Navigating the New Landscape of Equity and Inclusion
If you’re a mid-level leader in higher education, you’re no stranger to the push and pull between senior leadership and your constituents. The passions and purposes of faculty, staff, and students frequently clash with the mandates set forth by board-governed provosts and presidents, most of whom are governed by state legislators and external politics. This leaves department chairs, deans, and mid-level leaders in the crosshairs when making decisions, creating policies, and crafting strategic action plans. This is precisely the tug of war felt among those of us doing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work. Adding fuel to the fire, many states have passed legislation to regulate what can and can’t be taught or done on college campuses. Over the past year or so, 21 Republican-led states have pulled funding for DEI offices and programs, prohibited the use of diversity statements in hiring and tenure and promotion, and banned identity-based admissions and scholarly practices at public colleges and universities. When we thought circumstances couldn’t be more dire, on June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court overturned 40 years of precedent and ruled that race cannot be a factor in college admission decisions. Many institutions are now in the throes of fight or flight. Is it prudent to push back on the system that financially and politically supports us? Do we give up, surrender, and move away from this work? Is there another, less volatile path that will allow us to progress without fear of retribution?
Since legislative decisions and community pressures are forcing institutions to look for new ways to recruit, retain, and graduate a diverse student body, collaboratively exploring tactics for navigating this volatile frontier is paramount. Colleges and universities have spent years building equitable and inclusive practices targeting historically marginalized populations, and most are finding inventive ways to hang onto successes, progress, and momentum. Two of the most common approaches in traversing the internal and external anti-inclusion pressures are developing a people-first culture and embracing the notion of targeted universalism.
The people-first approach was borne out of business models designed to prioritize employees over profits. While that’s not really the focus here, higher education can learn a great deal from the underlying philosophies of this practice. By encouraging individualism, innovation, and diversity of thought, leaders in higher education can build a culture steeped in divergent skills, views, and backgrounds among faculty, staff, and students. But you’ve heard all this before, right? What does it really mean? The truth is, higher education is changing rapidly, and students, faculty, and staff are demanding we pay attention. This is why it is so crucial to know, on an individual level, what everyone wants and needs in order to discover new ways of making meaningful change. As leaders in higher education institutions, we are keenly aware that diverse communities equal inventions of divergent thought and the creation of new information; it’s really that simple. Data-informed decision making is key to making the best choices. But how do we produce data that accurately describes reality?
When working with groups of people, it’s always better to collect information and ask questions than it is to guess what they need or want and lump people together based on one or two shared characteristics. But even when we have the best intentions, data seeking can inadvertently create feelings of exclusion and othering. For example, it is crucial to collect campus demographic information when attempting to determine which areas need improvement and to facilitate the construction of interventions, initiatives, and resources. Unfortunately, survey “checkboxes” do just that: they box people in and often force them to choose options that don’t accurately describe who they are or how they identify. Unintentionally, the people we designed the collection process for in the first place become isolated—usually the most vulnerable. With closed-ended questions, we never get to the root of individual experiences. People experience the world in different ways, so allowing individuals to express that experience as completely and deeply as possible is key. While sometimes it might be helpful to view data in the aggregate, results are much more useful and less problematic when disaggregated as much as possible. In other words, quantitative data can be extremely valuable, but the pitfalls can include erroneous conclusions and the assumption that all people in certain groups share the same characteristics. Grouping, or recoding, data for simplification or because there are so few respondents or participants in a particular category also risks lumping people into unrelated groups rather than highlighting inherent differences in terms of identity and intersecting variables. For example, the disaggregated categories African American, Hispanic, and “two or more races” are often collapsed (aggregated) into one group.
Using a people-first approach incorporates open-ended questionnaires, focus groups, and interviews, allowing participants to provide the best answers for themselves rather than choose from preconceived categories that might not paint an accurate picture. The data this research yields can give a clearer picture of individual experiences.
