Higher Education

OPINION: 3 ways that colleges can support underrepresented students after the Harvard case

A chief diversity officer explains why YouTube counts as an idea

With a major court case on campus diversity heading toward a conclusion, higher-ed officials have already begun planning their next steps on this issue.

As director of student diversity and multicultural affairs at Rush University in Chicago, I’ve been looking at inclusion in, among others, these three areas: student body, faculty and ideas.

Trial arguments closed last month in the Harvard University discrimination case brought in 2014 by Students for Fair Admissions claiming that Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans in the admissions process. The ruling in the case in federal district court is likely to favor Harvard. Although the case is widely expected to go to the Supreme Court next, it will still undoubtedly challenge all efforts in higher education for diversity across the country.

This is critical, as educators and administrators in higher education look to foster academic excellence and ensure equal access by building strong institutional commitments to diversity.

According to the Association of American Colleges & Universities, a consistent demand from students to promote an inclusive environment is “an increase in the racial and ethnic diversity of the faculty.”

Related: Despite decades of pledging to hire more black faculty, most universities didn’t

A diverse faculty supports student inclusion. But according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 87 percent of faculty in the U.S. in 2015 were white. Only 12 percent of higher-education faculty members were Asian or Pacific Islander, African American, Hispanic or Native American.

In response to this imbalance, universities have recognized that it is imperative to develop processes and procedures to recruit and retain diverse faculty of color. Chief diversity officers have been appointed to support the needs of students from underrepresented backgrounds, primarily by increasing the diversity of faculty hires.

Some institutions are working toward that goal, including the University of California-Merced, Cornell University’s $60 million five-year plan for diverse faculty and Yale University’s $50 million push to diversify faculty. Many other universities have instituted their own faculty pipeline programs to identify and nurture the development of diverse scholars.

This is necessary, but it is not enough.

New research shows that even with a chief diversity officer in place, significant gains in faculty hires that are multicultural and diverse are lacking. At schools such as Yale, Harvard and Stanford, faculty from underrepresented backgrounds account for 7 percent or less of the total. A lack of influence over diverse faculty hires can be troubling.

Another way to frame the conversation is away from diversity and toward that of inclusion, and to work to make inclusion a reality for all faculty, students and ideas.

During my 12 years of teaching sociology, social justice and critical race theory at the university level and in my role as a director of student diversity and inclusion, I have also seen students shift in their approach to diversity.

Many students, especially those at the urban campuses where I have worked, want to move beyond a unilateral focus on diverse faces in classrooms. They have come to expect such diversity and want, in addition, a focus on inclusive culture and campus environments.

According to a 2015 Deloitte study, inclusion is not a “feel good” aspect of campus climate, but a critical tool that creates real connection and professional development.

What students demand is acceptance of diverse ideas and approaches within learning environments. They want universities to move beyond narrow concepts of diversity and toward that of inclusion.

Recently, in a diversity and inclusion certificate course I taught, a graduate student shared how her professor in another course consistently disregarded her ideas as unprofessional and lacking evidence.

The student reported that she had used the internet (rather than the library) to search for sources to begin finding evidence, and that as part of the search she had reached out to experts in the field to establish her argument. She felt her rationale was valid and a different approach — an approach that was deemed unacceptable rather than innovative.

As I learned more about ways that millennials seek information and want their voices included, I changed my teaching style to provide more YouTube videos, engagement with social media and relevant, everyday examples to explain theoretical and complex social justice issues.

Comments on my evaluations shifted from my “standing on a soap box” and “preaching” about topics to being “inclusive and respectful” of diverse students’ thoughts. It is a necessary change, yet not always an easy one.

Faculty and student body diversity no longer needs to be the only goal.

According to the Brookings Institution, inclusion and equity — respect and the welcoming of different ideas and viewpoints — are just as important in providing value to the full range of diverse backgrounds on university campuses.

As a class of ’87 Harvard alumna, I avidly read the accounts from current Harvard students and alumni discussing their positive experiences at Harvard. What struck me from my four years there was the myriad ways in which diversity was expressed in the student body that transcended race, to include various identities and backgrounds that we all inhabited. This current demand to shift the campus climate to be more welcoming and inclusive for students of all backgrounds and identities makes sense.

Understanding that diversity and inclusion are about more than the representation of diversity in faculty and students, universities need to embrace the breadth of diverse ideas that will inform us all.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Kate Webster is director of student diversity and multicultural affairs and adjunct associate professor at Rush University, TEDx presenter and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters

Kate Webster

Dr. Kate Webster is the director of student diversity and multicultural affairs and adjunct associate professor at Rush University, TEDx presenter and a Public Voices… See Archive

Letters to the Editor

Send us your thoughts

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.





No letters have been published at this time.