Higher Education

Top 9 Interesting, Innovative, & Impactful Higher Ed DEIB Initiatives

By Sean Carton \ April 8, 2022

We don’t think we need to go into the details, but we think it’s safe to say that the last several years have been, well … a bit of a challenge. Between the pandemic, political turmoil, and social unrest, it’s been a rough few years.

But if there’s one good thing that’s come out of all the trouble, it’s been a renaissance in public awareness of problems around social justice, equity, and inclusion. This awareness was catalyzed by the BLM movement and reinforced by the many problems which arose during the pandemic, including inequities in health care, access to education, and the economic struggles faced by many due to skyrocketing unemployment and underemployment. Although few would claim that these problems were all entirely caused by racial injustice, it became pretty clear that while just about everyone suffered, black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) populations suffered more than their share. 

Fortunately, rising awareness has also driven a groundswell of activity and interest in finding solutions to these and other social injustices. And while efforts have taken many forms, none have become more visible and have built more momentum than the increasing efforts in business, government, and academia to address the issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB). 

In many cases, colleges and universities have continued their roles as drivers of social justice and progressive thought, engaging their campuses with initiatives designed to tackle the issues of DEIB head-on. Here are some of the most interesting, innovative, and, most importantly, impactful ways that higher education is working to create a more just and inclusive world.

  1. The Carolina Cluster Career Pathways Initiative, a joint project of three HBCUs in North Carolina (Benedict College, Claflin University and Voorhees College) aims to strike at the heart of economic and social inequity by working with the core strengths of the member colleges and the business community to increase minority representation in high-paying public and private-sector jobs in their region. Using a three-pronged approach that starts with Guided Pathways—a strategy that focuses on student success so that students “get on, stay, and graduate from an academic pathway that facilitates personal and professional growth”—along with enhancements to the curriculum and innovative co-curricular engagement, this program is designed to create “students that are ready to learn” and “graduates that are ready to learn.”
  2. While Stanford University graduates probably have an easier time landing jobs than graduates of many other institutions, the fact is that graduates from marginalized populations often are underrepresented in STEM professions, no matter where they graduated from. Recognizing this, Stanford has created and implemented their Career Catalysts Diversity Framework, designed to help build diversity in professions where diversity has been a long-term problem. As Stanford’s Arame Mbodj told the National Association of Colleges and Employers in a recent article, the most important thing they’ve been able to do is listen: “It was important to us that we did not make the assumption that all underrepresented communities or marginalized populations have the same career-related needs. Tailoring all our presentations and events allowed students to open up and be their authentic selves.”
  3. The University of New Hampshire has taken a somewhat different approach. While they do focus on preparing their students for the working world, they’ve amped up their push to promote DEIB by focusing on helping employers create more diverse workplaces through access to resources, consultation, and by recognizing the efforts of employers who demonstrate their commitment to diversity and inclusion.
  4. UMBC has been leading the charge for diversity and inclusion in STEM since 1988 through their Myerhoff Scholars program (full disclosure: UMBC is a past client and alma mater of several fivers). While students in the program receive scholarships, that’s just the beginning. As they  study to become research scientists or engineers, Myerhoff Scholars can access a wide range of support services, mentoring, and peer involvement opportunities. The results have been impressive: to date over 1,400 scholars have graduated, with 378 going on to earn Ph.D.s—including 66 M.D./Ph.D.s, more than any other program in the nationand almost 400 are currently enrolled in graduate or professional programs. Others are taking notice: in 2019, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative donated nearly $7 million dollars to replicate the Myerhoff Scholars program at UC San Diego and UC Berkeley.
  5. While college and university diversity statements are pretty much par for the course these days, few are as straightforward and as honest as the statement penned by MIT’s Vice Chancellor. Sure, it contains a lot of the same language about the institution’s commitment to empowerment, respect, and equitable treatment of all members of the campus community, but the last paragraph is what really sets it apart and, we hope, makes it a model for other organizations. Why? Because it doesn’t flinch from saying the one thing that most organizations (and people, for that matter) have the hardest time stating: actually admitting that they’re not immune from their own biases. “We do not assume that our organization is immune to biases or power imbalances,” it begins. “The many aspects of our identities confer various mindsets, expectations, and levels of privilege. We are committed to understanding and overcoming the many dimensions of exclusion that we are all exposed to through socialization.” Nice job, MIT!
  6. Landmark College, a small, private institution in Putney, VT, was founded on the concept that being different shouldn’t exclude anyone from pursuing a college degree. Diversity is baked into its institutional DNA, especially when it comes to including populationss who are often left behind by much of the educational establishment): Landmark focuses on educating students who learn differently, including those with ADHD, autism, and dyslexia. These students are excluded by most higher education institutions because their learning differences often result in low standardized test scores and low grades, two metrics that play a big part in admission decisions, especially at highly competitive schools. Landmark not only gives these students a chance, they boost their chance of success by offering them the kind of support that’s tough to find anywhere else. We think that’s pretty cool. There’s a lot to learn about the true meaning of DEIB from Landmark College.
  7. While higher education has become more focused on DEIB during the past few years, it’s become clear that it’s not enough to promote the idea of not being racist: for real change to occur, the goal should be anti-racism.

