Diversity and Democracy

Building Capacity for Inclusion by Working across Differences: An Institutional and Societal Imperative

Many institutions of higher education include within their mission statements the goal of preparing students for work and civic participation in a diverse and changing world. This laudable goal is influenced by three imperatives: the economic imperative, the imperative of education for participatory democracy, and the imperative for equity. Employers expect graduates to be able to work in teams and collaborate with people who are different from themselves (Hart Research Associates 2015b). Research has shown that experiences with diversity in higher education have significant benefits for student learning outcomes that are valuable to participatory democracy, such as cognitive complexity, creativity, a sense of connection to the larger society, and concern for the public good (Antonio et al. 2004; Hurtado 2006; Hurtado et al. 2003). And in the face of significant demographic shifts and widening socioeconomic disparities, institutions are under urgent pressure to address historical and continuing inequity in higher education.

The challenges facing institutions of higher education as they strive to meet these three imperatives are multifold. Colleges and universities need to achieve greater diversity among students, staff, and faculty; they also need to build students’ capacity—as well as the capacity of faculty, administrators, and staff—for inclusion, on campus and beyond. They need to admit, matriculate, and retain students from underrepresented groups, and they need to simultaneously address debates about systemic discrimination that persist on campuses despite the breadth of research documenting hostilities and microaggressions that affect the academic identities, academic achievements, career paths, and successes of women and underrepresented students (Solórzano, Ceja, and Yosso 2000; Sue 2010; Watkins, LaBarrie, and Appio 2010).

To become both more diverse and more inclusive, institutions of higher education need to examine their own organizational capacity to prepare all students for a world that is changing, complicated, and already diverse. In short, we cannot educate students to meet the complex needs of our society if we cannot meet those needs within our own institutions (Bial 2016).

The Current Context for Diversity and Inclusion

Within colleges and universities, diversity and inclusion have long been the focus of experts in social justice, equity, and multicultural education. Historically, these professionals have been located at the margins of our educational institutions, in multicultural centers within student affairs and in departments of ethnic studies, women’s studies, and social justice education. But over the past few years, concerns about diversity and inclusion have reached all corners of our institutions. Across the United States, colleges and universities are experiencing highly visible levels of student activism in response to racism and sexism, with students demanding and sometimes securing the resignations of campus leaders. Aided by social media, students and campus communities across the nation have protested in solidarity, calling on institutions to remove symbols of colonialism and genocide; to challenge acts of racism, sexism, homonegativity, and classism; and to address the isolation that marginalized students often experience on campus.

In effect, these students are calling on higher education institutions to undergo a paradigm shift in how they attend to and prioritize diversity and equity. With the groundswell of support for the Black Lives Matter movement and intense focus on specific incidents of racism on campus, the nation’s students of color and their allies among students, faculty, and staff have reached a critical moment in the journey toward awareness of—and impatience with—the pace of structural change. This heightened awareness is the culmination of years of less visible activism for racial justice in institutions of higher education across the country, and it has converged with advocacy and action around gender equity, LGBTQ inclusion, and other interconnected aspects of identity.

Institutions often conduct their work related to these contexts using the language of diversity and inclusion. These terms can evoke myriad responses from different individuals—for some, suggesting political correctness and efforts to stifle free speech; for others, centering on people of all identities while ultimately failing to dismantle inequitable organizational practices; for others still, signaling a commitment to social justice and equity. It is clear that in order for our institutions to truly transform, we will need to find commonality and negotiate alliances across these different interpretations and worldviews. To meet the imperatives of educational equity and prepare all students for participation in public life and the workforce, we will need to effect substantial change in our own institutions. As we strive to meet the needs of a diverse society, we must come together around the common goal of educating our students, both those currently enrolled and those yet to come, including those who have been historically excluded from higher education.

Embracing Demographic Change

The context described above is occurring at a time of drastic demographic change that will shape higher education’s continuing work on diversity, inclusion, and equity. Recent figures indicate that 50.3 percent of public school students and 48 percent of public high school students are students of color (Kim 2014). The National Center for Education Statistics projects 33 percent growth among Latino/a students in K–12 education, 20 percent growth among Asian/Pacific Islanders, 44 percent growth among multiracial students, and 2 percent growth among African American students between 2011 and 2022, while projecting decreases of 6 percent among white students and 5 percent among American Indian/Alaska Natives during the same time period (Kim 2014).

