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The Dance of Change: Inclusive Excellence on College Campuses

Metaphors can be powerful tools to explain unfamiliar concepts.  When introducing the concept of inclusive excellence—the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ guiding principle to promote diversity and inclusiveness and the necessary innovations that must take place in order to achieve diversity, inclusiveness, and equity on our college campuses—it is helpful to invoke the metaphor of a dance. 

The concomitant and dynamic nature of dance provides the perfect visualization to demonstrate the connection and distinction between diversity and inclusiveness. Diversity represents an invitation to attend a dance, whereas inclusiveness represents the environment of the dance hall. Diversity efforts serve as an invitation extended to all potential students, including those belonging to underrepresented communities.  Inclusiveness is the creation of a welcoming environment so that all students are able to participate fully in the programs, activities, and overall environment of a college or university.

To take the metaphor further, if we are to invite a wide array of students to the dance, we ought to diversify the music playing at the dance. This “music” (e.g., epistemology, art work, pedagogy, programming, policy, tradition, and curriculum) can be inspired and informed by the variety of groups and individuals present at the dance. Seeking out the input and assessing the needs of underrepresented communities such as women, people of color, LGBT+[1] individuals, veterans, and people with disabilities will make the “dance” a much more enriching experience for all present. 

It is also helpful to have dance instructors (faculty, staff, and administrators) who are familiar with a variety of different styles of dance, and willing to learn about more. In many cases the physical environment or “dance hall” (campus, classrooms, etc.) will have to be reconfigured to accommodate the different needs of different dancers (e.g., accessible ramps, gender neutral bathrooms, assistive technology, prayer rooms).  It is also beneficial for the dance hall to hire a “host” (e.g. diversity officer) with specialized knowledge to lead the move toward a more inclusive dance (e.g., departments, schools, offices, centers) designed for all to enjoy the dance, produce new styles of dancing, and prepare students to go out into the world and successfully attend many different dances.

The dance hall managers (e.g. president, vice president, deans, board of trustees) will have to drive the change toward a more diverse and inclusive dance. Without support from the top, inclusive excellence cannot be fully and sustainably achieved.

By creating new techniques and enhancing old elements already present in the dance hall, we will be able to ensure not only that a wider range of students will be invited to our institutions of higher learning, but that they will also have a sense of belonging when they arrive. Commitment to the concept of inclusive excellence will maximize the likelihood that our students will feel welcome and experience success in college and beyond.


 Jesús Treviño is the associate vice president for diversity; Vanessa Carlson is the senior secretary for University Housing; and Tracy Chapman is a graduate assistant in the Office for Diversity, all of the University of South Dakota

[1] Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender; the “+” serves to include all other communities associated with the LGBT community. See