Top 10 Steps for Advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Higher Education

The complex challenge of diversity on campus.

If you are involved in higher education workforce recruitment, development, advancement, and retention, you know DEI is an important topic. Here are ten practical steps you can take to advance diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), according to Nancy Aebersold, founder and executive director of the Higher Education Recruitment Consortium (HERC.)

Increasing diversity in college campuses.

1. Listen

Especially to your student groups. The American Council on Education (ACE) released findings from a study titled, “Racial Climate on Campus: A Survey of College Presidents,” which found that 53 percent of presidents at four-year institutions and 87 percent at two-year institutions say students have organized around concerns about racial diversity. These findings prove that student-led efforts to abolish racism and increase diversity on campus are likely to confront American colleges and universities for the foreseeable future. Many insights can be gained from listening to students from traditionally underrepresented groups. They are often at the forefront of equality matters and leaders in ideas for change. More recent resources include: “Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education”  from ACE and “Advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” from AAC&U.

2. Participate

Make an individual and institutional commitment to becoming more knowledgeable about DEI practices. Seek out learning opportunities such as the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education and the White Privilege Conference to name a few. All HERC members can participate in complimentary regional HERC conferences and on-demand and live webinars — many with a focus on DEI. Have you experienced great training? Email your colleagues, post on LinkedIn, and/or tweet it out so others can benefit too.

3. Learn

Print and electronic publications such as Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, INSIGHT into Diversity, the Journal on Diversity in Higher Education have rich content that explores all aspects of DEI in higher education. HERC also has a twice-weekly newsletter that cuts through the clutter and provides curated news from leading sources with sections on recruitment, retention, diversity, and leadership in action.

4. Join

Consider joining a campus committee to further DEI planning and practices at your institution. Also, if you don’t belong already, join organizations like HERC and the Consortium for Faculty Diversity. These organizations offer great networking and professional development opportunities on DEI in higher education with much content geared toward workforce recruitment and development.

5. Collaborate

So much can be gained from working collaboratively within your institution. It isn’t enough to have a well written DEI statement or plan — everyone must know about it, be invested in it, and understand their role in DEI. To truly influence the institutional changes needed to establish diverse, equitable, and inclusive working and learning environments, there must be opportunities for collaboration across the entire institution. Campus communities and structures are complex and have a history of operating in independent silos. Breaking down barriers that stand in the way of collaboration is a necessary step in creating a transparent process and engaging all campus stakeholders in your DEI conversations, plans, and activities.

Another way to collaborate is with institutions in your region. Participating in regional HERC is an excellent way to collaborate with institutions in your area right away since the groups are set-up to foster institutional collaboration. When you join the HERC community of member institutions you have access to professional development, facilitated dialogs, peer-to-peer best practice sharing, and opportunities to design unique initiatives that advance institutional DEI practices and address a specific need in your region.

There are also rich collaborations that advance DEI within college or university systems and organizations that support specific campus types, such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Predominantly Black Institutions (PBIs), Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), Tribal Colleges, small liberal arts campuses, Ivy Plus campuses and more. By combining knowledge and resources, DEI needs can often be addressed more effectively.

When working in collaboration with others, inclusion is vital. The disability rights movement coined the slogan, “nothing about us, without us,” which clearly sums up the importance of having appropriate representation in collaborative work. This is critical when developing leadership groups, committees, task forces, and other organizational structures to make an impact on DEI issues.

If you seek to formalize an institutional collaboration and need more tools to be effective, a great organization that supports higher education collaborations is the Association for Collaborative Leadership.

6. Aspire

Stay informed by seeking out information about what other colleges and universities are doing to advance DEI. Share your institutional best practices on DEI. Reach out to your professional network when you need inspiration or when you need to set aspirational goals for your institution. This year HERC members will enjoy a new member benefit — a robust document library that will enable members to share and access policies, practices, and programs that support DEI.

7. Plan

“Don’t call it a dream, call it a plan.” The dream of higher education institutions embodying principles of a DEI will only happen with an inclusive, institution-wide planning process and a clear set of institutional actions, milestones, and metrics. Plans must be both broad in scope and specific in detail and must integrate DEI into the very fabric of the institution and all its processes — whether that is recruitment, development and advancement opportunities, or how fiscal resources are distributed across the campus in a way that reflects institutional priorities for DEI.

8. Assess

The first step to solving a problem is to name it, understand the extent, and determine who it affects. Conducting regular organizational assessments to measure DEI on campus will help guide institutional planning and resource allocation. If your campus has an office of institutional research, they can play an important role in supporting the evaluation and planning efforts of your institution by initiating and conducting studies on DEI policies, programs, and the environment. Outside experts can also help measure central aspects of DEI as they relate to the workforce and general campus climate.

Important organizations to be aware of for faculty job satisfaction surveys are: The Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) and the Higher Education Research Institute (HARI). Questions about DEI are integrated into both of these survey instruments, and campuses can include custom questions as well. Survey data provide participating campuses insights that can be used in strategic planning, faculty recruitment and retention, and faculty development activities. Another important organization is ModernThink, which partners with The Chronicle of Higher Education each year on the Great Colleges to Work For survey. This survey is one of the largest and most comprehensive workplace studies in higher education and provides senior-level administrators and academic leaders with insights on the quality of the workplace experience and the competitiveness of their policies and benefits. Key indicators for DEI are included in the survey such as fairness, respect, safety, and appreciation of differences.

9. Speak-up

DEI is everyone’s responsibility. If you are subject to, witness or are aware of individual or institutional practices that don’t align with creating an inclusive and equitable workplace, consider finding a way to speak up if you feel safe doing so. If you are uncomfortable standing up alone, contact your campus ombudsperson, Title IX director, HR officer, or other professionals who can help support you in taking action and making a difference.

10. Be Accountable

Even the best-laid plans can go awry. It won’t be possible to get everyone on campus playing from the same DEI playbook, but individuals at institutions can practice accountability for decisions made, actions taken, and the outcomes of those decisions and actions. When any outcomes are unfavorable to DEI on campus it is imperative to be transparent, take swift and meaningful responsibility, and have a plan to get back on track. Also, when any outcomes are favorable to DEI on campus, take the time to communicate about and celebrate the people and the processes that helped make a change for the better.


Why is diversity important in college?

Empowering DEI for students requires doing that same work in the faculty and staff. As the Higher Education Recruitment Consortium noted, “educating people of all backgrounds, beliefs, and cultures requires a diverse academic workforce,” but many institutions still face diversity gaps in their faculty, administrations, and senior leadership positions.


Closing Thoughts

Though DEI is a complex challenge, in higher education  there are practical action steps and best practices your team can implement today to support diversity on your campus. By listening to student groups, encouraging professional learning, working with departments across campus, and holding everyone accountable, you can make a difference in the DEI initiatives on your campus.