As someone who served as one of the first vice presidents for diversity at a multi-campus institution of higher education, I am not surprised by the recent wave of student protests on campuses across the country and student leadership in the Black Lives Matter movement. In fact, I am pleased by the high level of engagement by today’s college students. Some people have viewed millennials as “the selfie generation.” It’s refreshing to see that this is not so!
Yet despite the pursuit of diversity in all sectors of the academy, there remains much work to be done. We should not be satisfied with measuring progress merely in numbers. Student protesters are seeking more than that, although increasing the number of the historically underrepresented on campus is of vital importance. However, students are also seeking respect and recognition of the legitimacy of their concerns. Dismissive attitudes will no longer be accepted, nor will the predictable sound bites of classic crisis management. Fortunately, some universities have had the courage to confront student concerns head-on, and they are willing to face the broader issues that lie at the heart of the matter.
One of the most important lessons learned in my four decades of higher education leadership is this: diversity is NOT a substitute for equity. My definition of equity is recognition, acceptance, and pursuit of initiatives designed to remedy the historic and systematic disenfranchisement of African Americans and other historically disenfranchised groups. Many colleges are diverse, but they are not equitable.
While numerous campus protestors are seeking greater representation and inclusion, equity should actually trump diversity.
This isn’t to suggest that diversity isn’t important. PWIs and HBCUs should of course examine ethnic and racial diversity at their institutions and see where they stand.
Equity, on the other hand, comes from an alignment between values, vision, focus, and investments.
How can we take the steps to improve equity in our institutions of higher education?
1. Talk the talk. We must engage in authentic, continuous dialogue, and not relegate this to blue ribbon commissions or reaction to crises and protests. Today’s students are sophisticated consumers of media and want to speak truth to power: they realize the difference between “truthiness” and the semblance of change–and genuine dialogue that engenders genuine change.
2. Equity matters. Creating change should not be left to student activists, who will graduate and move on, but should instead be embedded in the culture of the institution. I experienced this first-hand while employed at Earlham College, founded by the Society of Friends, where the concern for social justice and equity was rooted at a systematic level. Equity should be the norm, not the exception, for all institutions of higher education in our nation.
3. Accountability is key. We must hold our institutions accountable, both at the individual and collective level. This means moving away from simply forcing the resignation of presidents and chancellors, to ensuring that issues of concern are addressed throughout the institution. We must create a culture where we are respectful and responsive to our community of learners.
4. Walk the Walk. We must be willing to make investments in equity. The leadership team of an institution should reflect its values. Those institutions fortunate enough to have large endowments must make new investments in people, programs, and services. Those who do not must be resourceful. A good example of how effective investments are made is the intercollegiate athletic model, where talent is identified early and nurtured continuously. Why don’t we use the same to identify young academic talent, to offer mentoring and support? The model is there if we are willing to embrace it. With every incident and protest, there is no need to reinvent the wheel.
The issues of diversity and equity cannot be solved overnight, but they both require systematic pursuit of all members of the academy, not only the presidents and chancellors. Change comes from both the grassroots and the leadership, from protest and dialogue. All institutions of higher education should celebrate their successes when they are responsive, but they should also acknowledge the need to make continuous progress. Without this, we will never move toward authentic equity, a goal worth striving for, now more than ever.