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Universities Need to Wage a DEI Counter-Offensive
Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs are crucial in providing equal opportunities for college students from all walks of life. Academic institutions need to act like they know.
Jordan Nellums | a Century Foundation feature
Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs are crucial in providing equal opportunities for college students from all walks of life. DEI programs are vital for historically underrepresented students in higher education — such as first-generation college students, students from marginalized communities, and veteran students—to access higher education and thrive on college campuses.
Unfortunately, a growing number of states have proposed or passed legislation that prohibits colleges from pursuing DEI initiatives. Not only does this legislation shut down pathways for historically underrepresented students, but also, these anti-DEI bills are often based on false claims and unfounded stories, further marginalizing these vulnerable groups.
As universities have succeeded in making their campuses more diverse, it is more important than ever for university administrators to stand up for the values and ideals of their DEI initiatives. Administrators must work closely with students, faculty, and staff to develop solutions that circumvent these bans and keep DEI values alive. By doing so, universities can ensure that all students have access to the education and the opportunities they deserve, regardless of their background or circumstances.
What is DEI?
In order to truly grasp the impact of the proposed bans on DEI programs, it is important to understand the history and purpose behind such initiatives. The values of DEI —diversity, equity, and inclusion — have become increasingly important for institutions and businesses as the nation’s workforce and population have become more diverse. Organizations that seek to educate, employ, or otherwise engage Americans must create programming that fosters a sense of inclusivity and belonging for everyone. Each value of DEI plays a vital role in this effort, and together they offer a powerful way to celebrate and embrace the unique diversity within organizations.
Diversity refers to the range of different identities within a particular space, whether it is based on race, gender identification, sexual orientation, or other factors; organizations seeking diversity value having a community that represents humanity across the full range of identities. Equity refers to the allocation of an adequate amount of attention and/or resources toward each identity to ensure that all groups can reach a similar outcome; an organization seeking equity would counter a community member’s disadvantage by allocating more resources and support toward that person. Finally, inclusion refers to an organization’s policies that ensure its overall culture is welcoming to all identities; an organization seeking inclusion could create rules for conducting meetings or guidelines for what would be considered inappropriate conversations.
It is important to note that the individual values of DEI, each on its own, are not enough to shift an organization’s culture. For instance, an organization with diversity but lacking equity and inclusion could be in danger of not making all members feel included or welcomed. And in fact, DEI programs first gained traction as an outgrowth of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, with people advocating for diversity, tolerance, and awareness of others’ cultures and life stories so that workers could adjust to newly integrated workplaces. The argument was that incorporating these values would be especially beneficial for employers, given the great diversity within the United States, as it would help them hire from a larger workforce and increase overall productivity. Many also link the rise of DEI initiatives to the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which addressed workplace discrimination.
DEI programs in colleges and universities aim to create a campus culture that values and celebrates all students’ diverse life experiences and cultural backgrounds. The central values of DEI are to ensure equal access to success in higher education and provide extra resources to specific populations to achieve success standards similar to their peers. Universities must provide adequate resources and tools for students from different backgrounds to excel, considering historical circumstances that often hindered their access to higher education. In short, DEI programs strive to foster an inclusive and equitable educational environment for all students.
What is in the Anti-DEI Legislation?
It’s concerning to see many state legislatures passing bills banning DEI programs at universities. Florida Senate Bill 266 intends to end the use of state funding to support programs or activities promoting specific aspects of DEI. Additionally, the bill proposes a comprehensive review of any curriculum related to systematic racism, sexism, and other controversial social discussions in the state. On a related note, Texas Governor Greg Abbot has recently signed Senate Bill 17, which prohibits state funding from supporting DEI programs at Texas universities but does not go as far as reviewing classroom curriculum. Some of these bills even go so far as to ban DEI from being used in faculty hiring.
Supporters of the anti-DEI legislation argue that DEI has led to the racial profiling of potential faculty candidates, requiring political oath tests, and disregarding a candidate’s merit. Many of the proposed bills ban DEI programs from campuses and eliminate DEI commitments that potential faculty hires had to make before being considered for a position. These commitments required candidates to inform the hiring committee of how they planned to ensure the learning environment for all students would align with the values of DEI.
