaboration following a necessary 3-month pause in their work to cope with the global pandemic. The first strategic priority is to take explicit action to pursue educational equity for low-income, first-generation, and students of color (Hispanic/Latinx, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, Asian, and two or more races), and other populations for which the university aims to improve equity.

In order to identify potential actions, clusters engaged in three foundational conversations, supported by a conversation guide developed by experts on the APLU team, Dr. Christel Perkins and Dr. Amy Cole-Smith. The first of these conversations, Defining Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, resulted in the following preliminary insights. The goal of these conversations was not to agree on one common definition for each term, but rather explore definitions currently in place, how they came to be, any missing concepts, and changes campuses may envision for the future.

Impact of Defining DEI
Many Powered by Publics members felt that defining diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is a necessary first step to improving outcomes across higher education. Each campus has its own unique mission, student body, and culture, which means that no one definition will be accurate across universities. To that end, each university must consider definitions that reflect the students they serve. State and local policymakers also wield considerable influence and may constrain campus DEI efforts. Obtaining direct input from students, faculty, and other campus stakeholders helps ensure that definitions are bought into by the campus community. Public communication of definitions by leaders at the most senior levels helps elevate their importance and facilitates alignment with benchmarking data to track progress.

Other Insights
Initial conversation on definitions led to broader insights about how DEI is valued and expressed at the university. A few highlights include:

  • Investing in DEI efforts with resources (funds, staff time, and other support) demonstrates the importance of those efforts to campus leadership. These resources help drive substantive change and build confidence and trust in the institution among students and faculty of color.

  • Efforts to improve inclusion should be intentional and active. Inclusion should be considered at the very beginning when policies or interventions are being developed, not just during implementation.

  • A diverse faculty and leadership ranks are also key to cultivating a sense of belonging and inclusion for students. Leaders who do not understand minoritized populations have difficulty making policy and programs that address their needs. The intersectionality of race, gender, class, and other characteristics are important considerations when working to diversify the faculty and leadership.

  • Equity isn’t merely about equality of opportunity. It requires concerted efforts to create opportunities for students from underserved groups, including potential redistribution of resources to address historic inequities.

  • Race-neutral policies are not harmless. They can still exacerbate inequity. Race-conscious policies, such as holistic admission processes that explicitly consider race and ethnicity, may help advance institutions toward racial equity goals. Institutions should continually assess the impact of policies on minoritized student groups and adjust policies accordingly.

Further Learning
Campus teams identified several areas for further learning: how to incorporate DEI into faculty development beyond inclusive pedagogy workshops; new holistic approaches to measuring progress toward DEI goals, beyond typical retention and graduation data; how the shift to online education following COVID-19 has impacted different student groups, not just academically but also in terms of their sense of community, belonging, and well-being. Clusters will incorporate these items and others into their learning agendas for future discussion and study.

Additional Resources

  • CUE’s Racial Equity Tools (Center for Urban Education, University of Southern California) CUE’s Racial Equity Tools aim to change the minds, hearts, and practices of faculty, staff, and leaders—all of whose collaboration is essential to achieve racial equity in higher education.

  • Equity-Minded Coaching (Community College Research Initiatives, University of Washington) Briefs, tools, and resources related to advancing equitable outcomes for all students using a racial equity lens.

  • Racial Equity Tools (Center for Assessment and Policy Development; MP Associates; World Trust) This site offers tools, research, tips, curricula and ideas for people who want to increase their own understanding and to help those working toward justice at every level – in systems, organizations, communities and the culture at large.

  • Access & Diversity
  • Powered by Publics

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