Diversity and Democracy

Liberal Education Is America's Promise

In November 2012, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) adopted a new mission statement. Its single elegant sentence places liberal education and inclusive excellence at the heart of higher education’s collective work, forming a dual commitment to guide colleges and universities in purpose and in practice. Having articulated the first of the two terms in its “Statement on Liberal Education” in 1998, AAC&U’s board of directors began in spring 2013 to compose a complementary statement—defining “inclusive excellence” in the context of AAC&U’s work to advance diversity and equity in higher education.

The resulting statement, titled “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusive Excellence” and printed in this issue of Diversity & Democracy, draws on the Principles of Excellence and the Essential Learning Outcomes articulated through AAC&U’s centennial initiative, Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP). As LEAP underscores in its very name, liberal education is America’s promise, extending opportunity to each individual and community it reaches. Advocating a high-quality liberal education for all students, AAC&U emphasizes the importance and value of such an education for those students from historically underserved populations who traditionally have been least likely to receive it.

The principle of inclusive excellence is particularly critical in the present context, as the United States faces unprecedented demographic change and a complex legal and regulatory environment. The decision in Fisher v. University of Texas has raised urgent questions about affirmative action and the boundaries of race-based admissions programs, and it will yield complex consequences over time. As these consequences unfold, AAC&U will continue our advocacy and action, insisting that access to the advantages of a liberal education is a civil right for all students. We will continue to stand for this civil right, particularly for students who are low income or first generation; members of racial, ethnic, or sexual minority groups; students with disabilities; students who are poorly prepared for college—students across the full array of difference who are facing disadvantage in whatever form it takes.

Throughout its first century, AAC&U has forthrightly addressed the challenges facing colleges and universities. The association has used its voice to speak to the most urgent philosophical and social questions related to students and faculty, to teaching, and to learning. As the board statement on “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusive Excellence” maintains, we will continue to speak, to question, and to act for fundamentally democratic ideals.

In its current strategic plan, AAC&U sets four major goals for its present work and its second century of leadership. Among these is “Equity: Innovation, Inclusive Excellence, and Student Success.” As we work to achieve this goal, we will “accelerate broad-scale systemic innovation to advance educational practices that engage diversity and challenge inequities in order to make excellence inclusive” (2013, 1). Among the pivotal leverage points the plan identifies, one in particular sets the course for our work on equity and inclusion: “With underserved students rapidly becoming the new majority in higher education, there is an opportunity and a responsibility to integrate AAC&U’s work on high-quality liberal learning and high-impact practices with innovations and systemic change initiatives intended to support higher levels of student attainment” (6).

There is, as we see it, no separating the quality of student learning from the diversity of learners. In a diverse society, the ability to learn with and from diverse peers is a critical component of excellence and a necessary component of preparation for work, life, and citizenship. Inclusive excellence can and should be the hallmark of democratic education in our society and a strength that we can offer to educators around the world. Through liberal education and action to make excellence inclusive, we can foster innovative approaches to learning that are sustainable and resilient across higher education, particularly in broad-access institutions and for today’s highly mobile students and contingent faculty populations.

We invite you to join our board of directors in calling for learning that expands access and achievement—whatever the sector, whatever the mode of learning—whoever the student, whoever the educator.


Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2013. “Big Questions, Urgent Challenges: Liberal Education and Americans' Global Future.” Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Susan Albertine is vice president for diversity, equity, and student success at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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