The difference between “not racist” and “anti-racist” might seem subtle, but it’s not, and the consequences of moving from “not racist” to “anti-racist” are profound. While it is important to stand against racism in all its forms, becoming anti-racist takes it one step further by focusing on action, not just sentiment. If change is going to happen, it’s only going to happen through action, not platitudes. And if any institution gets it, it’s the College of Education and Human Development at Virginia’s George Mason University.

The leaders of this initiative detail their process in this article in Inside Higher Education, but the short version of the story isn’t hard to tell: spurred on by outrage over the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, the College embarked on an evidence-based initiative to realign their commitment to DEIB through the lens of anti-racism. Involving the entire College community, this initiative focused on using data gathered through a comprehensive equity audit, a needs assessment of the College community members most likely to be negatively impacted by racism, and a custom-built data analysis tool designed to surface issues that needed to be addressed. The end result was a comprehensive agenda to create an anti-racist environment at the College of Education and Human Development based in real-world data, not conjecture and, as is often the case, emotion. As of now, it’s still a work in progress, but we think it’s a strong start.

  1. It’s pretty easy to feel cut off from the rest of the world when on a college campus. Not only are members of the campus community privileged to be immersed in teaching, learning, and creating knowledge, but the self-contained layout of many campuses seems to be designed to shut out the world. Even urban campuses aren’t immune from feeling separated from the cities they inhabit.

This is exactly the issue that drove Ball State University Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology Dr. Kiesha Warren-Gordon to create a unique program that helps students develop real-world solutions to the issues facing Ball State’s  Muncie, Indiana home. Working with local community leaders, Professor Warren-Gordon created a service-learning project to help students develop the knowledge about and empathy for the communities they’d engage with after graduation. As she explained on Ball State’s Research Blog, her goal wasn’t just about helping the underserved in the Muncie community—it was about transforming her students’ underlying assumptions and biases: “Profound realization and internal change occur when students, particularly white students, connect community members’ lived experiences of marginalization to course materials about white hegemonic oppression on a systemic level.”

  1. As we hope you’ve figured out by now, all of us at idfive are committed to making sure that our company is as diverse, inclusive, and equitable as it can be. But we’re also committed to helping our clients achieve the same goal. And while we work hard to make sure that we’re aware of our own biases and and constantly work to overcome them, we also work hard to make sure that our work is as inclusive and accessible as possible. Accessibility is never an add-on. That’s why we were really excited to read this AAC&U article about the University of Arizona’s use of universal design principles to support disabled and non-disabled students during the pandemic

When the pandemic hit and it became clear that teaching and learning were going to have to go remote, the university’s Disability Resource Center knew that students at the university—disabled or not—were going to face some unique challenges. Rather than wait for someone else to address these anticipated issues, the DRC “partnered with the Office of Instruction and Assessment (OIA), the Office of Facilities Management, and faculty across the university’s twenty colleges to redesign curricula, co-curricular experiences, and physical campus spaces according to principles of universal design,” ensuring access for all and facilitating the same quality teaching and learning the University of Arizona is known for. As Amanda Kraus, assistant vice president for campus life and executive director of the DRC explains, this effort wasn’t just about maintaining the status quo, it was an opportunity to promote diversity and inclusion at the University of Arizona itself: “Universal design is bigger than disability,” she told the AAC&U. “It’s about promoting equity on campus. It’s about a better, higher-quality experience that is more inclusive and welcoming.” We couldn’t agree more.

Sean Carton
Chief Strategist
Sean Carton
Chief Strategist

Sean leads our Discover360 engagements, gathering data and research to develop the insights necessary for crafting effective strategies for our clients. He has a perfectly varied background for our higher education and nonprofit partners: He’s served as everything from a dean to an adjunct professor to the co-director of a high school cybersecurity summer camp to the leader of a university 3D printing lab. Sean also has an uncanny talent for creating the perfect meme faster than you can search for one.