Liberal Education

Making Excellence Inclusive in Challenging Times

In 2005, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) released a series of articles that called for higher education institutions to move away from a fragmented focus on diversity and begin thinking about how to promote inclusive excellence (IE) in postsecondary institutions. Specifically, these authors challenged leaders to move from rhetoric to action by involving the entire campus community in the work of infusing diversity and excellence.1 As a relatively new faculty member (2004) whose scholarship aim was to support traditionally white institutions (TWIs)2 in their efforts to create inclusive classroom and campus environments, I was eager to apply IE as a conceptual framework and advance it through publications, trainings, and presentations.

Little did I know that a few years later (2011), shortly after being promoted to associate professor with tenure, I would be tapped to become the new associate provost for inclusive excellence at my institution. In accepting this opportunity, I was charged with continuing efforts to make excellence inclusive and move IE from an institutional value/goal to an institutional practice. Like many institutions around the country that embraced IE as a conceptual model for advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion, we (IE advocates) were successful in our efforts to move beyond a sole focus on numbers and instead strive for a comprehensive application of diversity that is embedded throughout every aspect of the organization—or so we thought.

Fast-forwarding ten years to 2015–16, TWIs have witnessed a significant increase in campus activism regarding the conditions facing minoritized communities in higher education. Specifically, minoritized students (and their allies) at some of the United States’ finest TWIs (including my own) have been speaking out in resistance to their daily encounters with microaggressions, macro-invalidations, and other not-so-subtle acts of racial discrimination. The range of student demands that has emerged across these institutions has served as a serious wake-up call for campus leaders. The unfortunate reality is that despite our best intentions, we have not been successful in our efforts to respond to the needs of an increasingly diverse campus environment.

What these challenging times have revealed for me is that making excellence inclusive is only truly actualized when our students’ lived experiences in our institutions exemplify diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout daily interactions. Having had the opportunity to participate in campus meetings, statewide conversations, and national discussions regarding the current crisis, I now attribute our collective failure to meet the challenge of creating inclusive campus environments for minoritized students to our inability to undergo significant structural and organizational changes that result in meaningful institutional transformation. Specifically, I believe there are three IE traps, or missteps, that have determined the success or failure of IE organizational transformation efforts in higher education.

Trap #1: Believing IE programs would transform institutional systems, structures, and overall campus culture

In these challenging times, a consistent student demand has focused on increasing the funding to support more IE initiatives, which is simultaneously predictable and ironic—predictable in the sense that adding programs to address student concerns is a typical response by TWIs, and ironic because the resources allocated to advancing IE have increased significantly. I believe that one of the traps we have fallen into in higher education is implementing IE initiatives that have little to no impact on the system and structures that drive university life. When focusing on our institutions’ readiness and capacity for organizational change, adding a plethora of IE programs seemed like a logical strategy. However, this approach limited our potential to promote sustained and systemic change, and it left intact inequality regimes that negatively affected life on campus for minoritized students.

Although IE programs can and have responded to the individual needs of the minoritized students who participate in them, rarely do they have an impact on campus systems and structures. Instead, they result in islands of innovations that are isolated rather than pervasive. These programs, though important, are usually not linked to institutional structures and systems, which severely diminishes their ability to transform campus culture. Such practices are the equivalent of putting Band-Aids on cuts, while leaving the sharp instrument that created the cuts in place.

The recent protests on our campuses challenge us to embrace an approach to organizational transformation that is more aggressive and intentional—where campus leaders and change agents strive to transform our institutions. Perhaps, instead of simply adding more IE programs, TWIs should commit to an interruption of business as usual and begin interrogating existing cultural systems and structures that affect the organizational climate. This interrogation will allow TWIs to better understand how their systems and structures need to be modified to improve the campus conditions for minoritized students. When TWIs can better understand the impact of their institutional structures (policies and practices), they have the potential to create more equitable conditions and outcomes for minoritized students.

Trap #2: Being seduced by the “happy talk” of inclusive excellence and forgetting to focus on racial justice

IE has provided TWIs throughout the country with an appealing way of framing our efforts to merge diversity and excellence. Correspondingly, today IE can be found in campus mission statements, marketing materials, and position titles, as well as in the conference themes of major national organizations. IE has replaced its predecessors, “diversity” and “multicultural,” as a seemingly palatable term for driving equity and inclusion efforts. One unintended consequence of the widespread adoption of IE on college campuses is that it allowed our institutions to move away from a focus on race and racism as a central component of diversity and inclusion efforts. This is doubly ironic since AAC&U, a major catalyst for advancing the concept of inclusive excellence, itself contended in its 1995 signature report, The Drama of Diversity and Democracy: Higher Education and American Commitments, that “of all the sources of unequal power in the United States, race is the razor that most brutally cuts and divides.”3 AAC&U re-released that same report, with updated information about racial disparities, in 2011. Unfortunately, the unwillingness to confront racial disparities directly has resulted in a post-racial approach and/or race-neutral alternative for framing campus initiatives designed to create inclusive educational environments. Moreover, in the absence of a clearly defined race-conscious operational framework to guide organizational change, institutional stakeholders have filled the gap with colorblind ideologies that associate equality with sameness, resulting in incremental change at best.

