Without Diversity, Equity, and Engagement, There Is No True Educational Excellence

Thursday, June 23, 2016

In 2012, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) expanded its mission to encompass both liberal education and the long-term project of making excellence inclusive. 

This expansion of our mission built on several decades of AAC&U work to support higher education institutions across all sectors in creating learning experiences through which all students engage productively with the diversity of ideas and experiences that characterize our world. Moreover, as our board of directors affirmed in a series of official statements beginning in 2002, AAC&U “has long been committed to fair and equal access to higher education as part of our contribution to democracy’s promise of equal opportunity.”

Because of these longstanding commitments, AAC&U was eager and proud to support several amicus briefs submitted in support of the University of Texas as the university defended its admissions practices in the lawsuit brought by Abigail Fisher and ruled on today. In filing these briefs, we joined with dozens of other associations and higher education institutions, Fortune 500 companies, religious organizations, military leaders, and elected officials in voicing support for the University of Texas. Collectively, we all strongly affirm the compelling national interest in advancing campus diversity as a necessary component of educational excellence. 

In this context, we are thrilled today by the Supreme Court’s decision to reaffirm that compelling national interest. As I noted in a statement last November and reaffirm today, AAC&U remains “strongly committed to helping our members succeed in the long-term work of educating and graduating students—from all backgrounds—who will be both prepared and inspired to work for a more just and equitable democracy in the United States and for the expansion of human dignity and opportunity around the world.” This work depends on higher education institutions taking seriously our responsibilities to create diverse and educationally effective learning environments using all admissions review practices available under the law. 

Simply put, diversity remains an essential component of educational excellence and of liberal education in the twenty-first century. The announcement of this Supreme Court decision, however, should be taken as a moment to rededicate ourselves to the significant work on both equity and diversity yet to be done. What is that work?

The first step, of course, is to ensure equitable access to quality degree programs—across all sectors of higher education—for students from diverse communities and low-income backgrounds. The United States must tackle the hard work of undoing the highly inequitable patterns that still persist across racial and ethnic groups and across income levels in access to college, in meaningful participation in college, and in the likelihood of completing college with a quality education.

The next step is to ensure that quality learning prepares college students—all college students—to both thrive and contribute in a diverse democracy and in the multicultural global community.

As noted in our earlier board statement, “persuasive research indicates that for all students, engaging diversity on campus and in the curriculum promotes intellectual development, enhances critical thinking, reduces prejudice, improves intergroup relations, and contributes to student academic success and satisfaction.” We know as well from much educational research that “exploring diversity also produces graduates more likely to engage as informed citizens in remedying unsolved social problems.” 

Given the value that engagement with diversity creates—both for democracy and for the economy—ensuring students’ rich engagement with diversity on campus ought to be a top priority for every institution. Unhappily, the research shows that too many students are not participating in practices intended to build their capacity to engage difficult differences and solve problems collaboratively with people whose experiences and views are decidedly different from their own. AAC&U’s own studies have shown how students themselves believe that college must do far more to prepare them both for the diversity of the world beyond college and to contribute as engaged democratic citizens (See Optimistic About the Future, But How Well Prepared?, Engaging Diverse Viewpoints, and Making Progress? What We Know About the Achievement of Liberal Education Outcomes.)

As we witness new student calls for change within higher education institutions, it is imperative that we build strong educational foundations for engaging differences of all sorts. I believe that higher education institutions would be in a far better position to address controversies related to difference if educational leaders were as explicit as possible—from the day staff and faculty are hired and from the moment that students first apply—about the fact that one of the essential college learning outcomes is effectively engaging diverse perspectives, a proficiency which centrally includes taking seriously and respectfully the perspectives of others. 

Even as we celebrate this important Supreme Court decision affirming campus diversity as a compelling educational interest, therefore, I urge educators across the country to recommit to the hard work of holding our institutions, our students, our faculty, and ourselves responsible for helping students achieve this essential capacity—constructive engagement with difference—that a quality college education includes. Creating a diverse campus community is the first step to achieving this goal; preparing students to work productively across difference—whatever their major—is the next critical frontier in higher education’s long-term efforts to make excellence inclusive.

AAC&U recently devoted its entire Centennial year to an exploration of the intersections of equity and quality learning. We have developed valuable resources to support campuses as they mobilize to address pressing questions related to these issues in their own institutional contexts (see below). As I noted in November, we must use all the research and tools available to us “to ensure that higher education … provide[s] inclusive, respectful, and supportive environments for learners from communities that are today—and that have always been—systemically underserved, not just in higher education, but at all levels of the United States educational system.”

AAC&U’s board of directors has affirmed that “making excellence inclusive is a fundamentally democratic ideal. It expresses our confidence in the liberating power of education.” But education is only liberating when it prepares students to thrive and contribute in the world they inherit. In the twenty-first century, that wider world is diverse, contested, and still disfigured by the persistence of deep inequities. To contribute in that context, our students must deepen their engagement both with difficult difference and with the hard work of creating solutions—with diverse partners—to the many challenges we face in our world. 

Selected AAC&U Resources on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusive Excellence

Bringing Quality and Equity Together

America's Unmet Promise: The Imperative for Equity in Higher Education

Step Up & Lead for Equity: What Higher Education Can Do to Reverse Our Deepening Divides

Committing to Equity and Inclusive Excellence: A Campus Guide for Self-Study and Planning

“Academic Freedom and Educational Responsibility”

A Crucible Moment: College Learning & Democracy’s Future

The Drama of Diversity and Democracy: Higher Education and American Commitments
(Second Edition 2011)

Carol Geary Schneider