For more than a decade, US universities and colleges have publicly asserted commitments to diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA). However, these efforts have mostly resulted in incremental and cosmetic changes that have not produced the transformations that are needed, such as closing opportunity and performance gaps in student retention and graduate rates and having administrative and faculty ranks that reflect current demographics. Guided by the principles of shared governance, we contend it is time to chart a different course and make a moonshot for DEIA in higher education.
As several of us previously outlined in Liberal Education, shared governance is more important than ever to face the challenges of higher education. We defined shared governance as:
An ongoing, engaged system of multidirectional communication, informed decision-making, mutual trust, and distributed leadership among faculty members, administrators, staff, and students within institutions of higher education. Shared governance is nonhierarchical, such that these constituent groups share responsibility for articulating and addressing challenges, and they are mutually accountable for how those challenges are handled.
NASA offers a useful model for shared governance. Just as no one travels solo to the moon, individuals on their own cannot solve the challenges of higher education. A single space expedition requires the expertise of hundreds, often thousands, of people; if one member of the team miscalculates, the entire mission risks failure. Similarly, higher education is a high-risk, high-reward endeavor that requires a true sense of community among faculty, administrators, staff, and students. To ensure that at an institution it’s “all systems go,” every stakeholder at institutions of higher education must have a voice in DEIA efforts and the opportunity to stop, reassess, and regroup to correct course when problems arise.
Colleges and universities may value DEIA, but many inevitably fail to practice it at all levels, as annual data from the Harvard Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education survey indicate. For example, White faculty are far more likely than their Black colleagues to agree there is visible leadership for the support and promotion of diversity on their campus (73 percent versus 55 percent). In our view, falling short with DEIA efforts is the result of a lack of coordination and communication across divisions at institutions of higher education, most notably in the separation between academic affairs and student services. Structurally, many institutions disproportionately assign DEIA work to midlevel administrators and staff who are involved with student affairs and who are themselves part of underrepresented ethnic and racial groups on campus. Accountability typically is invested in one or two highly visible and highly vulnerable staff members, such as chief diversity officers and directors of multicultural affairs who lack the protections of tenure and academic freedom. As a study by the National Center for Institutional Diversity at the University of Michigan showed, many academic diversity officers held midlevel titles such as program manager, specialist, or coordinator. Individuals with titles that conveyed senior levels of authority (especially those with academic responsibilities) were most effective at creating campus change. Although marginalized and minoritized faculty, staff, and administrators bear a disproportionate service burden, thus far, little has been done to address how this affects campus-wide progress on DEIA measures.
This disproportionality has also resulted in a lack of collective purpose and vision. Only through close collaboration and collective problem solving—achieved through a more expansive approach to shared governance—can campuses effectively identify and address DEIA gaps. That means distributing responsibility across employee ranks, campus divisions, and institutional offices.
In addition, DEIA efforts need to be adequately funded and supported. Here, too, shared governance can make a difference. Implementing DEIA work across every unit and division means thinking systemically (and systematically) about everything from inclusive pedagogy to research, from recruitment and retention to campus programming. DEIA truly is a moonshot that requires institutions to fundamentally rethink, reprioritize, and coordinate budgets and expenditures of human capital. Investing in this work is an investment in the future of higher education.
Lack of shared governance in DEIA work frequently results in short-lived initiatives, intergroup conflicts over scarce resources, and high levels of employee burnout. As the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education makes clear in the 2021 report A Framework for Advancing Anti-Racism Strategy on Campus, the solution is “bringing together faculty, administrators, and staff to understand, prioritize, and enact DEIA work in everything they do.” Given this truth, what follows are some core principles for a shared governance approach to DEIA work.
1. Fix the system, not individual people.
Moonshots require synthesis from many people who have different areas of expertise. NASA astronaut John Glenn knew about piloting aircraft, but he trusted mathematician Katherine Johnson to calculate his orbits. They were part of a vast NASA ecosystem committed to reaching the moon. Success or failure was not framed in terms of individual achievement but, rather, the entire program. Similarly, higher education is rich with individual expertise related to DEIA—professional expertise and lived experience—yet DEIA initiatives frequently focus on individual-level problems or solutions rather than addressing the systems that perpetuate inequality. We must recognize that many existing programs have failed, and the individuals have been failed by those programs, not the other way around.
2. Information is not communication.
Communication from space is a complex process that is more than the flow of information from a transmitter to a receiver. It requires antennae, satellites, plans for delays and interference, and sufficient bandwidth. Campus decision-making needs to be collaborative. If it flows only downward from upper administrators, it will not help produce systemic change.
The pandemic, along with newly proposed or passed state legislation targeting DEIA efforts, created an atmosphere of short-term reactivity that caused many administrators to problem-solve without input from other stakeholders. This resulted in feelings of disenfranchisement and disengagement among faculty and staff. We need to replace urgent, top-down decision-making with genuine dialogue and collaborative problem-solving to address complex challenges as they arise. We must build in adequate time to account for feedback from various constituent groups and learn from on-the-ground experience when new policies are implemented.
3. Hold people accountable.
Just as in a NASA mission, every person involved in campus DEIA efforts has a crucial role to play. This means not only distributing the workload but also sharing authority to ask questions, pause, reassess, and respond when something isn’t working. If one system isn’t functional, the whole mission needs to be scrubbed until that problem is addressed.
We need a coordinated, cooperative approach across the organization that focuses on the big picture. One example comes from the work the BGSU ALLIES program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and aims to make inclusive leadership and allyship a norm and expectation, in part by creating a rubric for assessing equity in policies. The rubric fits within existing review processes, helping institutions evaluate the ways their policies support or disadvantage minoritized faculty, staff, and students, and it holds unit leaders accountable for the results.
4. Redistribute resources.
Moonshots cannot be accomplished with spare parts and pocket change; we need to fund DEIA accordingly. A 2017 Witt/Kieffer study of chief diversity officers found that only 47 percent said they received adequate resources to perform their responsibilities. The COVID-19 pandemic has only increased need while budgets have been slashed. DEIA needs regular budget lines, adequate staffing, and sufficient support at all levels.
One reason DEIA is underfunded is that many institutions don’t account for the costs of not doing this work. Turnover is expensive, not only in terms of financial expenditures for job searches but also lost institutional knowledge, duplicated efforts, missed handoffs, and bumpy transitions. Institutions that retain and support faculty and staff from diverse backgrounds will also retain more students from diverse backgrounds. Campuses that adequately fund DEIA efforts will save the institution time, money, and goodwill. Higher education institutions need to allocate sufficient resources if they want to take a giant leap forward.
Higher education must push the boundaries with new thoughts and ideas, especially regarding DEIA initiatives. NASA learned from its successes and failures, integrating new technologies into subsequent projects. Just as NASA advanced with each new mission, higher education must move forward, take risks, and try new approaches to shared governance in its moonshot to advance DEIA.