In 2020, after the death of George Floyd, colleges and universities scrambled to generate DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) statements condemning systemic racism in society. Fast forward to 2023, many of those same institutions that once spoke loudly about the racial and ethnic injustices people face are now too silent. To fully support faculty, staff, and students, however, they must reaffirm their commitments and stare down anti-DEI external forces threatening to derail the mission of DEI in higher education.

Investing in DEI transcends making blanket statements, creating diversity positions and committees that have no power to institute change within heteropatriarchal racist systems, and offering land acknowledgments without taking meaningful steps toward instituting radical change for impacted communities — all examples of steps taken over the past few years to demonstrate commitment to DEI values. Despite this, many institutions have not only failed to live up to their stated pledges but have also obstinately resisted attempts to prioritize race-conscious policies. 

We are in challenging political times. With some DEI offices closing, one must ask: What does reclaiming the narrative on equity look like for higher education institutions? Beyond trends, investing in DEI is necessary to establish safe places and spaces for minoritized people at the postsecondary level.

It is critical to the success of minoritized faculty, staff, and students that institutions intentionally protect transformative social change. It takes courage. It takes interconnectedness.

While students worry about not being able to celebrate their identities, which hinders their sense of belongingness, faculty fear their research and outside funding are at risk. As a scholar-advocate who studies DEI, my commitment to establishing equity for racially and ethnically minoritized individuals in the academy and society far exceeds a diversity statement. How many more attacks on my Black humanity are there to come? Racial battle fatigue is real, and it weighs heavily on Black faculty who are tasked with advancing equity but not given the tools to do so. 

Underrepresented faculty, staff, and students are frequently given the burden of implementing DEI at various levels of the university because those from privileged groups are not expected to do so. And while these individuals may be passionate about their professions, institutions repeatedly fail to provide them with the necessary support, leaving them at burnout.

In the wake of anti-DEI legislation, faculty and staff livelihoods are affected, hiring and retention challenges are rising, and diversity advocates are being displaced across campuses in departments that do not match their previous equity efforts. 

I have advocated in the past for listening sessions at universities to provide a transparent foundation as to the next steps when facing external infliction on university missions. However, listening sessions without a strategic plan to dismantle harmful systems constitutes nothing but another statement (e.g., the ones we got in 2020). Institutions cannot place DEI statements like a Band-Aid on top of policies and practices that disproportionately affect minoritized populations. Because what are we left with? The scars from the institutional facade of momentum towards social justice.

So, what should happen next?

It is critical to the success of minoritized faculty, staff, and students that institutions intentionally protect transformative social change. It takes courage. It takes interconnectedness. Political ambiguity should not compromise the integrity of an institution’s dedication to DEI. While it will be difficult, breaking pledges to racial equity damages the confidence of impacted constituents and impedes the advancement of racial equity. Instead, let’s use this time to demonstrate unshakable commitment to social justice while reiterating principles that radically transform our institutions.

Leslie Ekpe, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Higher Education and Learning Technologies at Texas A&M University-Commerce. 

This article was published in our November/December 2023 issue.