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Rethinking DEI in Higher Education: Should the ‘I’ Stand for Integration Instead?

Dr. Wil Del Pilar

As diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts have come under attack, I wonder if higher education leaders shouldn’t begin to evolve the concept before policymakers strip away every tool we have to provide supports for students of color. This attack reminds me of the struggle to protect affirmative action, which was defended at both the state and federal levels for decades; but perhaps in protecting affirmative action, it prevented the field from envisioning the evolution of race-conscious admissions. Similarly, in attempting to protect diversity, equity, and inclusion from the attacks it is facing in states and at institutions across the country, we are missing an opportunity to evolve the practice. Instead of focusing on inclusion, perhaps we should be talking about integration.

Dr. Wil Del PilarDr. Wil Del PilarIn recent years, the imperative of fostering DEI has become a cornerstone of higher education policies and practices. The notion of inclusion, in my opinion, is quite problematic. By idealizing inviting students of color and other underserved student population (adults, students with disabilities, student parents, formerly incarcerated students, undocumented students) into predominantly white spaces, it may not fully capture the essence of what it means to create living and learning environments that truly value and include a variety of experiences and perspectives. Maybe, in the face of an apparent re-segregation of our country, the day of integration has returned. Drawing parallels from the research on immigrant assimilation, the concept of integration offers a nuanced lens through which we can reimagine inclusion in higher education.

Traditionally, inclusion in higher education has been about creating environments where students from diverse backgrounds, especially students of color, feel welcomed and valued. This approach emphasizes fitting or welcoming underserved students into the existing cultural and social norms of the institution, which are often rooted in values and practices that center whiteness. This perspective, albeit well-intentioned, implicitly suggests a one-way adaptation process, similar to the research on immigrant assimilation, which assumes that immigrants will adopt the behaviors and norms of the dominant culture.

Assimilation refers to the process by which newcomers, in this case, underserved students, give up their culture, language, and customs and adopt the customs and traditions of the white majority. It assumes that the society, or in this case, the campus, will become a melting pot of every culture — but at the expense of the individual student’s own culture and values. This one-sided approach expects immigrants (underserved students) to blend in to be welcomed into the dominant culture, mirroring the expectations placed on underserved students to adapt or adjust to the pre-existing norms of colleges and universities. As EdTrust’s work on campus racial climate finds, this is far from the reality for students of color.

However, the research on immigrant assimilation provides an alternative approach: integration. Unlike assimilation, integration acknowledges the value of maintaining one’s cultural identity while simultaneously engaging with and contributing to the white community. Integration suggests a bidirectional process of adaptation, where both newcomers and the host society adjust and learn from each other. In the context of higher education. This means moving beyond simply inviting diversity into white spaces and toward reimagining these spaces altogether. Conceptually, this would require more than social inclusion and social cohesion (not just being welcomed), but the recognition and acceptance of the economic, social, cultural, and political differences that would, hopefully, lead to a place mutual understanding.

Integration in higher education would require an overhaul of curriculum, pedagogy, and institutional culture so that they reflect and respect the diverse backgrounds and experiences of all students. Rather than expecting underserved students to conform to the existing norms, integration would challenge these norms to evolve and embrace a multiplicity of perspectives while eschewing preconceived notions. This approach promotes a richer, more complex understanding of diversity that includes not just racial and ethnic backgrounds, but also people’s socioeconomic status, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disabilities, age, as well as the experiences of others who have been traditionally excluded from higher education.

Adopting an integration-focused approach in higher education would require significant shifts in both mindset and practice. Institutional leaders would need to listen to students of all backgrounds to understand and adopt a student-centered approach to grasp the needs and perspectives of diverse student populations, rather than presuming to know what is best for them. Colleges and universities would need their institutional policies and practices revamped to ensure that they not merely accommodate rather celebrate and incorporate diverse cultures and experiences. Also essential is fostering a culture of mutual learning among students, faculty, and staff, where everyone is both a teacher and a learner. That means promoting fairness, not just in college access, but in outcomes ensuring that all students have the support and resources they need to earn their degree.

Redefining inclusion as integration in higher education challenges the norms and structures that have traditionally prioritized voices and perspectives that reinforce the status quo rather than amplify diverse voices. The potential rewards would result in a higher education system that reflects the depth of experiences of its students and prepares them to thrive in society, upholding principles of fairness and justice not just in theory but in practice. The concept of integration provides a roadmap toward a more comprehensive, fair, and dynamic future for higher education. As higher education leaders, we should begin to reconsider integration in lieu of inclusion — before the DEI practices that were designed to factor in student experiences and create a welcoming campus environment that were designed to foster a sense of belonging are eliminated altogether, and students of color are left with nothing to replace it with. Given the disparities in college graduation rates, we can’t afford to do nothing and maintain campuses that ignore the lived experiences of students of color.

Dr. Wil Del Pilar serves as Ed Trust’s senior vice president. 

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