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The Role of Academic Leadership in Student Identity Development


The Role of Academic Leadership in Student Identity Development

Academic Leadership and Student Identity Development

The role of academic leadership in the identity development of undergraduate students has often been overlooked. In a survey of recent college graduates that we conducted for Rethinking Cultural Competence in Higher Education (Chun and Evans 2016), most of the participants could not identify any programs or resources on campus that helped them in the process of identity development. Similarly, department chairs surveyed for The Department Chair as Transformative Leader (Chun and Evans,  2015) tended not to see student identity development as an integral part of their multifaceted responsibilities but viewed it as more within the purview of student affairs. Some chairs identified the lack of faculty development in this area as an issue. Further, a white male economic chair of economics candidly explained that the identity development of diverse students was not a priority in his department and had not even been discussed.

Yet, as psychologist Erik Erikson has noted, in early adulthood, such as during the freshman and sophomore years of college, individuals benefit from a psychological moratorium of both time and space that allows them to explore their own personal and social identities. During this time, diverse students may look to academic leaders such as department chairs, deans, and faculty for educational perspectives, advice, and counsel in this exploratory and developmental process.

While acknowledging that social identity is complex and multifaceted, in this article we focus on race and ethnicity as salient dimensions because of their prominent link with physical identifiability and patterns of discrimination in society and within institutional contexts. For racially and ethnically diverse students, the challenges of identity development can be substantial as they encounter the dominant culture on predominantly white campuses.

A sense of belonging has come to be understood as a key psychological dimension related to the integration of underrepresented students in the campus experience. Hurtado, Alvarado, and Guillermo-Wann’s study of 20,460 students at 34 universities found a significant negative relationship between discrimination and bias and a sense of belonging; they also found a significant positive relationship between interpersonal and academic validation and a sense of belonging. Validating experiences both inside and outside the classroom can help strengthen a sense of belonging by offsetting the impact of microaggressions. Not surprisingly, validation—and  interpersonal validation in particular—is linked to the campus climate for underrepresented students and to a sense of belonging.

Despite the burgeoning literature on student identity development, little research has been undertaken on the racial identity salience of students in higher education or the level of importance of racial identity as an educational outcome. Social theorist Joe Feagin points out that most of the nearly 1,000 papers on racial and ethnic identity are focused on how individuals choose and define their own identities rather than on the central question of how they deal with identities imposed by a racialized society. In this regard, Tanya, an African American graduate of a Midwestern public research university describes how a cross-cultural psychology class helped her develop her own perspective on racial identification:

It [the class] helped me become more aware of racial identification. I became more . . . aware of race identification issues because I never even thought about that ever being a thing before I took the class. . . . That’s what helped me become more confident in my own identification. It’s more so how I personally identify as black; even though there might be those stereotypes of how black people act, my personal racial identification of being black is [based on] my experiences. That’s my own personal identification to me.

A pioneer in racial identity theory, William Cross, has identified commonalities in the underlying dynamics of social identity formation across racial/ethnic groups. His foundational theory of black identity formation involves five stages: 1) pre-encounter and beliefs of the dominant white culture, 2) encounter with the salience of race in conjunction with one’s own devaluated position, 3) immersion in the multiplicity of one’s own identity, 4) personal affirmation of a positive self-identity, and 5) internalized commitment to support diverse others. Beverly Tatum has described identity development as a circular rather than a linear process, comparable to moving up a spiral staircase in which the journey is incomplete and continuous.

With this conceptual framework in mind, coupled with the challenges that diverse undergraduates face on predominantly white campuses, we suggest the need for greater resources and attention devoted to support student identity development. In this context, we offer a number of practical recommendations for addressing student identity development:

  • Ensure inclusion of student identity formation in academic leadership and department chair seminars.
  • Discuss and implement specific strategies to create a learning environment that enables students to attain greater self-understanding, cultural competency, and affirmation of personal identity.
  • Strengthen resources for faculty development in inclusive pedagogy, including the importance of academic and interpersonal validation.
  • Incorporate learning modules that facilitate diversity interactions during first-year experiences.
  • Sponsor specific programs that facilitate structured intergroup contact such as the Intergroup Dialogue Program developed at the University of Michigan. This program can be offered to faculty, staff, administrators, and students and promotes understanding and interactions among diverse groups through a critical dialogic process.
  • Recognize academic and administrative leaders including faculty, department chairs, deans, and staff who contribute to diversity learning through the creation of a culture that supports the participation and recognition of diverse voices.
  • Build consideration of programming and educational outcomes related to student identity development into diversity strategic plans.

In summary, academic leadership plays a key role in building an educational value proposition that strengthens a sense of belonging among diverse students on predominantly white campuses and fosters intergroup understanding in support of educational goals and outcomes.


Hurtado, S., Alvarado, A. R., and C. Guillermo-Wann. 2012. “Inclusive Learning Environments: Modeling a Relationship between Validation, Campus Climate for Diversity, and Sense of Belonging.” Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Association for Studies in Higher Education, Las Vegas, Nevada. http://www.heri.ucla.edu/ford/downloads/ASHE2012-Inclusive-Learning.pdf.

 Hurtado, S., Ruiz, A., and C. Guillermo-Wann. 2015. “Thinking about Race: The Salience of Racial and Ethnic Identity in C­ollege and the Climate for Diversity.” The Journal of Higher Education 86(1): 127–55.

Chun, E., and A. Evans. 2016. “Rethinking Cultural Competence in Higher Education: An Ecological Framework for Student Development.” ASHE Higher Education Report 42(4): 116–17. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Chun, E., and A. Evans. The Department Chair as Transformative Diversity Leader: Building Inclusive Learning Environments in Higher Education. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2015.

 Cross, W.E. 1991. Shades of Black: Diversity in African American Identity. Philadelphia PA: Temple University.

 Tatum, B.D. 1997. “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria” and Other Conversations about Race: A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity. New York, N.Y.: Basic Book.

Edna B. Chun, DM, and Alvin Evans are award-winning authors, each with more than two decades of experience in higher education. Edna Chun is chief learning officer and Alvin Evans is higher education practice leader for HigherEd Talent, a national HR and diversity consulting firm.


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