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Why college diversity matters

By Elizabeth Exline

If you’ve done nothing more with the news over the past two years than give the headlines a cursory glance, then chances are good you’ve noticed a few trends. One, the pandemic has taken an emotional toll on people. Two, nearly everyone is changing or considering a change in jobs. Three, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is at the heart of a lot of (sometimes uncomfortable) conversations.

More important than any one subject, however, is the way they all intersect. Or, as Kimberly Underwood, PhD, of University of Phoenix (UOPX) puts it, “Everything about the last couple of years has been focused some way, shape or form [on] either diversity or inclusion.”

Dr. Underwood would know. As the University research chair for the Center for Workplace Diversity and Inclusion Research, she has 25 years of experience in the field and co-wrote a white paper on the subject.

“Our society has undergone collective trauma since 2020,” Underwood continues. The pandemic and social unrest created a lot of dialogue and changes that were sometimes productive, sometimes not and oftentimes hard to define. While that might seem like a net negative, the shifting culture actually opens up a door for change.

“As we redefine the nature of work within the ‘new normal,’ we also have the responsibility of reexamining our DEI practices,” Dr. Underwood says.

DEI impacts the community in a multitude of ways, from business to culture to education. And one place where all these outlets intersect is in higher education.

Why is diversity important in college?

For Kelly Hermann, the vice president of accessibility, equity and inclusion at UOPX, going to college represented a lot of firsts: She was a first-generation student who came from a tightknit Irish Catholic community in New York. When she went to college, she found herself decidedly out of her element.

“I’m Catholic, and I went through Catholic school,” Hermann explains. “I didn’t meet someone who wasn’t Catholic until I went to college.”

College, in other words, was a springboard Hermann used to jump into a sea of new people and experiences. It broadened her understanding of the world and enriched it with new awareness. It shaped her career.

Hermann is not alone. Experiencing diversity in college not only draws awareness to the differences. It can also create a pathway to finding commonality.

UOPX alumna Trina Limpert sees the value in this experience. As the CEO of the DEI consulting firm, RizeNext, she routinely works with leadership from companies across the country to effectively implement DEI strategies within their organizations. College diversity can impact that work for the better.

“Lack of diversity in faculty, educational leaders and students further limits our shared experiences and enforces biases that exist in society,” she says.

The takeaway? College diversity can lay the groundwork for better sensitivity, awareness and collaboration down the road. Because, according to Hermann, Dr. Underwood and Limpert, we need it.

DEI, meet B

If the solution to social unrest and workplace inequity can be found in higher education, then getting the terms right is important. To that end, Underwood points out that DEI is more accurately framed as DEIB, with “B” for belonging.

Why? Because diversity is only as valuable as people perceive it to be.

Dr. Underwood explains: “You can diversify your organization and implement inclusive strategies as much as possible … [but] if your efforts do not translate into a sense of belonging for your stakeholders within your organization, what’s the point?”

While we’re at it, we may as well revisit the first letter as well. “Diversity,” Dr. Underwood notes, is not just underrepresented groups. It’s everyone. Yes, DEI efforts focus on filling in the gaps where underrepresented groups might be missing (think leadership and promotions), but the overall word diversity is an inclusive one.

Hermann uses another word to define the essence of diversity: intersectionality. “Folks still kind of narrowly think about [diversity] as race and ethnicity, and it’s not,” she explains. Women, LGBTQ+, people with disabilities and, yes, even people who can be considered mainstream all bring something to the diversity table. The magic, she says, is where all these characteristics, experiences and affinities come together. 

Setting the ground rules for DEI

Because language is powerful, understanding the term DEI/DEIB is important. Language is the first step toward that sense of inclusion or belonging, a fact Hermann learned during her training to become a speech therapist early in her career. For example, calling someone a “person who is blind” as opposed to a “blindperson” carries different connotations, she says. And not everyone will prefer the same term.

But the work of DEI goes beyond language, whether it’s at a university or in a business. As Dr. Underwood notes, “DEI is work. DEI is strategy. DEI is focused on action and action items, and it’s not always food, fun and festivals.”

Limpert agrees. Authenticity trumps “check-the-box exercises” that employees view as compliance measures more than real company values, she explains.

“When launching initiatives, it is important to consider the experience of everyone, not just those who may be a minority in the workplace,” Limpert says. “Executives are assigned as sponsors, and … leadership assists in reaffirming the reasons why the initiatives are critical to success, [they] review data in staff meetings and [they] track progress regularly.

“Getting everyone familiar with terminology and the opportunity to identify and speak up about gaps in equity, promotions and hiring allows for companies to hold themselves accountable.”

Of course, these experiences can be awkward. Finding the middle ground, somewhere between indifference and virtue signaling, means staying focused on the work at hand. “We do have to get out of the habit of blaming,” Dr. Underwood says. “We have to get into the honest elements of this.”