To achieve the often-sought-after cultural shift, efforts must prioritize equity, promote transparency and honest communication, and match the mission and values of the institution. Our end goal goes beyond equity and inclusion, leaning instead into true liberation, the dismantling of oppression, and the removal of barriers to success. It’s a moonshot, but we should always strive to be better. We can come close to achieving this goal by using aperson-first rather than “metric”-first approach. In other words, institutions should look beyond traditional categorical metrics and instead consider holistic recruitment and retention efforts that are more individualized methods of assessing student capabilities. Recruitment efforts and admission practices, for instance, should consider a combination of experiences and background characteristics as well as a variety of academic metrics (not exclusively GPA) when making decisions and scholarship offers, not just single test scores and cumulative high school GPAs.
The current national climate has radically pitted people with differing ideologies against one another, creating a shift to salient binary and dichotomous ways of thinking and interacting. Right or wrong. Left or right. Progressive or conservative. There is no mixing of ideologies or room for moderate views and opinions. In the same way, political unrest and cultural polarization trap us into believing that there are universal truths that inhere in single characteristics, like skin color, ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, or class. As a result, we come to view that group as homogeneous and its members as having similar needs that the same targeted solutions can address. Universal responses often receive an overwhelming degree of legitimacy in a diverse and pluralistic society, but in fact they’re inadequate at helping those most vulnerable on an individual level. These general solutions are sometimes more efficient, but by targeting groups according to one characteristic, these approaches often unfairly help one group at another’s expense, breeding hostility and resentment.
Targeted universalism means establishing comprehensive common processes and outcomes to achieve a set of goals in the context of a universal framework. It means setting common goals for the entire population concerned. The strategies for achieving those goals, however, are targeted and based on how different groups and individuals are situated within structures, culture, and geographic space, not necessarily attached to a certain group. In looking at retention and graduation rates, we universally want students to succeed and to have the resources they need to graduate and secure employment. Targeted universalism, then, leads us to identify all barriers to success and recognizes that individuals represent vastly different circumstances; the goal is universal, but the strategy must be targeted. In this scenario, everyone has the same target or goal, but it’s understood that not everyone is in the same situation, has the same resources, or has had the same experiences. Targeted universalism, in this case, positions access and opportunity front and center.
The same holds true for policies and procedures. Although they’re efficient, universal policies can intensify existing disparities because the underlying framework fails to consider inter- and intragroup differences. For example, open admission policies may give everyone the chance to attend college, but they don’t guarantee that students who are unprepared will succeed or matriculate. If institutions instead share the common goal that all students should have equal access to resources that can help them succeed, and truly believe it, then it is imperative for changes in policies, procedures, and resource allocation to occur.
Berkeley professor john a. powell of the Othering and Belonging Institute believes by developing strategies and universal goals for everyone rather than grouping by certain characteristics, political pressures to eliminate equity and inclusion efforts in higher education can be addressed and mitigated. Below are powell’s five steps for targeted universalism:
- Set a universal goal.
- Assess the general population performance relative to the universal goal.
- Assess and identify the performance of groups that are performing differently with respect to the universal goal.
- Assess and understand the structures and other factors that support or prevent each group from achieving the universal goal.
- Develop and implement targeted strategies for each group to reach the goal.
These are just two approaches to navigating the unrest in campus DEI offices across the country. Person-first and targeted universalism allow us to take a root-cause analysis approach and discover new ways of mitigating inequities. In other words, traditional ways of looking at data and information encourage us to alleviate symptoms rather than uncovering the underlying problem. Students don’t fail because of demographics; they fail because we aren’t giving them what they need to succeed. It is important in any approach that we focus on fixing the system, not the people, because the structure of the institution is truly the problem. It is also important to note that limited snapshots and categorical data don’t provide the entire picture of the lived experiences of our students, faculty, and staff. The achievement and wisdom of individuals are truly our strength.
Molly Kerby, PhD, is the assistant provost for institutional effectiveness and engagement at Western Kentucky University (WKU). Prior to serving in administration, Kerby was faculty a member in gender and women’s studies for 19 years. She currently holds the rank of professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at WKU. Her research and work focuses on theoretical predictive models of community and organizational change, particularly in areas related to higher education, civic engagement, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.