Diversity and Democracy

Rethinking Educational Practices to Make Excellence Inclusive

November 4, 2008, was a defining moment in United States history. U.S. citizens elected a president who identifies as an African American Christian with a Muslim name, signaling great progress in race relations. Yet during his candidacy, Barack Obama could not highlight the unique strengths that his binational, biracial background would bring to the presidential role--nor underscore the broad worldview he has gained from contact with people of different backgrounds--without fear of alienating some constituencies. These realities suggest a nation divided between embracing its unique democratic ideals and succumbing to deep stratifications that are, in large part, reinforced by systemic educational inequities. Seeing this disjunction, those of us in higher education must continue to ask: What is the academy's role in preparing every college student to join in creating "a more perfect union"?

Now more than ever, the academy must recognize diversity and inclusion as essential to educational excellence. All that students are--their gender, racial and ethnic background, socioeconomic and class status, sexual orientation, religion, physical and mental abilities--influences teachers' expectations of their students' capabilities and students' beliefs about their own potential. At the same time, these differences are assets that can contribute to all students' learning. The better we understand how the various dimensions of diversity affect learning and teaching, the better we can help students draw on these assets. It is imperative that we, as a nation, work toward making excellence inclusive in all spheres of American life--and most fundamentally in education.

Framing Diversity to Reframe Action

As AAC&U observed in The Drama of Diversity and Democracy, democratic principles provide an aspirational compass for diverse communities. These principles--human dignity, opportunity, justice, equality, fairness, and freedom--include a set of obligations we owe to one another as citizens, neighbors, and fellow human beings (1995). Democratic values, in brief, set standards to live by, and diversity is the great moral test of democratic values. By raising questions about inclusion, exclusion, and systemic inequalities, the increasing diversity of our institutions and country tests whether our nation's quest toward an egalitarian democracy has been successful. Our national diversity challenges us to look carefully at our successes and failures in providing equal opportunity and equal justice to members of groups that have been denied these rights.

Over time, campus leaders have come to understand that increased diversity in the classroom and in the curriculum raises profound questions about higher education's mission and purpose and necessitates a new approach. Although many leaders agree on the need for systemic change, campuses have yet to meet the Supreme Court's 2003 challenge to address diversity as a core dimension of educational excellence. Now, it is time to reenvision both quality and diversity. Diversity and inclusion efforts must move beyond counting the numbers of students or programs. Our efforts must become multilayered processes to achieve excellence in learning, research, teaching, student development, local and global community engagement, workforce development, and more.

Yet campus dialogue is often stymied by attempts to define who "diversity" includes. Recognizing the importance of multiple differences, AAC&U defines diversity to include the range of dimensions that individuals and groups bring to the educational experience. Thusdiversity includes individual differences (personality, learning styles, and life experiences)andgroup/social differences (race/ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, country of origin, and ability, as well as cultural, political, religious, or other affiliations)that can be engaged in the service of learning. At the same time, we stress the importance of inclusion as a campus strives to engage its diversity. To this end, we define inclusion as the active, intentional, and ongoing engagement with diversity--in people, in the curriculum, in the cocurriculum, and in communities (intellectual, social, cultural, geographical) with which individuals might connect--in ways that increase one's awareness, content knowledge, cognitive sophistication, and empathic understanding of the complex ways individuals interact within systems and institutions (Clayton-Pedersen, O'Neill, and Musil 2007).

Using these definitions as a point of departure, campus constituents can address many dilemmas confronting higher education today. To name only two:

Diversity and educational excellence are disconnectedWe know that meaningful engagement with diversity has educational benefits. But little has been done to create a comprehensive framework for excellence that incorporates diversity at its core. Education leaders routinely work on diversity initiatives within one committee and work on strengthening the quality of the educational experience within another. This disconnect serves students--and all of education--poorly.

