Why the words ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’ matter


In the intricate tapestry of higher education, where the threads of diversity, equity and inclusion are meant to weave a fabric of progress and opportunity, we find ourselves confronting a perplexing paradox. The paradox of the words that are symbols of hope verses the actions that are symbols of hatred. Why have these once laudable ideals of diversity, equity and inclusion become tarnished, whispered about in hushed tones, even deemed “naughty words” in some circles of the academy and government?

Since the inception of community colleges, the vision of open access, seamless transfer pathways and the elevation of educational standards for all segments of society have remained a beacon of hope. Yet, despite the purported openness and opportunities, glaring inequities persist in educational attainment and workforce placement, particularly for students of color. Privileges abound for some, while barriers loom large for others.

It’s a historical amnesia that plagues us. Let us not forget that it wasn’t until the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 that the process of school integration commenced. Even then, the path to integration was marred by resistance and hostility, necessitating the protection of Black children by the military as they entered schools where they were unwelcome.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 stands as a testament to the struggle for equality, outlawing discrimination and opening doors for people of color to work, learn and dream freely. Yet, here we are, in the year 2024, witnessing political leaders across the nation chipping away at the very foundations laid by this pivotal legislation. The principles enshrined within the Civil Rights Act are under siege, and the battle for equity rages on.

An erosion on many fronts

On college campuses, the bastions of intellectual inquiry and societal progress, the concept of academic freedom should reign supreme. Yet, faculty members who dare to champion diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives find themselves under attack. Their efforts to nurture the next generation of leaders for a democratic society are met with resistance and scorn.

The research, pedagogy and educational practices and programs aimed at fostering a more inclusive and equitable society are being sidelined, dismissed as frivolous or unnecessary. How many steps backward must we take before we can march forward toward a more united future?

Even staff members who have spearheaded transformative equity efforts on college campuses are finding themselves out of a job; their commitment to diversity and equitable outcomes deemed expendable in the eyes of some. The irony is horrific: professionals are losing their livelihoods precisely because their endeavors have led to greater competency, inclusivity and fairness within their institutions.

But the assault on diversity, equity and inclusion doesn’t stop there. In some states, these principles are being criminalized, further eroding the protections of academic freedom. Regional accreditation bodies, once allies in the pursuit of educational excellence, are hamstrung by state laws that undermine their authority and effectiveness.

Librarians, the custodians of knowledge and purveyors of intellectual diversity, are also feeling the heat. The mere act of displaying books that challenge the status quo or broaden perspectives is now fraught with peril. In a chilling turn of events, librarians could face legal repercussions for daring to expose students to ideas that some may find discomforting.

Reaffirming our commitment

The question that hangs in the air is this: what isn’t considered offensive these days? The voices of people of color, historically marginalized and silenced or drowned out by the clamor of the dominant majority. And when those in power take offense, consequences swiftly follow as seen in many recent, public cases.

As a “nation of the free,” we must continue our brave pursuit of diversity, equity and inclusion. College CEOs must take time to educate their boards on the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion to enrollment, retention and, most importantly, success of students. State higher education boards must brave the challenge of state governing bodies to speak up for all, not just some. Faculty must have the academic freedom to teach the elements of America’s beautiful, but sometimes, shameful tapestry — it is iall important! Staff must be able to provide equitable support for students who don’t come to college with the same worldview of higher education nor the resources for success.

In this climate of uncertainty and hostility, it is imperative that we reaffirm our commitment to the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion. These are not mere buzzwords to be discarded at whim; they are the very pillars upon which a just and equitable society is built.

It is time for higher education to reclaim its role as a beacon of progress, a bastion of enlightenment and a champion of diversity in all its forms. Only then can we hope to transcend the divisions that threaten to tear us apart and forge a future where every voice is heard, and every individual is valued.

America has one of the greatest higher education systems in the world; let’s make it one that supports all, no matter their race, sexual orientation, political affiliation, socio-economic background. Let us continue our quest for those who are often scorned and disadvantaged in our society. As stated by Jesse Jackson, “Inclusion is not about political correctness, it’s the key to growth.”

Let us continue to grow in the academy and as a country.

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Dr. Kimberly Beatty is chancellor of Metropolitan Community College, Kansas City (Missouri) and co-author of Transformational Change in Community College: Becoming an Equity-Centered Institution (Routledge, 2021).

Dr. Merrill Irving, Jr., is senior executive of advisory services at Ferrilli, a higher education consulting firm. He is a former community college president with more than 27 years of experience in higher education.

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