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Why U.S. Universities Must Implement DEI Initiatives Strategically

August 24, 2022

Spurred by nationwide protests over cases of police brutality and demanding more accountability from institutions, there has been heightened attention on how American universities embed diversity initiatives into their overall mission and work to create positive social change. Universities are increasingly promoting DEI initiatives; however too often, they don’t provide the resources and support needed to implement wide-scale change.

To achieve meaningful diversity progress, it is essential for university leadership to be committed to working closely with their diversity office and weaving their DEI goals into the fabric of the university’s strategic plan. Institutions who can facilitate this type of collaboration and buy in will be successful in their diversity efforts, and avoid burnout that is often experienced by DEI leaders who are tasked with more they are able to do.

When DEI goals are embedded at the strategic and cross-campus level, institutions are better equipped to tackle their systemic issues concerning diversity, equity and inclusion, and have their efforts transcend symbolic gestures. Then it is easier for universities to increase the enrollment of students from diverse backgrounds, hire more diverse staff, and create an inclusive campus environment with sufficient resources for students of all backgrounds.

Building a Strategic Plan 

Facilitating more equitable enrollment and creating an inclusive campus culture are massive undertakings that require intentional action. Often, diversity offices are tasked with broad goals or goals that do not tie to a strategic plan, institutional investment, or intentional resourcing. Instead, leadership should sit down with their diversity office to determine goals and create a roadmap defining DEI success for that institution and the needs of its specific stakeholders.

Beyond the broader mission, the university must take the time to work with each of its departments and schools to set individual goals and milestones that ladder up to the larger plan. This type of collaboration and idea sharing underscores each department’s role in DEI efforts and how they are essential to the success of campus-wide DEI initiatives. The University of Texas put in this type of effort and collaboration to develop their comprehensive DEI action plan where they worked with stakeholders from across their campus to determine the best course of action.

Creating and implementing a strategic diversity plan is a sizable undertaking that will require resources and money. Universities should be transparent about the progress they are making and the goals they are working toward. Indiana University publicly tracks its progress on the actions and initiatives it identified to reach its DEI goals and carry out its strategic plan. Indiana’s efforts address any possible concerns that universities are wasting resources and demonstrate to other schools the planning and strategy needed to be successful when launching DEI initiatives.

From Reactive to Proactive

Organizations and academic institutions are taking a risk when they only think of DEI in reactive terms. When developing a strategic plan, the university should consider the proactive measures they can take to help recruit and retain more diverse students, faculty, and staff. Beyond recruiting, they must consider the resources needed to meaningfully support these staff and students.

While a single office or diversity officer might struggle to move past a reactive strategy without the proper resources, they can partner with campus leaders who have a similar interest in diversity to implement proactive initiatives such as promoting scholarships, revamping recruitment strategy to make it more inclusive, conducting more student outreach and much more.

Creating the Essential Partnerships

It is also important to step outside the university to engage with the broader community. Creating partnerships with external and local organizations can help students from all backgrounds attend college and succeed beyond graduation.

By reaching out to the K-12 districts in their local area, universities can implement programs offering support to schools that serve underrepresented students, increasing their awareness of available recourses and higher education opportunities in the area. Additionally, partnerships with other universities, such as HBCU’s, support a pipeline of more diverse applicants to graduate programs and university careers. The University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine showed how effective these partnerships can be through its PASS Program. The school partnered with five HBCUs to allow their students to participate in the program, allowing students to shadow physicians, participate in clinics, grow their network and apply to Pearlman without taking the MCAT. College-level partnership like this are integral to diversifying high impact and high paying fields.

Around every institution, there are many local nonprofits and service organizations working within the surrounding community. Partnering with these organizations can drive student engagement and help with broader recruitment and retention, all while giving back to the community.

It takes the combined effort of all these internal and external stakeholders that will ultimately make the DEI progress that universities are striving for.

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