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A Guide for Embracing Diversity at Elite Institutions

Elite institutions are often criticized for their historical legacy of excluding specific populations and facilitating privilege.  This reputation has not been forgiving when forging discussions about diversity.  In fact, the best laid plans to facilitate diversity are often complicated with deeply entrenched policies and practices that foster divisive “chilly” institutional climates serving to thwart initiatives before they’re started.  Since elite institutional climates are especially prone to challenges due to their legacies of exclusion, there are several steps diversity advocates can take to move implementation strategies forward in these environments.

Know Your Institutional Legacy.  Elite institutions are generally similar regarding their historical legacies of exclusion.  However, each legacy offers its own individual story.  Some stories may address deep pervasive programmatic issues others might present unique stories about student resilience.  While legacies of exclusion may present difficult and challenging historical realities, they provide a platform to explore situations that could prevent institutions from facilitating diversity.  It’s important to understand their impact on various institutional functions.

Employ Research.  Diversity research is formidable scholarship and is here to stay. It can be used to bridge diversity concepts with institutional goals by putting it into practice.   Aligning what is known about institutional legacy with relative literature could be helpful in finding effective institutional diversity implementation strategies.

Build Networks.  The divide between researcher and practitioner can be a vulnerable space for advocates who are interested in building networks to support diversity.  While plans for collaboration between the academic and business functions of an institution may exist, priorities associated with either side may serve as barriers to communication and connection of interests.  It’s important to be vigilant in finding and maintaining opportunities for collaboration.

Less Can Be More.  Implementing diversity initiatives can be overwhelming.  This underscores the result of many ineffective diversity strategies that are never fulfilled because they are too massive of an undertaking.  Diversification can be achieved in small effective ways.  For example, it’s better to complete a small inexpensive project instead of attempting to implement a large one that’s never finished.  Finding the small opportunities can strengthen institutional capacity to embrace diversity in ways that can foster appreciation in small meaningful ways.

Be Patient.  Building networks within spaces where historical traditions are connected with exclusion takes time. Traditions are moral notions that become lived philosophies within the elite community.  While some traditions are exclusionary, there are others that are well-regarded; including the long-standing history academic excellence.  Those interested in building networks must strike a delicate balance in translating the value of diversity in strengthening academic and institutional excellence.  Striking this balance may involve finding opportunities when the value of diversity can be demonstrated community stakeholders.  There is no timeline for finding these opportunities.

Building networks in elite environments that are supportive of diversity involves ongoing commitment.  These steps offer a guiding framework for enacting advocacy strategies that cut across disciplines and a variety of institutional functions.


Dr. Pamela Felder is a lecturer and Program Manager of the Higher Education Division of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.

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