Various religious traditions assert that true life springs forth from death. Christian tradition records Jesus saying, “Truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
As Luther College and many other small liberal arts colleges experience financial struggles related to declining student enrollments, part of the solution lies with our willingness to “D.I.E.”—our willingness to prioritize “diversity, inclusion, and equity.”
Changing Racial and Ethnic Demographics
The racial and ethnic makeup of the United States of America has changed significantly since the country’s founding, with dramatic changes occurring in just the last 20 years.
Currently, more than 50 percent of students in public K-12 schools are “global majority students”—commonly referred to as “students of color.” I prefer the designation “global majority” for two reasons. The first reason is that I believe all people are “people of color”—we’re simply different colors. The second reason is that the term “global majority” corrects the misconception that “people of color” are a “minority” people. So-called people of color comprise the majority of the planet’s human population.
For the first time in the history of the United States, there are more children who are so-called minorities than those who are white at every age from zero to ten.
This means we are on the cusp of seeing the most diverse generation in U.S. history, as well as the first minority white generation in the United States (this is the generation born in 2007 and later).
As we enter into this racially diverse reality, not only is the institutional relevance and survival of small liberal arts colleges and universities dependent upon us promoting and maintaining diversity, inclusion, and equity on our campuses, the wellbeing of our nation and the world is dependent upon our helping students recognize and acknowledge the importance and necessity of promoting diversity, inclusion, and equity.
Throughout the world, we are witnessing an increase in xenophobia and racial hostilities and a retreat into nationalism, isolationism, and tribalism. In response, we have to prepare students to constructively engage the significant racial and ethnic demographic changes occurring not only in the U.S.A. but across the globe. In addition to preparing students, colleges and universities also have to do a better job of preparing themselves.
Promoting Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity
Diversity, inclusion, and equity have become popular buzzwords. While diversity, inclusion, and equity are often used interchangeably, they are not synonymous.
Being able to distinguish meaning is crucial. If we can’t hold diversity, inclusion, and equity as separate and distinct concepts — and understand how they interact with one another — we can’t set clear goals and strategies around them.
Let’s begin with “Diversity.” Diversity is the presence of differences within a given setting. It includes all the ways in which people differ. While it might seem obvious, it is important to understand that diversity is about a collective and can only exist in relationship to others.
An individual is not diverse. They might be unique. They might bring diversity to your institution, but they, in and of themselves, are not diverse. Equating one person with “diversity” results in “tokenism.” Diversity occurs in a collective that exhibits measurable difference across that collective.
Since diversity refers primarily to “differences” measured across various dimensions (e.g. race, gender, sexual orientation, beliefs, etc.), most institutions can probably in one way or another be considered “diverse.” It’s important, therefore, to determine what exactly we mean when we use the word “diversity.”
Diversity is often used as a euphemism. People will say, “We are working to diversify our campus” instead of, “We are working to ensure we have a more racially diverse population of students, staff, faculty, and administrators.”
Stepping away from euphemisms requires us to be more specific and detailed regarding our goals. For this blog, I want to consider diversity in the context of racial diversity.
Inclusion is about people with different identities feeling and being valued, welcomed, and empowered to participate fully in the life and decision-making processes within an organization.
Inclusion is not an automatic consequence of diversity. Luther College can spend a significant amount of time and money bringing a diverse collection of people to campus without ever changing the environment—without creating an ethos of inclusion.
Campuses that experience negative persistence (or retention) among specific demographics (e.g. racial minorities, or members of the LGBTQIA+ community) are often guilty of improving diversity without improving inclusion. It’s not enough to have explicit strategies for increasing diversity without having specific strategies for increasing inclusion.
Equity is often the most difficult of the three to achieve. Equity represents fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all people while striving to identify and eliminate barriers that prevent the full participation and inclusion of people who are often marginalized.
Equity recognizes that advantages and barriers exist, and that, as a result, everyone does not begin at the same place. Seeking equity involves developing processes that acknowledge unequal starting places and that seek to correct and address such imbalances.
Within higher education, people often tend to be more comfortable with the language of “diversity” than with the language of “equity” because the language of “equity” highlights the role of overt and covert oppression embedded within institutional practices, structures, and policies. Equity emphasizes processes that lead to outcomes of diversity and inclusion.
“Racial Justice” as the Focus of the Equity Process
I believe all conversations about diversity, inclusion, and equity (especially within higher education) need to be explicit in foregrounding racial justice.
By “racial justice,” I’m referring to the definition included in the online Racial Equity Tools Glossary. Racial justice is “the proactive (re)inforcement of policies, practices, attitudes, and actions that produce equitable power, access, opportunities, treatment, impacts, and outcomes for all.”
While I am not suggesting that conversations regarding diversity, inclusion, and equity be limited to issues of racial justice, I do believe such conversations need to be explicit in foregrounding issues of racial justice.
How often do our institutional plans for diversity, inclusion, and equity explicitly mention racial justice? Since we know most of our academic institutions were created primarily to serve white students and white faculty, how can we address diversity, inclusion, and equity without explicitly talking about racial justice?
Reasons for Racial Disparities
Often when addressing racial disparities at our institutions, we tend to focus on racialized minorities rather than on racist practices and policies. We tend to focus on “helping” minority students and faculty, as though they are the reason for racial disparities rather than recognizing and acknowledging that our practices and policies are the primary reason for racial disparities.
The reduction of racial disparities requires adopting what the Center for Urban Education calls “equity-mindedness.” Equity-mindedness refers to “actions that demonstrate individuals’ capacity to recognize and address racialized structures, policies, and practices that produce and sustain racial inequities.”
While Luther College has been wrestling with questions of institutional viability for the past several years, if the college is going to live, it’s going to have to learn to D.I.E. Institutional survival demands that Luther College not treat diversity, inclusion, and equity as buzzwords. While the recent creation of the Vice President for Equity, Inclusion, and Student Success position at Luther is a good start, the college cannot make diversity, inclusion, and equity the responsibility of one person. Diversity, inclusion, and equity has to be an institutional priority embraced by ALL the members of the college and incorporated into ALL of the college’s “strategic plans.”