Improving Diversity in Education: The Impacts of a Diversity Plan on a University Campus

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Reviewed by Brian Xu

Introduction

The benefits of diversity in educational environments are well documented – diversity in the classroom helps to prepare students to live in a global world, enhance civic engagement, and reduce racism. On the other hand, there has been little research conducted on how educational institutions can achieve such diversity. Specifically, the impact of diversity plans in higher education institutions is not yet sufficiently understood. Moreover, diversity plans are often implemented without a thorough inspection of the institution’s culture.

An increasing number of colleges and universities have hired Chief Diversity Officers (CDOs) and attempt to integrate diversity-related goals into formal plans, but literature in this field has not meaningfully analyzed the efficacy of these diversity plans. To address these gaps in the scholarship, the authors in this study examine the effects of a diversity plan launched in 2010 by a public research institution. They review both the successes and challenges of this diversity plan and discuss implications for efforts to enhance diversity in other educational settings.

Dr. Christine Stanley is a Regents Professor in the College of Education and Human Development at Texas A&M University, where she is a leader in diversity and justice in higher education. Dr. Karan Watson is a Regents Professor in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at Texas A&M University, where she has also previously served as the associate provost for diversity. Dr. Jennifer Reyes is the Assistant Vice President for Diversity at Texas A&M University, where she works with campus leaders to develop, implement, and assess diversity and inclusion strategies on campus. Dr. Kay Valera is a Presidential Postdoctoral Scholar in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University, where she studies how race, class, and gender impact perceptions of and experiences with public and personal safety.

Methods and Findings

The authors employed a mixed method approach for their case study. Quantitatively, they utilized institutional and descriptive statistical surveys. Qualitatively, they relied on interviews with student leaders, faculty, staff, and administrators; documented analyses of diversity and accountability reports; and observations of student, faculty, and administrative group diversity committees and councils meetings. To evaluate whether the diversity plan did indeed produce change, the authors studied the data over a 6-year period from 2010 to 2016. There were three overarching questions that helped to guide the researchers’ mixed method approach:

  • How do we know that changes are occurring with the diversity plan to make the campus environment inclusive to all?
  • How do we know that the diversity plan is having an organizational impact on the campus diversity culture?
  • What is the diversity plan not sufficiently addressing?

Overall, the case study found that the diversity plan was effective in a variety of ways. Because the diversity plan embedded its three goals of improving accountability, campus climate, and equity within the organization’s existing goals of academic success and institutional excellence, the CDO was able to work with multiple stakeholders to effect change. The results of the diversity plan include:

  • An increase in enrollment of Hispanic undergraduate students
  • An increase in overall job satisfaction for staff
  • More focused dialogues around diversity and inclusion within the campus climate
  • Compared to previous years, surveys showed there was a higher rate of ethnic minority students reporting that they strongly agreed with the survey item that the college “values diversity” 
  • 13 of 16 academic colleges have appointed diversity deans, compared to no individuals holding titled diversity leadership positions prior to the diversity plan
  • 17 of 23 academic and administrative units have included diversity statements and other relevant materials on their websites
  • Multiple “firsts” in institution leadership positions (e.g. the university appointed the first African American dean of the business school in 2015, and all of the deans of the science, technology, engineering, and math colleges were women in 2016)

Still, there are a few areas that the diversity plan did not sufficiently address.

  • For instance, students expressed concern that, despite the diversity on campus, people tended to stay within their own identity groups. 
  • Another challenge for the university is changing courses and curricula to reflect greater social and cultural discourse. 
  • Finally, the authors note a need for constant monitoring of the university climate for minority populations to address perceptions of inequity within people, practices, and policies.

Conclusions

While the diversity plan has not fully rectified the inequities within the higher education institution, it has been successfully ingrained into the campus culture. A significant learning from this case study is the importance of grounding strategic plans (including diversity plans) within broader institutional goals, which will enable these plans to be more effective.

To ensure long-term progress and sustainability, diversity plans must be continuously refreshed to be relevant and forward-looking. Institutions as large as colleges and universities are often slow-moving, so it is necessary to avoid inertia by building a culture of inclusiveness and accountability. Doing so requires culturally relevant leadership, race-conscious student engagement practices, and deeper dialogues around power. Ultimately, Chief Diversity Officers cannot tackle these structural problems individually as such a challenge demands committed leadership and shared responsibility from all aspects of an organization.

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