The topic of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) has been gaining more attention in higher education over the past few years. Considering the societal unrest in the US around race, there has been a renewed interest in understanding the role of academic leaders in developing, encouraging, and embracing DEI. In this article, I will discuss two roles that academics can play to help make a difference in the DEI movement. The first is as the reflexive professional. This requires all of us to evaluate how inclusive are our classrooms and our institutions to marginalized individuals. The second role is as informed educators that help create tomorrow’s leaders to be aware of and prepared to change the future of our workforce. This discussion will highlight steps academics can take in their day-to-day routine to help encourage the process of change.

The Reflexive Professional

What are we, as academics, doing to move beyond the numbers to form and promote inclusive learning environments? We need to address that within the halls of academia the legacy of racism and exclusionary practices (Burrows et al. 2020) “are subtle and intricately woven into the fabric of our institutions” (Wilson-Kennedy, Payton-Steward, & Winfield, 2020, p. 2041). Looking simply at the numbers of students entering programs has served as the diversity discourse to silence more critical accounts or the system (Archer 2007). A study that looked at 80 higher education institutions in the US and found that 75% included the word “diversity” in their mission statements (Wilson, Meyer, & McNeil, 2012), yet their commitment to diversity in predominately white schools was seen as inauthentic and more institutional rhetoric that action (Barnett, 2020; Robertson et al. 2014; Harper & Hurtado, 2007). We need to start taking tangible steps toward change.

Adapted from the work of Rendon (1993) and Barnett (2020), here are 4 things higher education institutions and faculty can do to help move beyond institutional rhetoric and the numbers to sustainable change.

  1. Create spaces that allow for marginalized faculty and students to be heard.
  2. Educate your faculty on the importance of diversity in recruitment and retention strategies for both faculty, who serve as role models for underrepresented populations, and students, especially within their first year at the institution.
  3. Encourage faculty, through the provision of resources and incentives, to study, foster, and develop inclusive classroom practices.
  4. Acknowledge the importance of providing marginalized students with resources to help navigate the institutional landscape. This is especially true in the first year.
  5. Not all students are created equally, but each one deserves an equitable opportunity to succeed. Help build communities for marginalized students to express themselves in a psychologically safe environment.

If we can begin to take these steps within our institutions, we will be positioning ourselves to acknowledge our shortcomings and move toward a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment.

Informed Educators

How is what we teach going to influence our students’ perspective when they enter the workplace? Regardless of the discipline you are in, there are biases of how we research, what we research, and how we pass that research along to tomorrow’s leaders. As informed educators, we have an obligation to be sure that we are not allowing our biases to impede our students’ learning. Starting with demonstrating our own DEI standards through the syllabus, we can encourage the development of culturally competent learners and leaders of tomorrow (Fuentes, Zelaya, & Madsen, 2020). By showcasing this behavior, students become aware of the issues surrounding DEI and how they may impact them in their chosen field.

As we prepare students for the workplace that is becoming more and more diverse, students need to have the tools to effectively maneuver the complexities of change. Through effective communication, critical thinking, and open awareness of biases and assumptions in their given field, a student is more prepared to understand their place and their impact on their organization. Looking at cultural competencies alone.

As we look to provide students with a positive learning environment that prepares them for the diverse work environment, here are four things you can potentially do to help develop your students into inclusive leaders.

  1. Can you foster a sense of belonging in the classroom that allows for all voices to be heard and learn?

    This can be done in a variety of ways. Some of the basic ways are to get to know your students’ names and the pronunciation of those names. Provide opportunities for the student to share information about themselves. Show respect for different skills, talents, and experiences through your lecture and dialogue with the student. Each of these can be the foundation for an inclusive environment where students feel willing to engage.
  2. Can you help students understand the relevance of practicing inclusion for their future success?

    As your students move into the workplace, they need to understand the concept of inclusion and how to practice it. This is a focus for successful organizations, and if you want to best prepare your students, it is important. You can stand to help them understand this process by explaining the difference between diversity and inclusion. This has been described in many ways. It is the idea that you not only invite people to the dance, but you also allow room and encourage them to dance. Then, to help students understand the why behind it and the how, look to what you know, and discuss what would happen if diverse voices were silenced in your field. By relating it to your field of study, you can provide tangible examples of the importance of inclusion to your students.
  3. Can you allow students to see the diversity in your field? Are their silenced voices in your field that could help marginalized individuals see themselves in this area?

    This is really a build-on to number two. This is switching from discussing the importance of inclusion with your students, to showing them how the lack of inclusion has impacted various groups and individuals. Through the identification of these past inequities, we start to normalize the process of critically thinking about the perspectives from which we are gathering information.
  4. Can you encourage critical thinking that identifies and scientifically explores even the basic assumptions of your field?

    Finally, as students are critically thinking about the past, the views, and the voices that are heard, ensure they understand the importance of supporting their views. This is the cornerstone of the university and college experience. It is the need to evaluate your source, the source’s influences, and the logical rigor of what they are learning.

If we are to truly want to move the halls of higher education to a new place of inclusion, we need to own our roles and excel at them. Consider how you can make a difference in providing your students the experience and skills needed to be tomorrow’s leaders in a way that fosters diversity, equity, and inclusion. Our tomorrow needs your attention today.