Diversity seems to be at the top of the agenda for leaders in many industries, now more than ever. In response to a summer of protests sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans, many organizations—including colleges and universities—began more seriously considering their efforts to create inclusive environments.
“In reality, there have been people in higher education studying these issues and thinking about them for years,” says Corliss Brown Thompson, Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs & Assessment in the Graduate School of Education. “It’s just becoming more mainstream now. The floodgates opened, and people started realizing that we have an issue.”
Making progress on that issue extends beyond simply inviting members of marginalized communities into academic spaces. It requires careful consideration of the purpose of higher education, the ways in which students are taught, and the communities universities create.
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What is Diversity?
Conversations about diversity typically center on racial diversity, and it’s one of the many important discussions leaders in higher education should be having.
“We have to think broadly outside of ethnicity and race, but we’re still focused on what we can see as a difference,” says Rashid Mosley, assistant teaching professor in the College of Professional Studies.
In addition to race, Mosley and Thompson recommend considering the following factors when making decisions surrounding diversity:
- Social status
- Student status (first-generation, etc.)
- Sexual orientation
- Personality type
“When we think about diversity, we’re talking about having different people represented and making sure they have access,” Thompson says. Therefore, considering a wide range of perspectives allows organizations to address the needs of a broader group of students, creating a responsive and supportive environment for them.
The Importance of Diversity in Higher Education
Diversity extends beyond students, faculty, and staff. It also encompasses how universities teach, what programs they offer, and more. Here are three key reasons why schools should continue thinking about diversity in their everyday operations.
A Shifting Student Body
Research group EAB predicts that by 2022, the number of college students aged 25 to 34 will increase by 21 percentage points. At the same time, community colleges are seeing decreases in enrollment thanks to increased competition from four-year institutions that now offer microcredentials, certificate programs, and other opportunities.
Many of these students seek higher education to upskill, reskill, and advance in changing career paths.
“They may have had jobs with a lot of on-the-job training, but many of those jobs are moving away because of digital transformation,” Mosley says. “There’s a larger demand for that immediate upskill and reskill…Now we have an influx of individuals who are coming to higher ed institutions who we did not necessarily see before.”
A university must therefore take a broader range of life experiences into account when preparing to meet the needs of its student body. This can result in changes to class structures, operations, and other long-established methods of educating students.
Updating the Curriculum
As the student body changes, so too do the expectations students have of their educational experiences. Many seek an expanded curriculum that touches on subjects not traditionally taught within higher education.
“There are so many different curriculums you can teach,” Thompson says. “For example, there’s the traditional American history, but you’ll also notice that there’s African-American history and Latin-American history, which are added because ‘traditional’ is not always inclusive of everyone’s stories. The curriculum can be biased. It can be limited if we’re not intentionally trying to be inclusive of other voices, stories, and experiences.”
Universities must reevaluate not only what they teach, but the ways in which they teach it. To Mosley, this means moving away from the white, male, heterosexual, and Protestant lens through which much of academia is viewed.
“We have different groups of students coming here now and looking for something other than what has historically been taught,” Mosley says.
Building Stronger Communities
A more diverse university community opens all students up to a broader range of perspectives, helping them become better problem solvers and introducing them to new ways of thinking.
“If all of our students are the same and all of our faculty are the same, then we’re not necessarily aware of all of the different problems, challenges, and nuances that exist,” Thompson says.
Focusing on diversity can also connect the university community to the larger one in which it sits.
“It doesn’t make sense—if we’re sitting in a community who needs our help—that we’re not providing services, education, or training to them while we’re bringing in others from other places,” Mosley says.
Therefore, Mosley encourages universities to provide opportunities for students to use their learning and skills to better their communities and connect with residents in meaningful ways, rather than simply provide students with an education and degree.
Lasting Change through Equity and Inclusion
Achieving meaningful results from diversity initiatives requires more than recruiting a broader range of students and faculty. Leaders must ensure that everyone on their campuses feels that they can contribute to the university community.
“If you always have to fight for your voice to be heard and feel like you belong, then you’re not going to be able to focus on your studies and the things that make learning so enjoyable,” Thompson says.
She and Mosley agree that equity and inclusion are essential elements of any diversity-focused initiative.
Did You Know? | Northeastern’s Presidential Council on Diversity and Inclusion provides input and recommendations for building a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable university community.
Successful inclusion policies make space for a wide range of perspectives, experiences, and voices and include a framework for action, as well.
“We need to be providing space without an agenda for people to share their concerns, hopes, and dreams in whatever way they choose,” Mosley says. “Ask them directly what they want and what their desired outcome is for their workplace or community.”
Listening to and then implementing those answers—even if they deviate from the expected results or present new issues that must be addressed—helps all community members feel more valued and comfortable in their environment.
Working to provide equitable access can maximize an organization’s ability to be genuinely inclusive. Rather than provide everyone with the exact same resources, accommodations, and information, establishing an equitable framework customizes solutions based on individual needs.
“It means recognizing that people need different things,” Thompson says. “For example, if you have a visually impaired person at the table with a sighted person, yes, they’re both at the table, but it’s not equitable unless both people have the resources, support, and environment needed to be fully-included participants.”
Understanding participants’ needs ahead of time not only helps leaders collect the most impactful information but also goes a long way towards showing community members that they are valued and heard.
Diversity in Education at Northeastern
Northeastern’s EdD program teaches students to create change within their communities through a social justice lens. Early in the program, students consider their positionality—how their own perspectives, experiences, and biases affect the way they view others.
“The starting place for any conversation related to diversity is an examination of yourself first,” Thompson says. “What position am I occupying? What are my experiences? What are my identities? What are my beliefs about a given topic or situation?”
Students also reflect on why their problem of practice is important to them and how their personal experiences affect how they choose to approach that issue.
In addition to understanding their own experiences and perspectives, Northeastern also encourages students to take in a broad range of perspectives when researching solutions, especially those of the stakeholders and community members most affected.
“You may go in with your own perspective and great intentions, but you have to honor your stakeholders who you say you want to help,” Mosley says. “As students, they have a platform, but they need to make sure they’re listening to the stakeholders and thinking about how to best use that platform and resources.”
By carefully considering their own position in addition to that of their stakeholders, students learn to plan and implement meaningful change that positively impacts their communities.
Download our free guide below to learn how a Doctor of Education program can give you the skills and frameworks to further diversity initiatives in higher education.
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