Does Your Definition of Diversity Lead to Equitable and Inclusive Action?

When it comes to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in higher education, colleges and universities — like many organizations — face unique challenges. Educational institutions are often organized by division, area of expertise, program of study, and even location, and DEI is sometimes viewed as one person’s or department’s job rather than something that is important for every functional area. Even when DEI is included in an institution’s mission or vision, if all faculty and staff do not embrace and take responsibility for fulfilling this commitment, a truly diverse, equitable, and inclusive organization is not possible.

In general, diversity is composed of multiple dimensions, including age, race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, geographic location, and other components. Yet, to build and sustain an equitable and inclusive culture, organizations must pay more attention to unspoken individual and institutional definitions of diversity.

To meet DEI objectives, many schools provide some form of diversity training ranging from a one-time workshop to a multi-year series. An organization’s approach to implementing such training reflects its definition of diversity; the curriculum will likely vary depending on what diversity means to a particular institution or department. For example, how might your approach to training be different if your organization defined diversity as a practical matter essential for financial success (i.e., the smart thing to do), a necessary component of social justice (i.e., the right thing to do), or a key framework for building equitable and inclusive systems (i.e., closing gaps in institutional outcomes across groups)? Your initiatives will have different goals and approaches that reflect these varying definitions.

To better understand how Davenport University employees defined diversity, we conducted a study as part of our first round of DEI training. Overall, 96 percent of all university employees participated in the training. Individuals were able to opt out of the study, but we still had a strong participation rate of 72 percent. For the most part, the definitions we received revealed positive attitudes about diversity. Some sample employee definitions of diversity are as follows.

● Including everyone and being open to others’ opinions, beliefs, cultures, etc.

● People who have different backgrounds, experiences, and cultural values coming together to work, socialize, and learn

● Respecting where others come from and their individual experiences; celebrating differences and similarities; being unique and still being included

● An openness to any and all perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences

● Being respectful of the viewpoints and other differences within a community of people

Surprisingly, most employee definitions did not directly mention race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. The fact that so many did not explicitly call out these aspects of identity may suggest that our colleagues are uncomfortable addressing historic and systemic disadvantages. Similarly, the absence of direct reference to sexual orientation may indicate a comparable issue. This leads to the following questions: As DEI professionals, are we equipping people with the awareness and competency to identify and address systemic inequities at our institutions and in our communities? Do these broad definitions enable a culture of inaction around historical, systemic inequities?

All-encompassing definitions of diversity may be a necessary first step toward building a culture of inclusion. However, if people do not recognize.— or do not feel comfortable talking about.— historic and structural inequities, we have not achieved our goal of an inclusive culture.

Applying our learning from the study, we implemented a second round of DEI training focused more explicitly on privilege and marginalization, and a third level on cultural intelligence. In these workshops, we used real-world case studies to engage employees in reflective conversations about advantages and disadvantages connected to dimensions of human diversity. Participants mapped their own relative levels of privilege and marginalization, which helped them better understand the concept of systemic inequity. These sessions also included mindfulness training to help people become more aware of their unconscious biases.

The cultural intelligence sessions helped employees recognize the ways in which their cultural values shape their perceptions and behaviors at work and at home. These also provided specific strategies for working with others who may have different values. Our goal was to increase individuals’ self-awareness and provide possible road maps to support inclusive behaviors. In doing so, we hoped to make our organizational vision a reality by aligning values, goals, and institutional practices.

Davenport’s DEI vision calls for creating a university that will do the following:

● Be the leading example of a diverse and equitable organization as reflected by the composition and behavior of its faculty, staff, and students

● Be a community where similarities and differences are respected and celebrated, multiple perspectives and diversity of thought are embraced, and people are engaged in intercultural experiences

● Actively promote the full participation of all community members while acknowledging the challenges faced by people from historically marginalized groups

An individual’s attitude toward diversity may matter more than the precise terminology he or she uses to define it. To achieve equity and inclusion, we need people who embrace the value of diversity. Davenport’s training sessions can clarify the university’s organizational definition, but it is much harder to change an individual’s deeply rooted attitudes. Looking closely at definitions can help uncover these thoughts and feelings about diversity. It takes the entire team to make DEI a reality, and offering people the opportunity to share their definitions of diversity can start the process of having an open dialogue about these critical topics.

Yet, you do not have to complete a full-scale research project to collect such definitions; focus groups or online surveys provide easy ways to gather this information. Once you have a clearer sense of how your employees define diversity, you can move to the next phase of using these descriptions to chart an effective course of action. For example, you can consider and determine what kinds of training approaches and institutional initiatives your diversity definition most naturally favors, as well as what attitudes about DEI the definitions help uncover.

By taking the time to understand these definitions, you can help ensure that diversity, equity, and inclusion are not just words in the university’s mission or vision statement. Reflecting on definitions can start the conversation about how everyone is an essential contributor when it comes to DEI and how we can and must work together to align unspoken values, stated goals, and organizational practices.

Rhae-Ann Booker, PhD, is the executive director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Davenport University. Keri Dutkiewicz, PhD, is the director of faculty learning at Davenport University. Davenport University is a 2012-2017 INSIGHT Into Diversity HEED Award recipient.