With these burgeoning demographic shifts, diversity and inclusion have become central to higher education’s survival and success. But racial gaps in recruitment, enrollment, and retention of students persist. In 2014, national enrollment of first-year students at four-year institutions was approximately 33 percent students of color, a much lower percentage than in K–12 education (Chronicle of Higher Education 2015, 32). From 2003 to 2013, at a sample of 255 universities, graduation rates rose slightly more for underrepresented students (6.3 percentage points) than for white students (5.7 percentage points), but the graduation rate for underrepresented minorities was still 50.1 percent, compared with 64.2 percent for white students (Education Trust 2015, 2).

Moreover, faculty of color are still grossly underrepresented in higher education, with few campuses having a critical mass or even a cluster of faculty of color who can provide support or mentoring to each other and to students of color. In fall 2013, among full-time professors, 84 percent were white, 4 percent were black, 3 percent were Hispanic, and 9 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander, while American Indian/Alaska Native and those of two or more races each represented less than 1 percent (NCES n.d.). Such underrepresentation among faculty of color is detrimental to the success of students of color. While intercultural mentoring and support are critical, they cannot replace the benefits of seeing oneself reflected among one’s mentors and across the organization.

The Challenge to Higher Education

The focus on diversity and inclusion at colleges and universities is rooted in a belief that higher education should offer equitable opportunities to people of all social identities. Commitments to racial equity, gender equity, and equity for disabled individuals are reflected in the policies, practices, and programs supporting affirmative action, Title IX, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as the ethnic studies, women’s studies, multicultural, and bridge programs that have historically advanced these efforts. These policies, practices, and programs have been and continue to be instrumental in promoting equity in higher education.

And yet, the current wave of student activism calls attention to the fact that racism and other forms of exclusion continue to exist on campuses. Clearly, it is not enough to simply support students of color so they can resist, thrive, and excel in exclusionary climates. In addition to creating policies, practices, and organizational structures that are inclusive, we must address those policies, practices, and structures that exclude. Exclusion and inclusion are complex processes that involve as well as implicate the campus community as a whole. Many of our current practices related to multiculturalism and diversity, though highly effective, do not invite those in the majority to participate in creating inclusive institutions, nor do they directly critique the exclusionary policies, practices, and structures that continue to exist.

In order to effect meaningful organizational change related to equity, diversity, and inclusion, institutions must embrace these values across the whole organization, among institutional partners, and within surrounding communities. By taking into account the holistic context for learning, higher education can drive the changes necessary to meet its central mission of educating all students—and can do so within the context of the new world that has already arrived in K–12 education and that will soon appear within higher education as well.

Within this world, it is both a matter of social justice and an imperative for the future of participatory democracy that diversity and inclusion be key values guiding higher education. But diversity and inclusion are also essential to meet the needs of a global economy that requires innovation, agility, and resilience on the part of both organizations and individuals. In higher education and in the private and public sectors, researchers are conducting, creating, and applying important work on the relationships among inclusion, intellectual diversity, and innovation. This work should be adopted more broadly by faculty, staff, and administrators across each institution.

Diversity and Inclusion in Organizations

Organizations in the private and public sectors are calling colleges and universities to prepare students to work with people who are different from themselves at the peer level, client level, and leadership level (Forbes n.d.; Hewlett, Marshall, and Sherbin 2013). Students themselves recognize the importance of practical skills related to collaboration, diversity, and inclusion (Hart Research Associates 2015b).

In the private sector, diversity is viewed as critical to the ability of organizations to innovate and adapt in fast-changing environments. Diversity—of perspectives, experiences, cultures, genders, and age—is essential to the growth and prosperity of any company. Diversity breeds innovation, and innovation breeds business success. Lu Hong and Scott Page have found that groups of diverse problem solvers with lower levels of expertise can consistently outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers with little diversity (2004). Research has also shown that companies with strong commitments to diversity outperform their peers, with higher profit margins and greater returns on equity and assets (Slater, Weigand, and Zwirlein 2008). Companies with greater racial and gender diversity perform better in terms of sales revenue, number of customers, and market share (Herring 2009). Those with the highest shares of women in their senior management teams outperform those with no women by 41 percent in returns on equity and by 56 percent in operating results (measured through healthy revenues and cash flow) (Hunt, Layton, and Prince 2015). Companies with diverse executive boards enjoy significantly higher earnings and returns on equity (Hunt, Layton, and Prince 2015). And employee satisfaction and engagement hinge partially on satisfaction with a company’s treatment of diverse people (Catalyst Information Center 2013).

