DURHAM, N.C. – Inclusivity was the buzzword on Wednesday at the annual Diversity in Higher Education Conference at Duke University in Durham, N.C. It permeated conversations of modifying higher education to more readily accept non-mainstream cultures, changing what people consider to be the color of the race problem, and making online education and technology more effective for diverse students. The challenge: making it all happen.
“Everyone seems to be onboard with diversity and inclusion, but the struggle is how to operationalize it,” said Dr. Benjamin D. Reese Jr., vice president of the Office for Institutional Equity at both Duke University and the Duke University Health System.
Duke University and the Duke University Health System collaborated with the New York-based Conference Board organization in staging the two-day conference, which concludes today.
According to Dr. Louis Mendoza, associate vice provost for equity and diversity at the University of Minnesota, higher education needs to give minority groups a venue to reclaim their cultural and ethnic identity and respect those characteristics. It isn’t enough to open the door to minority groups, expecting them to conform completely to the entrenched institutional philosophy.
“Diversity must move to the center of educational excellence,” Mendoza said. “It can’t be a case of telling a minority student or faculty ‘you can come in and play, but then what are we going to do with you?’ These individuals deserve a seat at the table as a social, intellectual and economic asset.”
Honoring diversity in community research and including populations in those endeavors are also important, he said. Many groups resent being studied if they are denied the opportunity to offer their own insights and perspectives.
But reaching the point where minority individuals or groups feel true equity can be difficult, Mendoza said. Some schools view themselves as post-diverse—institutions with enough minority and international students—and others don’t want to upset the comfortable status quo.
The ideas sparked by the discussions about creating and improving inclusion are why many participants attended the conference. Terri Lockwood, director of programs for Appalachian University’s academic affairs department, said she came, hoping to take inspiration or nuggets of information back to her institution. She was pleased, she said, to hear a different perspective on how to handle discussions of equity between members of dominant and minority races.
“Appalachian has a commitment to diversity that we’ve woven into our strategic plan, and I came here looking for new methods of improving inclusivity at the school,” said Terri Lockwood, director of programs for Appalachian’s academic affairs department. “It’s clear that, as we work within our own parameters in society, it’s important that we try to work together to find a balance for the needs of all groups. No one needs to get offended or defensive in the process—it’s just a fact of life.”
According to Dr. Robert Jensen, journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, race continues to be a problematic topic in the United States because the country is, as he dubs it, a “White supremacy society.” Not a society in which Whites actively work to subjugate African Americans or other minority groups, but one in which Whites receive the most privileges and have little desire to change that situation.
For this reality to modify, the response must be radical, he said. Schools and employers can no longer pay lip service to diversity. The sentiment that multi-cultural inclusivity is essential must be authentic—institutions must not only think it and say it, they must do it, he added.
“It’s great to have an advocate that is neither of color nor specifically in the diversity and inclusion field,” said Patrice Hall, vice president of global equality, diversity and inclusion for Mercer, a global human resources company. “So much of diversity and inclusion work is dominated by people of color, so Jensen’s points about society being dominated by Whites explain why the work we do is often viewed as ‘less than’ and parochial by the mainstream.”
Some academic leaders recommend tailoring online education programs and other technologies to enhance the chances of success for minority students. Although historically Black colleges and universities have been slow to embrace online education, the field is growing, and minority students are flocking to this method of earning an advanced degree, said John Ebersole, president of Excelsior College. Excelsior is currently working with many HBCUs to help them establish online programs in a relatively low-risk way.
Virtual curricula will only truly flourish in the HBCU environment, however, if the programs speak the students’ learning styles, said Dr. James Anderson, president of Fayetteville State University in North Carolina. High enrollment isn’t enough to make an online program worth keeping.
“Enrollment numbers mean nothing. I’m interested in seeing that we get these students through graduation,” Anderson said. “We need to train our faculty to properly teach courses online—you don’t get to do it just because you want to. It’s important that we present information online in ways that fit our students’ learning styles. We need to teach them to be analytical learners because that style is associated with success in college.”