UC Davis College of Engineering’s LEADR Student Center. (Photo: Kevin Tong [CC BY-SA 2.0]via Flickr.)
Institutions of higher education have long represented a pathway for Americans to achieve personal and professional dreams. For many reasons such as poor pre-college preparation and unaffordability, increasing segments of the population are not attaining college degrees.
Fully two-thirds of the current US population have not completed a four-year college degree. This population is becoming increasingly diverse such that the Census Bureau envisages more than half of all Americans identifying with a minority group by 2044 and nearly one in five being foreign born by 2060. Approximately 58 percent of bachelor’s degrees are awarded to women and, of those , approximately 27 percent are awarded to other than White women.
Because of these significant demographic shifts and widening socio-economic disparities, institutions are under urgent pressure by students, society, and employers to address historical and continuing inequity in higher education and to adapt their policies and procedures to meet their needs.
The importance and educational benefits of diversity have been demonstrated. Much of the evidence was gathered on behalf of the University of Michigan in defense of affirmative action policies before the Supreme Court. Many higher education institutions include as part of their mission statement the goal of preparing students for work and civic participation in a diverse and changing world. For example, the University of Michigan-Dearborn’s Mission Statement states that it “…is an inclusive, student-focused institution. We are committed to excellence in teaching, learning, research, and scholarship, as well as access, affordability, and metropolitan impact. .
The consideration remains how do we best create inclusive campuses, while embracing our diverse student and faculty bodies?
Previously overt policies that excluded racial minorities from many flagship state universities were largely dismantled in the 1960s beginning with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and strengthened by student, faculty, and citizen protests throughout the nation. However, equity and inclusion still remain short of fulfillment.
The glaring and overt discrimination and exclusion previously seen has been superseded by what are called microaggressions. Microaggressions negatively influence academic identities, academic achievements, career paths, and the successes of women and underrepresented students. The effects of a lack of diversity through adapting recruitment, admissions, and hiring have been described by colleges and universities. These efforts extend to transforming the curriculum and administrative structures and practices.
Crafting policies and procedures aimed to increase diversity is an initial step towards inclusion; However, to secure the most educational benefits for students and the institution, diversity must be intentional. We see diversity as a process towards better learning rather than an outcome. Leaders frequently begin with the assumption that these diverse students must assimilate into the existing environment with narrow measures used to assess quality.
As diversity is intention, inclusive excellence is the culture. Rather than considering how a campus environment can adapt to meet the needs of diverse entering students, we propose institutional culture change begins and strengthens with defining inclusive excellence so that the faculty can embrace it, that students/parents trust it, and the community the institution serves will promote and encourage it.
Well-established institutional policies are a requisite initial step in changing the academic climate, although do not guarantee the success of each student. Student-student conflict, faculty-student conflict, and slow or inappropriate institutional leadership response can derail an institution’s documented policies and goals. These policies must be accompanied by faculty development to ensure their commitment to inclusivity and the success of every student — not just the top performers.
Much of this learning occurs through peer-to-peer interaction, requiring open and supported communication between peers — even if they are of differing cultural origins. If there is weak social information processing, professional advancement is slowed or obstructed. That learning is severely truncated in environments with chilly or hostile climates.
To foster a campus culture through inclusive excellence, systemic commitment and infusion must envelope practices for access and equity in admissions and staffing; diversity and multi-culturalism in the classroom, offices, and curriculum; campus climate; and teaching, learning, research, and service.
In keeping with the tradition of requiring certain coursework for incoming freshmen, such as English and math, it is time to require cultural respect and awareness education and practice to prepare our students to be citizens of our diverse world. The time is now for our institutions of higher learning to move forward in being inclusive campuses.