How to Embrace Diversity and Inclusion on Your College Campus
These days, just about every college and university has made a public commitment to diversity and inclusion. And for obvious reasons. Diverse campuses result in students who see a broader range of perspectives and possibilities, who can think more critically and with more nuance, and begin their adult lives with a deeper well of compassion than the generations who preceded them.
Coming of age and learning in a diverse setting is good for everyone.
When it’s done right.
If you’re reading this, then you might be among the many institutions finding that simply checking off a list of demographic groups to bring to your campus is not enough. You may have the ingredients, but how you cultivate them matters. Some advice:
Be Clear About What You Mean Regarding Diversity & Inclusion
At first blush, most people think of diversity as racial diversity, which is easily identifiable and demonstrated in photos. And yes, this is an important pillar of any diversity initiative, especially if institutions of higher learning are to lead the charge in dismantling systemic racism.
But diversity initiatives must reach far beyond race. They also include ethnicity, religion, tribal affiliation, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, income, and first-generation status, to name a few. Yet even this is only scratching the surface of what diversity demands.
When establishing how you define diversity, make sure that it is more than creating an exhaustive checklist of identity groups. Instead, diversity means ensuring that those who have been historically marginalized have an impactful role in your institution’s culture and activities.
Moving from Diversity to Inclusion . . . And Back Again
When your diversity efforts move beyond making sure certain identity groups are present in your student population and faculty, and you begin to include actively promoting their representation and support, that is when you begin being inclusive.
Diversity and inclusion are two complementary parts of a greater whole. While it’s nearly impossible to be inclusive of diverse groups if they aren’t actually on your campus, the key to attracting a more diverse student and faculty community is inclusion. In other words, if you build it, they will come.
Start from the Top, and Make a Plan
The most important aspect of any diversity and inclusion initiative is that IT MUST COME FROM THE TOP. The president, the dean, the board—all need to be on the same page in your commitment to making diversity and inclusivity part of your institution’s mission.
But mission statements are not enough. They must be accompanied by plans—including tangible goals, action steps, timelines, and metrics for assessing your progress. You must devote resources, including funding and staff, to ensuring that your institution’s work aligns with its mission.
As with any plan, start where you are. Identify your current student and faculty makeup, and from there you can set goals for attracting a more diverse campus community that better represents the population at large. However, while you may think you need to focus your efforts on external communications to attract more diverse students, the best place to start is at home.
Find the Diversity & Inclusion Experts You Already Have
To increase diversity, you need to begin by amping up inclusion, and to do this, you must first identify where and how it is lacking. Reach out to your minority students and faculty and ask them about their experiences as part of your community. Do they feel welcome everywhere? Do they feel supported and valued within your campus community?
One hard truth you may find during these conversations is that you may need to do some trust-building. Minority communities have, understandably, become wary of top-down “outreach” that many times does not result in meaningful inclusion. While it is important that the drive to build diversity and inclusion comes from the top-down, the direction and the approach need to be led from the bottom-up.
To engender good faith with your internal communities, in addition to offering institutional resources, ask for their expertise, experience, and ideas. When you do this, you are changing the narrative from a needs-based approach—“What can we do to help you?”—to an assets-based one: “We see that you have a lot to offer, and we want your voices at the table.”
Marketing Can Only Sell What You Truly Have
While you are making your campus a more inclusive community for all, you can then work with your marketing team to communicate your institution’s mission to your target audience. But be mindful: Marketing cannot create diversity and inclusion, but it can be a megaphone for your institutional policies and initiatives in order to support and expand the work you’re doing.
If your diversity and inclusion work is happening at every level of your campus, then your marketing team can bolster those initiatives. They can give you the tools to speak to these issues powerfully and authentically. But, again, they can’t create diversity and inclusion where it doesn’t exist or where it’s not supported.
Always remember that your current and prospective students are smart. They know when organizations are being authentic, and they know empty lip service when they see it.
Your students of color know when they’re being pulled into photoshoots to be the “diverse face,” and your prospective students know when they’re seeing the same students of color across all your marketing materials.
Instead, if your campus is not diverse, then your message needs to be about inclusivity. And be upfront about it. Embrace that you want your campus to be a more accurate reflection of the world. Be proactive in making sure that students of color feel welcome and that there is a valued place for them on your campus. Open conversations, then listen.
For your marketing materials, perhaps consider creating a Diversity and Inclusion piece within your print suite. Or address it full-on in your viewbook. Being plain-spoken and upfront will help you earn the respect of your target audience.
With your video and photography, the worst thing you can do is to showcase imagery of a perfect picture of diversity that isn’t really there. Instead, err on the aspirational side of honesty. Don’t overrepresent your diversity, but where it does exist, celebrate it. Don’t shoehorn students of color where they aren’t usually in order to show diversity, but do go to them and highlight the work they are doing and the welcome change they are bringing to your institution.
More and more, every organization—in education, in business, in government, and so on—is jumping on the diversity train, trying to project an image of social harmony and acceptance. But diversity and inclusion are not snapshots in time. They are processes. They are conversations. And they are work. Your audience knows that, and that’s what they’re looking to see from you.