It’s time we replace our obsession with exclusivity with a commitment to inclusivity

The responsibility for building an inclusive campus climate rests squarely on academic staff, administrators – and funders, says David Asai

August 18, 2019
Inclusive and diverse

Published rankings of the world’s “best” colleges and universities, lawsuits claiming unfair admissions, and exposés of parents buying access to selective schools – these are all reminders of society’s fixation on the idea that getting into the right school guarantees success and happiness.

For many students, college offers them neither happiness nor a place that encourages their success. The joy of getting in soon disappears, replaced by daily reminders that they don’t fit in. As a result – especially in the sciences – the students who should be our greatest strength, because of the diverse perspectives they bring to our campuses, are instead leaving at disproportionately high rates. These include persons of colour, people from low-income backgrounds and students who are first in their family to attend college.

But there are hopeful signs of change on campus. For example, the Wellcome Trust PhD Programme supports leading UK universities committed to creating an inclusive research culture. In the US, the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s STEM Equity Achievement Change programme – inspired in part by the UK’s Athena SWAN scheme – encourages schools to improve their learning environment through a thorough self-assessment of their campus climate.

And a third example is from my own institution, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s (HHMI) Inclusive Excellence initiative (IE). This programme challenges colleges and universities in the US to make meaningful and lasting improvements in their capacity to serve all students, especially those from groups under-represented in science. 

Rather than “fixing the student,” IE pushes faculty, staff and administrators to drive culture change. A total of 57 schools were awarded IE grants in 2017 and 2018, including research universities such as Arizona State University and Washington University in St Louis, master’s-granting universities such as Chaminade University of Honolulu and the University of Houston-Downtown, and baccalaureate colleges such as Davidson College and DePauw University. We recently launched a third competition that will add up to 30 more. To date, HHMI has invested $90 million (£74.5 million) in the IE initiative.

Participating schools are engaged in activities such as teaching faculty the skills of inclusive teaching; redesigning introductory curricula with an emphasis on engaging beginner students in authentic research; aligning advising and course content between two-year and four-year schools; and revising the criteria for faculty promotion and tenure by including contributions to diversity and inclusion.

The cost of implementing such activities can be high – each HHMI grant is $1 million (£827,855) over five years. But we’ve found that real campus change depends less on dollars and more on personal resolve and effective leadership. The IE initiative is teaching us about what it takes for a campus to successfully engage in culture change.

In one recent example, a campus programme director using IE funding planned a workshop to encourage faculty to improve their mentoring of students, especially students belonging to groups under-represented in the sciences. The director soon heard from colleagues at his own institution who were unhappy that their earlier and ongoing work in similar areas was going unnoticed. He realised that he first needed to listen to and learn from these colleagues so that together they could use the IE resources to improve the institution’s student support.

Another example involves the IE peer implementation clusters. These clusters are groups of four or five grantees, whose leaders regularly meet to share ideas, challenges, and offer one another suggestions for improvement. 

In one such cluster, a programme director of a project supporting culturally relevant course development was dealing with “turf” issues in which different offices on campus were unable to align their efforts. That’s where the peer cluster proved its value. An informal site visit by representatives from the cluster’s other institutions resulted in the observation that more assertive campus leadership could bring needed coordination. That recommendation led to more direct action by the appropriate dean, and now the campus can work in greater unison towards its common goal of creating culturally relevant courses.

A big part of the lessons learned in these cases was the value of sharing responsibilities and credit in ways that work for all partners. That kind of breakthrough isn’t yet happening on every IE campus, but such successes are beginning to emerge.

And we at HHMI are learning too. For example, we’re being more intentional in finding people on campuses who are already doing important work in areas of institutional capacity for inclusion, and emphasising the vital task of expanding those communities of campus champions.

As important as it is to improve diversity, our goal with IE is bigger. We want schools to reflect on their cultures and environments, and to make them more inclusive for all kinds of students – including first-generation students, mature students, those from community colleges and those from under-represented racial and ethnic groups. And that, we feel, begins first with changing the beliefs and behaviours of faculty and other college leaders.

David Asai is the senior director for science education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

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