Diversity and Democracy

Reframing Diversity as an Institutional Capacity

Diversity on college and university campuses is no longer a projection: it is a reality. In the context of compelling issues in the United States and abroad--changing demographics, immigration, health disparities, civil rights, and diversity in the marketplace, to name only a few--diversity provides powerful opportunities and serious challenges. In approaching these challenges and opportunities, institutional stakeholders must ask: How can we build our institutions' capacity to be effective, high-performing places where diversity thrives?

Loyola Marymount University
Loyola Marymount University

As we search for an answer, technology provides a useful parallel. Decades ago, institutions understood that their future viability would rest on their ability to build capacity for technology. They understood technology to be central, not marginal, to teaching and research: to how the institution communicated, built infrastructure, spent money, and hired faculty and staff. Over the past forty years, technology has changed continually, and institutions have adapted with it, developing the human, physical, fiscal, knowledge, and cultural resources to respond effectively to a technologically sophisticated world. As a result, technology is now part of every corner of institutional life.

Diversity, like technology, is a powerful presence, and institutions will not be credible or viable if they do not make diversity fundamental. Corporations, the military, and even political parties seem to understand that diversity must be central to institutional effectiveness, excellence, and viability. It is time for our institutions of higher education to realize this as well.

Institutional Mission

Today's diversity imperative extends far beyond student success (although student success remains critical). Now the fundamental question is, are our institutions building the capacity to support their missions in a diverse society, and how? Building capacity for diversity means setting diversity at the center of the institution's mission. It means broadening the discussion beyond admissions or undergraduates and varying it according to the institution's mission, location, and context.

In a September 2008 article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Sheila O'Rourke described how the University of California at Berkeley's mission has driven diversity efforts. As a land-grant institution and a major research university, the school has identified three high-priority research areas to help it serve the state of California: diversity and democracy, racial inequities in schools, and race-based health disparities. These areas have affected hiring, resources, and community engagement. Their prominence has placed diversity at the center of the school's research mission.

But putting diversity at the center of the mission is not enough. We must also determine how we will define diversity. Access and success for historically underrepresented populations remains diversity work's legacy and soul. Diversity also means addressing the growing and differentiated issues reflected by different groups across the country, whether related to race, class, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration, or religion. And instead of seeing diversity as a laundry list or as dichotomous--where one has either gender identity or racial identity, for example--we must address the intersections and multiplicities of identities and recognize how campuses must now engage the complexity of diversity.

Faculty Diversity

In thinking through our institutional missions, we must also consider the general rationale for diversity, especially faculty diversity. According to conventional wisdom, since student bodies are more diverse, faculty should be more diverse. But this reasoning is not sufficient to move our institutions forward. Instead of justifying diversity through student demographics, institutional stakeholders must ask: What expertise and talent will our institutions need to be credible, effective, and viable in a pluralistic society? This was the question when technology emerged as central. Today, it is the context for the diversity rationale and must be communicated clearly to scientists, senior administrators, board members, and academic departments. The arguments for faculty diversity are numerous and include:

  1. Faculty diversity--in both hiring and retention--represents the institution's values concerning equity. Any institution that describes itself as committed to diversity while having a faculty demographic that suggests otherwise should be seen as disingenuous and hypocritical.
  2. Faculty diversity is central to the academy's ability to develop diverse forms of knowledge. A diverse faculty brings diversity themes to scholarship, increases diversity in the curriculum, and introduces different forms of pedagogy, including those that better engage students.
  3. Faculty diversity helps the institution develop vital relationships with diverse communities outside and across campuses.
  4. Faculty diversity is essential to the institution's capacity to make fully informed decisions at all levels. When faculty members from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds participate in decision making, their decisions are not only more informed and credible, they are also more likely to address power inequities.
  5. Faculty diversity is essential for creating an environment that will attract persons from diverse backgrounds. Until sufficient diversity exists in campus departments and divisions, members of underrepresented groups will struggle to be seen as individuals and not as tokens.
  6. Faculty diversity supports future leadership diversity. Since most academic administrators come from faculty ranks, a relatively homogenized faculty limits the future development of diverse leadership.
  7. Faculty diversity provides role models for all. Undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, and faculty members must be able to envision themselves in the roles to which they aspire. The absence of diversity in so many departments and fields sends strong signals about the degree to which those fields value diverse talents.

These arguments have both broad and deep implications. They apply to any higher education campus, but they are best engaged in each institution's specific context, with a focus on its mission, purpose, and culture.

Engaging Dialogue and Monitoring Progress

If higher education is to build its potential to identify talent and excellence, it will have to interrupt its usual processes and engage in difficult dialogues about challenging issues. Higher education literature has explored the optimal conditions for bringing students together to realize the benefits of diversity. Now we must apply the lessons about students' difficult dialogues to creating the conditions necessary for dialogue at the institutional level. We must bring people from diverse backgrounds together at every level on campus, from the president's cabinet to administrative units, to student affairs, to ethnic studies, to women's studies and beyond.

As we pursue this vision, we must also monitor progress and engage change in strategic ways. The question guiding our institutions should be, "How can we know if we are making progress, and in what areas, so we can focus our resources and our attention?" We will need to monitor data related to conventional measures of student success, including disaggregated graduation rates, to identify and aggressively address achievement disparities. We will need to monitor faculty hiring for diversity, compared with faculty turnover, to avoid losing a significant opportunity to diversify the next generation of faculty. And we will need to monitor the diversity of the graduate student population, which will become our labor market. Monitoring these and other indicators will help ensure that diversity, like technology, is an imperative that can both transform and facilitate our campuses' core missions.

Higher education has a role in building a pluralistic and equitable society--a society that thrives because of diversity. But too many campuses and too many diversity task forces are paralyzed when it comes to engaging these difficult topics and politically charged data. Nevertheless, we are at a critical juncture for diversity efforts, a juncture that will require us to elevate our work to an institutional level. We must help higher education play a role in achieving democracy's promise: a pluralistic society that works. Few of us have lived or worked in that kind of setting. But achieving it is one of the challenges of our day--and one to which we must individually and collectively respond.

Editor's Note: This article originated in a presentation at AAC&U's Diversity, Learning, and Inclusive Excellence meeting on October 17, 2008. 


O'Rourke, S. 2008. Diversity and merit: How one university rewards faculty work that promotes equity. Chronicle of Higher Education, September 26, 55 (5): B41.

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