In order for companies and nonprofit organizations to reap the benefits of diversity, they need employees at all levels who not only represent diverse identities, but also are able to collaborate robustly across these different identities and life experiences. Colleges and universities need to build their institutional capacity to serve these needs by creating purposely inclusive practices, structures, and organizational climates.

Changing the Whole Institution

Many higher education institutions have made incremental gains in relation to diversity and inclusion by creating chief diversity officer positions, offering programming and resources for underrepresented students, and focusing on recruitment and retention of faculty of color. On some campuses, these activities have increased in response to student demands. But to address the three imperatives related to equity, participatory democracy, and the needs of the business sector, campuses need to make diversity and inclusion an essential responsibility of everyone on campus—students, staff, faculty, and administrators.

One key area of purposeful practice is the curriculum. In a survey of institutions conducted for the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), only 34 percent of provosts reported that their institutions “require all students to participate in diversity studies and experiences” (Hart Research Associates 2015a, 3). A survey of 550 university presidents conducted by the American Council on Education found that 33 percent of respondents were diversifying and revising their curricula (Ruff 2016). It is critical that institutions follow through on this work, including by investing in ethnic studies and women’s and gender studies. It is also essential that colleges and universities improve recruitment and retention of the underrepresented faculty who bring their expertise to these and other disciplines.

Across the curriculum, many faculty members of all backgrounds are struggling to help students participate in the difficult dialogues occurring across higher education. They may report walking on eggshells in their classrooms, unsure of how to facilitate rigorous discussions about institutional discrimination, political correctness, microaggressions, and freedom of speech. They worry about “coddling” their students with trigger warnings (Lukianoff and Haidt 2015), and they wonder if higher education is preparing students for the harsh real world. To help faculty members address controversial topics, institutions can offer focused training on how to facilitate difficult dialogues that produce productive conflict and discussion, which has been shown to increase cognitive complexity and problem solving (Gurin, Nagda, and Zúñiga 2013).

Student affairs staff are an excellent resource for training and facilitation on diversity and inclusion. These professionals are often trained in student development, with a focus on caretaking and student-centered responsiveness. Student affairs and academic affairs divisions should share the responsibility of keeping students safe, engaged, and enrolled. Institutions should create formal structures that bridge the organizational chasms that often exist between these two groups of personnel in order to coordinate outreach to students, including the outreach that occurs in response to difficult situations.

Whole-campus coordination of diversity and inclusion efforts requires strong leadership from campus administration. On many campuses, administrators from the top down—from presidents and chief academic officers to deans and associate deans—recognize that their institutions need to build capacity for creating truly inclusive environments. On campuses where protests have occurred, many administrators are sympathetic to students’ concerns. But even sympathetic administrators may lack knowledge about the issues affecting campus climate for students of color, LGBTQ students, and students from other marginalized groups. Presidents and provosts must take responsibility for their own knowledge about these topics. Their peers, consultants with expertise in diversity and inclusion, American Council on Education fellowships, the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education (NCORE), and AAC&U conferences are all potential sources of good information.


To effect the change required for our institutions to meet the imperatives posed by business, participatory democracy, and equity in a diverse and changing society, colleges and universities need to engage as whole institutions in building our capacity for inclusion. The stakes are high for students, for employers, for our own institutional excellence, and for the promise of an equitable democracy. We need to apply the best of what we know about working collaboratively and inclusively across identities, organizational positions, and interests to ourselves and our own institutions in order to honor diversity rather than flatten it.


Antonio, Anthony L., Mitchell J. Chang, Kenji Hakuta, David A. Kenny, Shana Levin, and Jeffrey F. Milem. 2004. “Effects of Racial Diversity on Complex Thinking in College Students.” Psychological Science 15 (8): 507–10.

