Opinion: Reimagining Diversity in Our Institutions

Social and institutional change is born in struggle. As a Chicana in higher education, I know this from my experience as a diversity educator with deep roots in the cultural borderlands of U.S. society. I also know that access to education for diverse students is a cornerstone of our future as a democratic society.

As our institutions struggle to balance their budgets, institutional leaders are understandably on the lookout for any unit or program that is “underperforming,” “wasteful,” or nonessential. They’re looking for savings that will not diminish their stature, cut into their core mission, or erode “excellence” as it is currently defined.

What I want to argue is that this is not the time to pull back on investments in diversity. In fact, in these times of staggering economic, demographic, and cultural change, mission-driven investments in diversity are more important than ever. Diversity work can no longer be “other duties as assigned”; diversity must be a core value that drives budget decisions and, in the end, drives institutional transformation.

Investing in diversity means investing in institutional sustainability and in sustainable, long-term economic recovery. If we don’t invest in diversity, we perpetuate opportunity and achievement gaps. We put at risk the educational systems that are so central not only to economic prosperity but also to social and economic justice.

In short, we ignore diversity at our peril.

We have been talking about diversity in higher education for a long time. But it’s not at all clear that the prevailing discourse includes harnessing diversity as a central and necessary strategy for institutional transformation and sustainability.

A vital future for higher education won’t grow out of existing institutional systems, with their traditional leadership models and entrenched academic culture. It will grow in reimagined academic and cultural spaces at the intersections of multiple identities, cultures, systems of thought and knowledge traditions.

It will grow in inclusive spaces where diversity is fundamentally embraced and affirmed, and where responsibility for change is shared by everyone, across all academic and administrative functions and hierarchies. And it will unfold in the lives of our diverse students, who will work and lead in a world defined by diversity.

So it’s time to move diversity out of the planning documents and put it to work at the center of our institutions, employing fundamentally new models for institutional transformation that make diversity intrinsic to everything we do. The old models—which marginalized diversity as “identity politics,” as a drain on resources, and as a problem to be addressed on the fringes of the academy—just aren’t viable any more in the face of 21st century realities.

What’s required is something like what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called “creative maladjustment,” a kind of principled strategic interrogation of the status quo that seeks not to overthrow but to decenter and then to recenter, reframe, and rebuild, guided by a new vision of our collective future.

That means taking a close look at our traditional assumptions, discarding those that are holding us back, harnessing multiple new perspectives and developing new integrative strategies for fundamental institutional change.

Such an approach means real disruption. But it’s clear that ad hoc and short-term fixes won’t help us develop sustainable strategies for the long term nor will any solution that doesn’t have diversity embedded at its core.

In the end, I believe we have no choice but to view the enormous challenges we face as opportunities, just as early social justice activists viewed their exclusion from systems of power and privilege not just as a barrier but also as an incentive to create models for deep structural change—what Chicana scholar and writer Gloria Anzaldúa called a “multiplicity that is transformational.”

Applied to higher education, these inclusive and integrative models enable vital collaborations across cultural and institutional lines, while also preserving the distinctive identities and missions of the programs that serve the needs of historically underrepresented and underserved populations.

If we have the vision and courage to invest in such reform, we can create an inclusive academy whose excellence and survival are assured and whose mission and work will fully engage our diverse communities. But as I have often said, we must be willing to take on the often difficult and complex challenges and tensions presented by differences. We must be willing to re-evaluate the structures of knowledge, the patterns of relationships and the organizing principles of institutional life.

My dream is that diversity will one day be so deeply embedded in our institutional ethos that it will permeate everything we do, in every space we inhabit, from classrooms and research centers to faculty and administrative offices to campus services and facilities to meeting spaces in partner communities.

In those spaces, diversity will never be an add-on or afterthought. No one will ever need to leave parts of her or his identity at the gate before entering or before leaving to go out into the world. That last point is important. Diversity is the two-way bridge between our institutions and the communities they serve. 

This is not easy work. Embracing and affirming differences creates tension and discomfort and so does “sharing the sacrifice,” as we all have been asked to do. It’s also not optional. I think discomfort is a small price to pay for saving our institutions and preserving democracy. 

Dr. Nancy “Rusty” Barceló is vice president and vice provost for equity and diversity, University of Minnesota. In July, she will assume the presidency of Northern New Mexico State College.