I recently asked a colleague of color in higher education whether she has ever been encouraged to join committees that focus on drafting policies surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practices or whether she has any interest in supporting such initiatives during her tenure as a student affairs professional. “I don’t get paid enough to teach White people how to behave,” she responded.
Not all people of color want to become involved in these efforts, yet even in the higher education sector, they are often pressured to do so by their employers. My colleague’s response resonated with many of my own observations on this topic and led me to reflect on the purpose of DEI in higher education, how it should be expressed, and by whom.
I was born in Nepal, raised in Northern Virginia by White foster parents, and lived and worked in Japan. I completed my graduate degree in Australia, and after returning to the United States, I held roles in study abroad and academic advising. As a study abroad advisor, I created a comprehensive online diversity and inclusion resource that encouraged people of color to view international education as an attainable experience. I now work as a career services professional specializing in internships.
The combination of my upbringing in the United States and abroad, as well as my experience as a higher education administrator from a historically underrepresented group, affords me an organic appreciation for DEI efforts. DEI stands for diversity (the presence of differences); equity (the promotion of justice, impartiality, and fairness); and inclusion (an outcome to ensure that all are welcome). Taken together, these elements of DEI can provide a useful framework for colleges and universities to assess how well they are recruiting and meeting the needs of their students, faculty, and staff of color. This framework can also serve institutions as they craft or evaluate their DEI statements, which lay out a commitment to DEI efforts. In creating or strengthening their own DEI statements, though, colleges and universities must ensure the statements are intentional, comprehensive, and appropriate for this era of increased awareness of and activism against visible and invisible forms of institutionalized inequity and discrimination.
“Code of Conduct,” “Ethical Standards and Code of Conduct,” “University Code of Conduct,” “Employee Code of Conduct,” or “Student Code of Conduct and Procedures” are some of the titles that may appear on an institution’s website—usually reviewed by a legal team prior to publication—outlining the kind of behavior that should ensure a safe campus community for students, staff, and faculty. These codes are often centered on the ethical, professional, and legal standards that govern the appropriate use of university funds, technology, and physical and intellectual property. They tend to indicate zero tolerance for discrimination against any protected group of people (based on categories such as sex, religion, race, color, national origin, age, disability, or veteran status).
DEI statements, on the other hand, are less about avoiding discrimination and more about the institution’s plan and commitment to actively seek out, welcome, value, and equitably treat all individuals in its organization. A powerful and clear DEI statement can be the first indication to prospective students, staff members, professors, or donors that your institution respects their identities and wants them to feel at home. The following framework can guide institutions as they begin drafting or enhancing their DEI statements.
Rationale: Why does your institution need a DEI statement?
Prior to drafting a DEI statement or reevaluating a current version, an institution must establish its rationale for publishing a statement in the first place. Being honest, realistic, and vulnerable is an integral part of the process and requires owning both ignorance and privilege. There is also no standard template for crafting a DEI statement—a two-year community college’s statement will look completely different from one at a private research university, as each individual institution’s mission, history, and demographics must be considered. Some private liberal arts institutions in the South, for example, did not admit female students until the late 1970s, and the Virginia Military Institute, a public institution, only went coeducational in 1997. At institutions with a legacy of excluding women (regardless of color), a statement about being inclusive must acknowledge the historical and present culture, practices, and attitudes toward women on campus. In another example, many colleges and universities in the Northeast accepted students from mostly wealthy families for centuries; as such, an acknowledgment of past classism and a commitment to socioeconomic diversity would significantly strengthen these institutions’ DEI statements.
A discussion of the rationale behind an institution’s DEI statement should attempt to answer the following questions:
• Why are we drafting a DEI statement?
• What are the specific issues or gaps that make such a statement necessary for our institution
• Who is responsible for writing and approving the statement?
• Who are we doing this for—prospective students and their families, current students, faculty, staff, alumni, board members, current or potential donors, all of the above, or some other group?
Messengers: Who should contribute to your DEI statement?
When drafting a DEI statement, institutions must include representation from every level of the college or university, from the custodial staff to students to faculty to the president. One way to do this is to recruit volunteers from the various parts of your college or university and gather them for a workshop. During my tenure in higher education, I’ve attended many such DEI workshops hosted through various higher education institutions, associations, and state higher education boards at the local, regional, and national levels. Some have gone more smoothly than others, but one common thread runs through the most successful DEI workshops: participants who are forthcoming about where they’re coming from, why they’re there, and what they hope to achieve as they help put together the DEI statement. Understanding the backgrounds and motivations of individual contributors—not just the overarching motivation of the institution—will lead to more honest and productive discussions. When a new DEI committee meets for the first time, having each participant answer the following questions in an open discussion can propel the workshop in a positive direction:
• What inspired you to get involved with this workshop?
• What do you hope to achieve by contributing to a DEI statement?
• How do you educate yourself about these subjects?
Content: Who is your audience, and what should your statement say to them?
Each DEI statement must reflect its own college’s or university’s unique history, mission, and goals. The potential audience for a particular statement must also be considered—and this audience might be very broad. It could include, for example, local students already familiar with your institution’s traditions; prospective international students with limited understanding of the United States’ historical struggles with racism, sexism, or classism; visiting professors who know nothing about your school but want to be sensitive to the needs and challenges within your student body; donors who have become frustrated with entrenched policies and are anxious to see positive change—the list goes on. While it’s clearly impossible to distill the entire future readership of your DEI statement, a brainstorming session on the topic should play a major role in your drafting process.
There are, of course, concerns about possibly omitting any group(s) in a DEI statement. A good rule of thumb is to identify any specific group(s) that might have been especially disadvantaged or excluded by your institution in the past (women at previously all-male colleges or racial minorities at previously all-White colleges, for example) and then make it crystal clear that your statement intends to reach all those who have any interest in your institution. In essence, the intent is to convey that your institution values all forms of diversity, that everyone in the campus community is expected to act with respect, and that your leadership is committed to continuously fostering inclusivity—in spirit and through policies and practices. Incorporating a temporal trajectory to your DEI statement can further add value and clarification. Answering questions like “Where are we coming from?”; “Where are we now?”; and “How can we collectively move forward?” can provide a useful timeline to your DEI statement.
Each DEI statement must reflect its own college's or university's unique history, mission, and goals.
So, what does an effective DEI statement actually look like? As a particularly good example, I would point to the DEI statement by the Office of the Vice Chancellor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). This statement does several things especially well:
1. States the mission of the office in question.
2. Identifies its audience.
3. Distinguishes itself from an
antidiscrimination policy—rather, its intent is to actively “create a genuinely inclusive environment.”
4. Perhaps most important: Acknowledges that the institution is not “immune to biases or power imbalances” and that an important step toward inclusion is “understanding and overcoming the many dimensions of exclusion” that may already exist.
As mentioned before, every DEI statement is, by necessity, unique to its organization, but presenting the statement by MIT’s Office of the Vice Chancellor, along with other successful statements you may come across, could help get the gears turning in your DEI workshop. Innovation in higher education has never been more important than it is now, and colleges and universities can’t afford to ride on their institutional inertia, nor can they afford to sweep their past mistakes under the rug. A genuine, intentional push for diversity, equity, and inclusion, codified into DEI statements that shape behavior, policy, and practice, can’t be expected to solve every problem at every school—but it will make higher education more accessible, more equitable, and ultimately better at extending that equity outside of our college and university campuses.
Illustration by Tatsuro Kiuchi