Liberal Education

Advancing Our Vision: Breadth, Depth, and Impact of Diversity and Inclusion Work

Over the past several decades, areas of diversity have become prominent in academia as institutions have created and expanded programs for black studies, Latino studies, Asian American studies, gender studies, and multicultural studies. This has opened up the academy to comprehensive work on diversity, especially as it affects student learning. At higher education gatherings today, for instance, we offer workshops and discussions on diversity and inclusion, and we hold entire conferences on these topics and issues. For example, the Association for American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) held its 2019 Diversity, Equity, and Student Success conference in March, and NASPA: Student Affairs Professionals in Higher Education is holding events throughout the year on equity and diversity. In addition, news publications focused on higher education are providing more and more stories on diversity, such as Inside Higher Ed’s articles “An Overlooked Solution for Diversifying STEM”1 and “The Effective Diversity Statement.”2

Advice and recommendations about diversity and inclusion in the workplace and other spheres have also become more frequent. The Harvard Business Review recently offered “4 Ways Managers Can Be More Inclusive,”3 while the online recruiting site The Muse laid out “The 5 Things All Inclusive Leaders Do Every Single Day.”4 BetterUp, a mobile professional coaching company, advises, “To Become More Diverse, Start Being More Inclusive.”5 We’re also seeing more books on inclusion and diversity, with titles like Demystifying Diversity,6The Inclusion Revolution Is Now,7 and The Inclusion Imperative.8

So we have the depth of thought and content about diversity and inclusion, but what about breadth or impact—the implications for scholarly work and applications for students and clients? In higher education, we live in an atmosphere where we can talk about diversity and inclusion, but how do we make sure all of our work in these areas leads to real cultural change?

Putting our words to work

The terms diversity and inclusion are often conflated, with people regularly using one term when they mean the other. According to AAC&U, inclusion is the “active, intentional, and ongoing engagement with diversity—in the curriculum, in the cocurriculum, and in communities (intellectual, social, cultural, geographical) with which individuals might connect—in ways that increase awareness, content knowledge, cognitive sophistication, and empathic understanding of the complex ways individuals interact within systems and institutions.”9 AAC&U defines diversity as the “individual differences (e.g., personality, prior knowledge, and life experiences) and group/social differences (e.g., race/ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, country of origin, and ability as well as cultural, political, religious, or other affiliations).”10

Inclusion goals often reflect increased diversity, but when addressing how to create an inclusive community, some in higher education fail to assess how their community reflects the diversity necessary to have inclusion. There is often talk about inclusion and ways to promote diversity, but little consideration of the campus being an open place for all.

Colleges and universities need to focus on diversity as a first step to inclusion and be aware of how diversity shows itself in the classroom. Sometimes it’s obvious, but other times, you simply can’t “see” diversity by scanning the faces in the room. Diversity comes from having students who represent different genders and who have different religious beliefs and socioeconomic backgrounds. It comes from having students who are first-generation college students, veterans, and adult learners. It comes from having students with a variety of learning styles. And, it is reflected in having students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

While the strategies for increasing diversity are specific to each campus, leadership is key. Presidents and other top leaders have an incredible platform from which to communicate a vision that includes a diverse campus. The ways in which presidents talk about diversity at the campus level affect how students, administrators, faculty members, and other staff think about and work toward a more diverse campus. When a president makes diversity a priority, the campus community knows that it is OK to talk about diversity and that it is valued.

When I was provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Wagner College, I worked closely with faculty department chairs. I decided that our focus for the 2017–18 academic year would be diversity. As we were beginning to delve into the topic, the August 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, took place. During the event, a white supremacist drove his car into peaceful, racially diverse demonstrators protesting the rally. He killed one demonstrator and injured others. This tragedy, and the racism that spurred it, made the focus on diversity even more relevant and imperative.

What started as a one-year focus with our department chairs turned into a two-year process. During that time, we included diversity as an item on the agenda of every monthly department chair meeting. The chairs developed a “what to do” list around diversity and then set goals. One goal was hiring an African American professor in a department that had no black faculty members but many black students. We also discussed ways to reach out more effectively to students of color to help them have a better learning experience, including assessing course syllabi to highlight works that address the experiences of people of color. Some department chairs decided to write a diversity statement to include on their syllabi. The statement indicated that we value students of all backgrounds and was a way to let students know that we care about all of them.

We also worked to help faculty members learn more about diversity. Unfortunately, many educators are not equipped to effectively approach the topic in class. To help them develop skills to do so, we held workshops for faculty members to better understand the array of backgrounds from which our students come. We also came up with strategies for being more open to students from different backgrounds and for helping students be more connected to the professor and members of the class. For example, African American students expressed feeling marginalized by other students in class, so we focused on class activities that required students of various backgrounds to work together in groups. Working together in this way allowed the students to begin to get to know each other.

Faculty members often avoid talking about race and diversity because they’re nervous that they will say the “wrong thing.” In our workshops, we talked about what happens if you do say the wrong thing. We discussed how being open and respectful of students is just as important as having the right answer. In addition, we also held role-playing sessions to help professors handle actual situations with students and others around diversity and race. As a result, faculty members who were initially lukewarm toward the idea became more comfortable talking about diversity in the classroom. As we developed goals and action plans, and as professors learned more about students’ varied life experiences, they became more enthusiastic about diversity work in the classroom. Faculty members learned so much over those two years of diversity work and really came to see how important it is in serving our students.