Being honest in this case means taking a hard look at where organizations have faltered when it comes to DEI. Whether you’re considering higher education or one of the Fortune 500 companies Underwood studied a decade ago, the same issues still tend to crop up.

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Why DEI efforts sometimes fail

Just as Limpert noted, Dr. Underwood discovered in her research of new employees in Fortune 500 companies that those who completed DEI training often viewed it as just that: a process to complete.

Dr. Underwood recalls: “Some employees within this study said … ‘For some reason we’re having this diversity training every year, and I know I have to click these boxes in order to be in compliance. … We’re just clicking boxes. They don’t work for us, but they’re policy. I’m just happy I got a job.’”

At the university level, this mindset might present differently but it’s rooted in the same indifference. Hermann cites ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance as an example. An organization can accommodate students or employees with disabilities because it’s legally required, or it can view the situation from a holistic perspective based on a goal of inclusion.

Requiring documentation for the diagnosis of a disability, for example, is within a university’s rights — and sometimes it’s necessary. But if a school can accommodate a student based on what the student describes as his or her needs and limitations, then Hermann thinks the school should do it.

“There are some of us who are trying to lead that charge to say, ‘Let’s make this easy for the students, not because we want to open the floodgates, but because it’s the right thing to do,’” Hermann says. “Ultimately the work is still going to be done by the student. We’re just making it possible [for them to] do it.”

How DEI can succeed

Limpert and Dr. Underwood have found that companies too often rely on learning and development programs for implementing DEI. What they need instead, both women agree, is a strategy akin to any other business initiative, which includes programs and goals that can be benchmarked with evidence.

Aligned objectives

“[The strategy] needs to be aligned to an organization’s mission and vision,” Dr. Underwood adds.

At University of Phoenix, for example, Dr. Underwood has collaborated with the dean of the College of Education to holistically incorporate DEI, ranging from development of their DEI Council to the infusion of DEI within their conceptual framework. The goal is to create a culture of inclusion and self-awareness. We all have biases, she says. It’s the extent to which we let them inform our work, hiring, promotion and learning that matters.

The B-READI approach

Such an approach dovetails with the work Limpert does in RizeNext. When her firm works with an organization, Limpert says, they implement the B-READI model:

  • Belonging: Does the culture encourage people to share their views without having to change to “fit in”?
  • Race/ethnicity: Is representation diverse at all levels and in all programs?
  • Equity: Does everyone get paid equally? Do they get promoted at the same rate? Is the senior leadership diverse in terms of race and gender?
  • Accessibility: What methods are in place to ensure everyone has equal access to the programs and education, regardless of physical disability or financial resources?
  • Diversity: Knowing that diversity drives innovation, the culture should engage and accept everyone.
  • Inclusion: In addition to bringing together a diverse group of students or employees, the culture fosters a sense of belonging, safety and inclusion — which begets innovation.

Leadership support

The other major factor in DEI success? Commitment from the top down.

Some leaders don’t truly see DEI strategies as a priority, Dr. Underwood says. She speculates this is because they don’t recognize a connection between it and revenue, although multiple reports confirm the link between diversity and economic growth.

But when leadership invests both time and resources in fostering diversity and belonging, the effects are profound.

At University of Phoenix, Dr. Underwood sits on the President’s Advisory Council on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging, which was convened in September 2021 and offers a way for the University’s numerous teams to collaborate.

Hermann has also seen ways the leadership’s embrace of DEI has trickled down to staff and students. Employee resource groups, recognized student organizations and the University’s Inclusive Café (a virtual safe space where staff and faculty can regularly discuss issues of diversity and inclusion) have a symbiotic relationship with this commitment. They are both born from it, and they foster its continued growth.

In fact, Dr. Underwood cites “courageous, direct and honest conversation” — coupled with the emotional intelligence to do that productively — as critical to DEI.

How college diversity impacts the community

Another thing UOPX does well, Dr. Underwood notes, is facilitating important research.

“Through our research efforts in this area, we attempt to conduct projects that have meaning and inform various communities of practice.” This underscores one reason why college diversity is so important: It can sire knowledge that directly impacts the real world.

Dr. Underwood’s white paper on DEI is one example, but there’s more. She refers to recent UOPX research on diversifying K-12 education, and other research on the necessary HR support for transgender employees who transition in the workplace.

Another reason why diversity is important in college? “We have to be able to prepare our students not just for a craft or skill but to function within a diverse society and workforce,” Dr. Underwood says.

How to spot a college that embraces diversity

If college diversity is a quality worth seeking out, then it helps to know what to look for. According to Hermann, there are a few hallmarks to keep in mind:

At UOPX, removing barriers is an ongoing process, but creating diversity is not, because the University already enjoys a diverse student body. With that achievement comes yet another goal, says Hermann: “For me, that means we had better be serving them well.”