From the Editor: The Equity Imperative in Higher Education

There is something appealing about the idea that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Make changes that benefit any one group, the aphorism suggests, and everyone will benefit. But as others have noted elsewhere, in order for everyone’s boat to be lifted, everyone has to have a boat—and that is simply not the case. On a global scale, for every person whose boat is buoyed by rising sea levels, there will be disproportionately more people, frequently the most vulnerable, who are adversely affected.

In some ways, addressing the fallacy of the “rising tide” metaphor is central to the challenge that AAC&U and its members are taking up in our work to advance equity and inclusive excellence in higher education. As Estela Mara Bensimon, Alicia C. Dowd, and Keith Witham note in this issue of Diversity & Democracy, “equality is defined as treating everyone the same or giving everyone the same opportunities regardless of their individual attributes. Equity, in contrast, means accounting for differences in individual attributes and experiences for the purposes of achieving equal outcomes.” As in the case of the rising tide, equal treatment doesn’t necessarily result in equal outcomes.

This issue of Diversity & Democracy, as a part of AAC&U’s investment in student success during its 2015 centennial celebration and beyond (described in this issue by Tia Brown McNair), calls readers to discern the difference between equality and equity, and to act to instantiate the latter—across higher education, for every student, and particularly for those who are and have been underserved and underrepresented. That means attending to real differences in students’ learning experiences and outcomes—which requires measuring, tracking, and acting in response to those differences.

While such practices cannot be represented by a rising tide, they do align with another metaphor. In her closing plenary address at AAC&U’s 2005 Annual Meeting, Lani Guinier, referring to work she conducted with Gerald Torres, spoke of the “miner’s canary”: the most “vulnerable” individual in an environment, whose “gasp for breath” indicates “a problem with the atmosphere in the mine.” In higher education, according to Guinier’s analogy, “the experience of people of color … is the experience of the canary” (2005, 26). What affects the canary, she contends, affects everyone.

Guinier called listeners to learn from the experiences of people of color (and, as she extended the analogy, from those of women, people with disabilities, and gays and lesbians) about what practices would benefit all. In effect, she called listeners to begin with particularities, not with generalizations; to derive principles from specifics; to recognize what is shared across difference without assuming sameness; to “transform democracy” not by following the rising tide, but by changing the environment’s most insidious characteristics.

More than a decade later, the authors of this issue of Diversity & Democracy invite us to do the same. Lifting up in particular disparities by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status—but also those experienced by nontraditional students, by student veterans, and by LGBTQ students, for example—this issue’s authors challenge us to seek equal outcomes for all. Like any issue of Diversity & Democracy, this issue is not comprehensive. It leaves much unsaid about disparities that exist across salient categories of identity such as gender, ability and disability, and national origin or immigration status, for example, and about many important ways in which all aspects of identity intersect. These are all topics that Diversity & Democracy has visited in previous issues and will surely visit again. As Tia Brown McNair notes in her article, we have much work left to do.

Nonetheless, readers should find in these pages much to guide them, as McNair writes, in seeking a “paradigm shift”: from “the old paradigm, which depends on the assumption that student achievement gaps are rooted in students’ deficits,” to a new paradigm in which “educators understand and value the assets that students bring to educational experiences.” In other words, instead of building systems where only those with boats can succeed, higher education should create contexts in which all students can rise on the strength of their wings—their assets, whatever form they take.

—Kathryn Peltier Campbell
Editor, Diversity & Democracy


Guinier, Lani. 2005. “The Miner’s Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, and Transforming Democracy.” Liberal Education 91 (2): 26–31.

Kathryn Peltier Campbell is the editor of Diversity & Democracy.

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