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Inclusive Excellence Demands Systemic Change in Higher Ed

The immediate losses as a result of continued and strategic legislative attacks against diversity, equity, and inclusion work are staggering: reduced funding for offices, the elimination of staff, diluted support for students, and the dismantling of progress made over the past 60 years to support students, faculty, and staff and move the U.S. closer to its ideals of being a great democracy.

Paulette Granberry RussellPaulette Granberry RussellThe losses are real and have grave day-to-day impacts on the members of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE) and the campuses where they serve. Member phone calls come at all hours of the day — questions about what can be done to combat the rising tide of efforts to dismantle inclusion efforts and anxiety over what this moment signals for students, particularly those from backgrounds that historically have not been welcome or well-represented in institutions of higher education.

By far, the question I hear the most is, “What can be done?”

The dismantling makes clear that we need to undertake structural changes at our institutions to advance an inclusive excellence framework. If we are to eliminate inequitable outcomes while contending with fewer resources, higher education must underscore how diversity, equity, and inclusion work involves every aspect of an institution’s operations. Just as it cannot be divorced from the mission to support educational success, inclusion, and equity initiatives cannot be erased from campuses by the elimination of offices and positions.

NADOHE’s Framework for Advancing Antiracism Strategy on Campus offers one such roadmap to structural change. While the Framework was written at a time when many called for concrete solutions and strategies for increasing equity and inclusion on college campuses, these strategies and solutions are still highly relevant and necessary for systemic change. The recommended policies, practices, and procedures are designed to go beyond surface-level changes and comprehensively address systemic inequities. It tackles the root causes of inequality, not just symptoms, and demonstrates how structural shifts can lead to lasting changes in institutional cultures.

Consider, for example, tenure and promotion criteria. Does it adequately reflect the efforts that are often required, whether explicitly or implicitly, of faculty who take on extra labor to mentor students from diverse backgrounds? Can students succeed if artificial barriers to their academic success are removed, including access to diverse curricula and inclusive pedagogy? Are professional development opportunities accessible and equitable for all faculty across all disciplines? Absent foundational support and policies that reflect these needs, institutions will fail to retain diverse talent, harming all students in the process.

Designing structural approaches to support diversity, equity, and inclusion goals requires us to continually study how our current approaches affect various communities and meet existing regulatory requirements. This is nothing new for our profession. Higher education leaders have always evolved with legislative and judicial efforts to correct decades of discrimination and exclusion of underrepresented populations and to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse society. This kind of introspection and commitment to evidence-based, research-driven practices has always been at the heart of equity work.

But our current moment demands a doubling-down on a more resilient approach. These legislative attacks portray diversity, equity, and inclusion work as a monolith, something that can be swept away with the elimination of the “DEI” office and its staff. We know the truth. Students have diverse desires and needs, and faculty and staff represent a diverse range of backgrounds and viewpoints. And so higher education, by necessity, requires a diversity of approaches and targeted interventions to support equitable outcomes. Such work cannot be confined to a singular office or program. Now, more than ever, we must reinforce these truths and design systems that can withstand political pressures.

The “anti-DEI” legislation is itself evidence that what we do in support of higher education’s mission matters. If it didn’t, it would not be perceived as a threat to be reckoned with. It also is essential for higher education and other sectors to do the hard work of implementing structural changes that eliminate artificial barriers to success and lead to more equitable outcomes and a culture of inclusion for all students, faculty, and staff. Inclusion and equity work are essential to the success of students and the success of institutions’ ability to carry out their missions, regardless of how naysayers may disingenuously portray it.

What we are seeing, hearing, and experiencing in our political and societal climate is a direct assault on what many of us consider to be our life’s work. It is a rebuilding of barriers for students seeking equitable access to the opportunities that a college degree is proven to offer, such as higher earnings and lower rates of unemployment. Yet, we will persist in implementing structural change through policies and practices on our campuses that will change lives for the better.

Paulette Granberry Russell is president and CEO of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education.

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