Now, I am the president of Tuskegee University. Because we are a historically black university, where 85 percent of our students are African American, some mistakenly think that we don’t have to deal with diversity. As a historically black university, though, we’re really looking at different kinds of diversity in addition to race and ethnic background. It’s important to understand the different ways students view themselves, and we need to be mindful of religious, socioeconomic, gender, and other differences. I’ve had some significant conversations with transgender students about how our campus can be a more welcoming place for them. They have made recommendations about training for administrators and faculty and designating nonbinary restrooms throughout campus. Often, we don’t think about students who are both black and transgender. We need to make certain we are meeting their needs along with the needs of other students.

One of my priorities at Tuskegee is to enhance mentoring opportunities and career training to boost student retention and graduation rates. As part of our new mentoring initiative, REACH—Road from Early Achievement to a Career High—all first-year students will be assigned a faculty adviser to help them start thinking about their major and how it might be related to their career goals. The full program started in fall 2019 and will help us ensure all students have a sense of belonging and feel supported. We want all students to know that we have high expectations for them and that we are here to help them succeed.

Getting out into the “communiversity”

When we talk about increasing diversity and inclusion, we also have to consider what that means beyond our campuses. We should be creating broad awareness of the synergistic relationship between our institutions and our larger communities. What are the ways in which diversity plays into town-gown interactions? What are the communities just past our university gates like? For many of us, our neighbors are communities of color.

Wagner College, for example, is just two miles from Port Richmond, a community that was once a bustling center for shopping and business in Staten Island. This area now has large percentages of Latinos, African Americans, and working-class whites. In 2008, the college and Port Richmond developed a partnership in which college students come to Port Richmond and work with residents to support their goals in improving education, immigration, health and wellness, arts and culture, and economic development (“the five pillars”). As part of the initiative, faculty members and students participate in programs to support each of these pillars in the community. For instance, professors and students helped develop business plans for community members with entrepreneurial aspirations. Another project involved working with the high school’s culinary program to promote healthy meals and lifestyles. Students also volunteer at after-school programs at local elementary and middle schools.

At Tuskegee, we’re also deeply involved in our local community. Tuskegee University is the largest employer in Macon County, Alabama. In the city of Tuskegee, the majority of residents are African American, and I am working with the mayor to plan how we can support each other as the city is redeveloped and the university moves forward. The mayor talks about the idea of a “communiversity,” which is a much better term than “town-gown relationships.” One way the city and university have connected is through an experiential architecture class in which students are helping to rehabilitate a historic Victorian home (see “Welcome to Our House” on page 20). I’ve also been meeting with the Macon County Schools superintendent about supporting local public K–12 schools in everything from college preparation for high school students to after-school tutoring. As long as I am thinking about the strategic plan of the university, I need to be thinking about the larger community in which our institution resides.

Leading to create change

So, how can we plan for lasting impact? Here are a few ways:

  • Integrate the goals of diversity and inclusion with your institution’s mission statement and values.
  • Be strategic and accurate when addressing diversity and inclusion for the campus as well as the community.
  • Integrate your focus across all levels and with all members of your institution (students, faculty, staff, board members), as well as with community goals.

We will know that we have a lasting impact on our campuses when mention of diversity and inclusion no longer brings about reactions like “Oh, yeah, we need to focus on that” but is truly part of our institutions’ values. We will recognize enduring changes when we see examples of diversity work every day. Students of color need ways of connecting with one another and of being campus leaders on issues about which they feel passionate. If they don’t have such opportunities, then our retention rates will plummet.

As an undergraduate at Princeton University, I was the first in my family to go to college. At that time, I was also one of the first African American women to attend Princeton, just six years after the university became coed. Throughout my life, I have always been aware of what it means to be female and African American—to be part of a minority. In high school, my advanced classes had a few other girls, but those girls weren’t black. One reason I went to Princeton was to be around other black kids who were “like me.” Once there,
I developed a supportive cohort of African American friends, but many times I was the only woman—the only black woman—in class. Still, I was going to succeed against all odds. I know firsthand the experience of feeling marginalized in class and what it means to have professors who actually see you as you are.

Now, as a university president, it remains important for me to be a role model who shows women, African Americans, and other students on my campus that they can do what they have set out to accomplish. When I talk with students, I aim to connect with them as individuals and see all of who they are. University leaders and staff truly care about the campus community, and I want students to understand that. An effective leader communicates and listens, and a vibrant campus community only comes to fruition when we address the needs of all students. We’re here for all students.


1. Adrianna Kezar and Elizabeth Holcombe, “An Overlooked Solution for Diversifying STEM, Inside Higher Ed, January 14, 2019,

2. Tanya Golash-Boza, “The Effective Diversity Statement,” Inside Higher Ed, June 10, 2016,

3. Sydney Finkelstein, “4 Ways Managers Can Be More Inclusive,” Harvard Business Review, July 13, 2017,

4. Jim Morris, “The 5 Things All Inclusive Leaders Do Every Single Day,” The Muse, accessed July 18, 2019,

5. Fern Mandelbaum, “To Become More Diverse, Start Being More Inclusive,” BetterUp, accessed July 18, 2019,

6. Jiten Patel and Gamiel Yafai, Demystifying Diversity: A Handbook to Navigate Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (London: Gilgamesh Publishing, 2016).

7. Maura G. Robinson, The Inclusion Revolution Is Now (Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2013).

8. Stephen Frost, The Inclusion Imperative: How Real Inclusion Creates Better Business and Builds Better Societies (Philadelphia: Kogan Page Limited, 2014).

9. “Making Excellence Inclusive,” Association of American Colleges and Universities, accessed July 18, 2019,

10. “Making Excellence Inclusive.”

Lily D. McNair is the president of Tuskegee University. The following essay is based on her talk at the Networking Luncheon for Faculty and Administrators of Color at AAC&U’s 2019 annual meeting.

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