It’s disturbing to think about the possible outcomes of banning DEI. If colleges and universities can’t provide students with the skills and knowledge needed to co-exist with their peers on campus, how can they claim to be preparing them for the global workforce? Unfortunately, students in states that have implemented such bans may be at a disadvantage when they enter the job market.
The effects of eliminating DEI could also have financial consequences. Universities and faculty members themselves could lose access to federal grant funding from grantors that value DEI. Grantors may argue that DEI is essential for carrying out the programming the grant is supposed to support. The loss of grant funding, combined with students potentially not feeling welcomed on their campus, could also result in students and faculty choosing not to attend or work at a university in a state that has banned DEI. Consequently, DEI bans may decrease the number of people in a state’s future workforce, which could decrease overall economic activity.
What Could the Game Plan for an Offensive Look Like?
Students are looking for the next steps to ensure that their campus keeps the values of DEI. Although it will be difficult for advocates to fully synthesize what universities can do to respond to the ban on a broad scale, due to the differences in state laws, there is a general consensus forming on the limitations of such bills. For example, the Texas DEI ban does not affect the type of curriculum that schools or teachers can teach in the classroom, unlike the Florida DEI ban, which limits how historical events can be taught. Although there were attempts to ban tenure so that legislators could gain more control over the classroom, many of those efforts have failed. Therefore, universities have a possible avenue to uphold the values of DEI in several ways, such as first-year experience programs, university partnerships, and using geographic and socioeconomic data in enrollment.
First-Year Experience Programs
First-year experience (FYE) programs are classes/seminars that first-year students take to get accustomed to university life. Within the classes, professors have the opportunity to create class programming that is not only designed to inform students of what to expect as they begin their time in college but could also be an opportunity to reach students from marginalized communities. Universities could offer first-generation students a seminar class dedicated to acclimating them to collegiate life. Research points to the fact that first-generation students often come from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, allowing universities to reach a specific subset of students not based on their race or ethnicity alone.
University Partnerships with Student Organizations
In the aftermath of DEI bans, universities should center students’ voices in any discussion of how to ensure the campus culture reflects the values of DEI. Universities can center student voices by utilizing student surveys, gaining student perspectives on governing bodies, and partnering with student-led organizations and conferences. While helping students develop essential skills, universities could provide administrative and monetary support to ensure student-led programming can significantly impact campus culture. It is also important to note that the Texas DEI ban prohibits using state funds to support a DEI program. However, if programs are supported with donor/alumni support, those programs could survive the ban.
Ensuring a Diverse Student Population
Unfortunately, it does not matter how far universities go to ensure the values of DEI are reflected in their student’s culture if they do not do their best to recruit a diverse student body. In the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling banning use of race in admission, universities and colleges still need to ensure that they are doing all they can to make sure the student population is diverse. Two of the primary values expressed in DEI are diversity and inclusion. But if students do not see other students like themselves on campus, they may not feel included regardless of the university’s efforts on the other values of DEI. Fortunately, universities have other tools to recruit students from diverse backgrounds, such as analyzing potential applicants’ socioeconomic and geographic data. Admission offices should also prioritize an applicant’s essay, to account for the prospective student’s lived experiences.
The current battle against DEI and affirmative action puts higher education in a pivotal moment that could determine the future of education in America. We cannot deny that the elimination of DEI or affirmative action by itself is devastating, but the elimination of both simultaneously in some states has the potential to be catastrophic.
For years, there was a common understanding that diversity was a strength, not a weakness, particularly on college campuses. Interacting with students from different backgrounds would fully prepare students to compete in a global workforce. That view is now under attack.
But no matter how much some may deny the values of DEI and try to remove them from our lives, they will never disappear. Thanks to Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers can still use DEI initiatives to ensure equal opportunities for all employees. These values are deeply rooted in historical, social movements that called for America to honor its creed that all people are created equal, and a diverse coalition of people remains dedicated to fighting for these ideals. Though some may try to ban DEI in universities, this will not prevent diversity from happening and stands only to make students feel isolated. Despite setbacks, we can still draw hope from the wise words of Congressman John Lewis, who believed that progress is always possible …
Ours is not the struggle of one day, one week, or one year. Ours is not the struggle of one judicial appointment or presidential term. Ours is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe even many lifetimes, and each one of us in every generation must do our part.