Several of the students’ demands speak to a need for TWIs to do a better job in acknowledging the existence of race and racism through the curriculum, campus training, or institutional policies. The reality is, just like the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the campus activism occupying our institutions today has been unapologetic about its focus on race and racism, and it challenges us to make a paradigm shift and commit to racial justice. Making excellence inclusive will not occur if institutions are incapable of moving beyond light IE programming that promotes “happy talk” and good feelings about diversity.

In my experience, many units on our campuses want to appear to be supportive of diversity, but only to the extent that it does not make them feel bad or guilty. This desire to engage in “happy talk” programming is not surprising, considering that change agents try to meet campus partners where they are developmentally. However, this approach to IE will only make a difference if it can move participants beyond a surface-level understanding of race and racism toward an institutional analysis of privilege and oppression. Organizational transformation efforts that continue to be depoliticized in order to make them more desirable will limit the ability of TWIs to radically transform the status quo of everyday business.

Trap #3: Believing the hype of the magical CDO and failing to develop accountability structures that engage all stakeholders in organizational transformation efforts

Evans and Chun have suggested that in TWIs, there are only a handful of key people who have the potential to advocate for change, create and assess innovative strategies, and facilitate organizational transformation efforts.4 A growing trend and common response to student protests in higher education is to appoint chief diversity officers, or CDOs, to assume the lead role of architects of diversity and inclusion. However, it did not take me long to realize that positioning CDOs as the sole architects of IE efforts at my institution would not produce progressive outcomes. This common response of creating an office or persons with diversity in their titles often designates them as the only ones who are expected to do the work. This fallacy allows others in the organization to relieve themselves of any responsibility to address IE, even if that matter falls within their scope of responsibility.

The tendency to see IE work as belonging only to the individuals who have IE and diversity in their titles can be reinforced by staff members who fail to recognize that if true organizational transformation is to occur, they cannot be the only stewards of IE at their institutions. The reality is, when we isolate diversity work to a specific person or unit on campus, we reinforce the notion that unless diversity work is in an individual’s job description, it is someone else’s problem or, more commonly, someone else’s fault. This lack of collaborative leadership and infrastructure to guide and facilitate the organizational transformation process and direct campus IE initiatives at all levels of the institution significantly stifles our attempts to build momentum and sustain change efforts.

Making the advancement of IE everybody’s business and getting all segments of the campus actively involved has to be a top priority. When individuals and groups at all levels of the institution see themselves as CDOs, work together to form accountability structures, and are able to navigate competing demands and expectations around organizational transformation efforts, TWIs are more likely to produce meaningful progressive outcomes that have an impact on institutional culture, reduce institutional stress, and improve the overall quality of communication throughout the campus environment.

Overall, making excellence inclusive in these challenging times will require that we avoid the above IE traps. These traps remind us that the modern university cannot be radically changed by “simply” adding more racial diversity, creating safer campus spaces, addressing the cultural competency of our faculty and staff, and redesigning the curriculum to include a stronger focus on race, privilege, and oppression. Though these are good places to start, if we do not link these initiatives to the structures and systems that drive university life, they will not become embedded in the fabric of our institutions. Having been engaged in this work for many years, I have become more and more frustrated by our inability to respond in meaningful ways to the needs of minoritized students and, ultimately, to affect how they experience being members of our campus communities. However, I remain hopeful because of the energy and wisdom that current students are displaying, and I believe that together we can actualize our IE aspirations to create inclusive campus environments that respect and care for the souls of our students.


1. See Jeffrey F. Milem, Mitchell J. Chang, and Anthony Lising Antonio Milem, Making Diversity Work on Campus: A Research-based Perspective (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2005).

2. I advocate the use of “traditionally” as opposed to “predominantly” white institutions because “PWI [predominantly White institution] would not include those higher education institutions whose campus populations have been predominantly white but now have students of color in the numeric majority. I argue that even though institutions like MIT and Berkeley have more students of color than Whites on campus, the culture, tradition, and values found in those institutions remain traditionally White.” Tuitt, “Removing the Threat in the Air: Teacher Transparency and the Creation of Identity-Safe Graduate Classrooms,” Journal on Excellence in College Teaching 19, nos. 2–3 (2008): 167–8.

3. Association of American Colleges and Universities, The Drama of Diversity and Democracy: Higher Education and American Commitments, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2011), 24.

4. See Alvin Evans and Edna Breinig Chun, Are the Walls Really Down? Behavioral and Organizational Barriers to Faculty and Staff Diversity, ASHE Higher Education Report 33, no. 1 (2007).

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Frank Tuitt is senior advisor to the chancellor and provost for diversity and inclusion, and associate professor of higher education at the University of Denver.

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