What Unites Us?

I recently attended the 10th annual meeting for the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE). My initial interest in this conference centered on efforts to better understand the role that diversity officers play on college and university campuses, to learn what obstacles they face in their work, and to evaluate how Ask Big Questions can collaborate with this community to improve outcomes for diversity and inclusion.

This year’s theme “Charting a Roadmap for Diversity in a Changing Landscape—A Call for Action,” looked toward the future and focused on three main objectives: 21st century diverse student, faculty, and staff issues; pursuing Inclusive Excellence as the promising frontier in Higher Education; to showcase research that supports future diversity initiatives; and to provide tools for educators and administrators to take back to their campuses to help with ongoing diversity programming. I was brought into the fold from the outset and participated in effective conversations that made my time a success. In the days following the conference I pondered why it went so well. Was there something special about the people that attended NADOHE? Was the conference crafted in some exceptional way that fostered collegiality across the board? In short, I wanted to know, what united us?

“Students are why we exist,” exclaimed Dr. Sue Rankin as she began her address to the plenary session, adding that it is our responsibility as educators and administrators to build inclusive climates in Higher Ed. The general question is no longer: what is happening on college campuses? After all, Rankin and other researchers like her have published convincing literature, which overwhelmingly demonstrates that the issue concerning diversity on campuses now are the same issues that have been known to exist for at least the past 20 years.

While the issues may be the same, the discourse is beginning to change. The most recent research reveals that diversity is much more dynamic than traditional ideas such as race relations between white and black students that dominated diversity efforts at the end of the 20th century. College campus communities engage difference in experience and identities that separate us everyday, such as gender, sexual identity, socio-economic status, ethnicity, and so on. It seems that educators recognize more social segmentation on their campuses all the time. However, knowing that difference exists and that exclusion remains central to college student experience is not enough.

These days, the question that unites diversity officers and their allies calls for action. Their mantra now: what are we doing to improve diversity and inclusion? Rankin argues that campus climate surveys can effectively diagnose problems concerning diversity and inclusion. But mentorship and education about the issues are essential components to support students, staff, and faculty to make the changes that they want to see. Certainly, educating students is our duty and remains the driving force that often draws us to higher education in the first place.

My experience at NADOHE revealed that Diversity Officers generally agree on certain ideals. They prioritize support for students to address inclusion and provide them the tools and education to engage effectively across lines of difference. They know that preparing students now will help them to be more tolerant citizens later. However, the obstacles to creating diverse and inclusive campus climates is regularly not only about improving student knowledge. Instead, institutional traditions are significant obstacles to transforming campus climate outcomes. Diversity Officers are acutely aware that if we do not act to change campus culture directly the problems will persist once current students move on to their lives after college. To that end, NADOHE also promotes and supports efforts to increase diversity in faculty and staff job searches and to educate all employees and students in inclusive understanding and behavior. 

ABQ actively pursues both questions at the center of the debate concerning diversity and inclusion. Our assessment model provides clear results that help campus administrators to accurately gage what is happening now. We educate student to recognize, respect, and engage people and experiences that differ from their own world view. We support students to challenge their own sense of the world by teaching them how to facilitate conversations with their peers concerning big questions that we all face. Our programming includes curricular tools to help students and staff to actively recognize and improve their habits and attitudes concerning diversity and inclusion. In the end, we generate assessment reports that demonstrate what students, faculty, and staff are doing to improve diversity and inclusion. I plan to continue to advance ABQ assessment models to address issues that Diversity Officers face in the years to come. I anticipate that our contribution will remain essential in the united effort to improve diversity and inclusion on college and university campuses in the 21st century.