Bial, Deborah. 2016. “Diversity in the Workplace Starts with Diversity in Higher Education.” Forbes, March 30. http://www.forbes.com/sites/schoolboard/2016/03/30/diversity-in-the-workplace-starts-with-diversity-in-higher-education/#47354b177ee2.

Catalyst Information Center. 2013. “Why Diversity Matters” (white paper). http://www.catalyst.org/system/files/why_diversity_matters_catalyst_0.pdf.

Chronicle of Higher Education. 2015. Almanac of Higher Education 2015–16. Washington, DC: Chronicle of Higher Education.

Education Trust. 2015. Rising Tide: Do College Grad Rate Gains Benefit All Students? Washington, DC: Education Trust.

Forbes. n.d. Fostering Innovation Through a Diverse Workforce. New York: Forbes. http://images.forbes.com/forbesinsights/StudyPDFs/Innovation_Through_Diversity.pdf.

Gurin, Patricia, Biren A. Nagda, and Ximena Zúñiga. 2013. Dialogue across Difference: Practice, Theory, and Research on Intergroup Dialogue. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

Hart Research Associates. 2015a. Bringing Equity and Quality Learning Together: Institutional Priorities for Tracking and Advancing Underserved Students’ Success. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

———. 2015b. Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities. http://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/LEAP/2015employerstudentsurvey.pdf.

Herring, Cedric. 2009. “Does Diversity Pay? Race, Gender, and the Business Case for Diversity.” American Sociological Review 74 (2): 208–24.

Hewlett, Sylvia Ann, Melinda Marshall, and Laura Sherbin. 2013. Innovation, Diversity and Market Growth. New York: Center for Talent Innovation.

Hong, Lu, and Scott Page. 2004. “Groups of Diverse Problem Solvers Can Outperform Groups of High-Ability Problem Solvers.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 101 (46): 16385–89.

Hunt, Vivian, Dennis Layton, and Sara Prince. 2015. Diversity Matters. McKinsey & Company.

Hurtado, Sylvia. 2006. “Diversity and Learning for a Pluralistic Democracy.” In Higher Education in a Global Society: Achieving Diversity, Equity, and Excellence, edited by Walter R. Allen, Marguerite Bonous-Hammarth, and Robert Teranishi, 249–93. Oxford: Elsevier Publishers.

Hurtado, Sylvia, Eric L. Dey, Patricia Gurin, and Gerald Gurin. 2003. “The College Environment, Diversity, and Student Learning.” In Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research, edited by John C. Smart, vol. 18, 145–89. Amsterdam: Kluwer Academic Press.

Kim, Jeanne. 2014. “Starting This Year, Minorities Will Outnumber Whites in US Public Schools.” Quartz, August 19. http://qz.com/251380/starting-this-year-minorities-will-outnumber-white-americans-in-public-schools/.

Lukianoff, Greg, and Jonathan Haidt. 2015. “The Coddling of the American Mind.” The Atlantic, September.

NCES (National Center for Educational Statistics). n.d. “Race/Ethnicity of College Faculty.” Fast Facts. https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=61.

Ruff, Corinne. 2016. “3 Highlights from a Survey of Presidents on the Campus Racial Climate.” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 10. http://chronicle.com/article/3-Highlights-From-a-Survey-of/235652/.

Slater, Stanley F., Robert A. Weigand, and Thomas J. Zwirlein. 2008. “The Business Case for Commitment to Diversity.” Business Horizons 51 (3): 201–9.

Solórzano, Daniel, Miguel Ceja, and Tara Yosso. 2000. “Critical Race Theory, Racial Microaggressions and Campus Racial Climate: The Experiences of African American College
 Students.” Journal of Negro Education 69: 60–73.

Sue, Derald Wing. 2010. Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Watkins, Nicole L., Theressa L. LaBarrie, and Lauren M. Appio. 2010. “Black Undergraduates’ Experiences with Perceived Racial Microaggressions in Predominantly White Colleges and Universities.” In Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact, edited by Derald Wing Sue, 25–58. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Kathleen Wong(Lau) is director of the Southwest Center for Human Relation Studies at the University of Oklahoma and director of the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education (NCORE).

Previous Issues