Disparities in academic success persist across groupsSignificant progress in expanding access to college for underserved students has occurred. Yet differential retention rates and inequities in academic achievement remain. This troubling achievement gap, especially across racial and ethnic groups and different income levels, signals failure--not only for individual students, but also for the colleges and universities they attend and for the educational system as a whole.

Educational Excellence for a Diverse Democracy

By addressing these dilemmas, higher education can nurture Americans' commitment and capacity to create a society in which democratic aspirations become democratic justice and diversity becomes a means of forging deeper civic unity. Our campuses can then become places where excellence is achieved by drawing on the current and developing knowledge, skills, and abilities--the assets--our broadly defined diverse faculty, staff, and student body contribute to the learning environment over time. But in order to reach these goals, all students must leave college as informed, empowered, and engaged citizens and innovative workers in a twenty-first-century global society.

Toward this end, the National Panel for AAC&U's Greater Expectationsproject (2000-06) identified a set of "essential learning outcomes" for college-level learning. They includeknowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world (gained through study in the various disciplines and focused by engagement with significant contemporary and enduring questions), intellectual and practical skills (such as inquiry and analysis, critical and creative thinking, and teamwork and problem solving), personal and social responsibility (including civic knowledge and engagement, intercultural knowledge and competence, and ethical reasoning and action), and integrative learning (such as synthesis and advanced accomplishment demonstrated through the application of knowledge, skills, and responsibilities to new settings and complex problems) (Association of American Colleges and Universities 2007). AAC&U is committed to a ten-year initiative--Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP 2005-15)--to ensure that all students develop these capacities. LEAP champions the value of a liberal education--for individual students and for a nation dependent on economic creativity and democratic vitality--and focuses campus practice on fostering these outcomes for all students, wherever they begin college and whatever their chosen field of study.

Through a new Carnegie Foundation-funded project, AAC&U is working in three states to redesign general education programs and teaching and learning practices within those programs to help students achieve the essential learning outcomes. The project--Give Students a Compass: A Tri-State LEAP Partnership for College Learning, General Education, and Underserved Student Success (or Compass)--includes a strong and sustained focus on the educational success of students who have been underserved by higher education. This focused component of Compass (which is additionally funded by the Lumina Foundation for Education) is part of AAC&U's Making Excellence Inclusive initiative. Each system in Compass--the California State University System, the Oregon University System, and the University of Wisconsin System--is working to redesign general education and to support educational success for underserved students.

The project leverages state systems' existing general education redesign efforts to place underserved students' success at the center of its policies and campus-level work. This part of the initiative focuses on students' access to and participation in a set of high-impact practices (or HIPs) shown to have a demonstrable impact on all students' success--but particularly on the success of underserved students (Kuh 2008). By assisting participating institutions in analyzing and interpreting their data on five of these HIPs--first-year experiences, learning communities, service learning, undergraduate research, and capstone courses/activities--the project creates capacity to expand their use in the general education curricula. By increasing campus capacity to analyze data in a local context, and by showing HIPs' effectiveness for underserved students, Making Excellence Inclusive is making it more likely that these practices will be broadly adopted, adapted, and applied.

This issue of Diversity & Democracy explores the potential of selected high-impact practices in strengthening student success and moving campuses toward becoming places where excellence is truly inclusive. Adopting a mindset of inclusive excellence will not only help our nation move toward the democratic ideals demonstrated by the election of President Obama. It will also ensure that all students have access to high-quality learning environments where they can build their capacities to apply their educations to complex global challenges--much as our new president is applying his.

To learn more about Making Excellence Inclusive, LEAP, Compass, or Greater Expectations, visit www.aacu.org.


Association of American Colleges and Universities. 1995. The drama of diversity and democracy: Higher education and American commitments. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

---. 2007. College learning for the new global century: A report from the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP). Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Clayton-Pedersen, A. R., N. O'Neill, and C. M. Musil. 2007. Making excellence inclusive: A framework for embedding diversity and inclusion into colleges and universities' academic excellence mission, rev. ed. 

Kuh, G. D. 2008. High-impact educational practices: Who they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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