Tips for universities on delivering effective EDI degree programmes

Workplace demand for EDI expertise is growing, and numerous universities are now offering full degree programmes in this area. Eli Joseph offers starting points for doing it well

Eli Joseph's avatar
Columbia University
25 Apr 2023
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It’s no secret that equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) has become a popular professional commodity. And now, in conjunction with frequent social and cultural changes in the workplace, many professionals are investing time, labour and money in EDI programmes.

There is increasing demand for EDI-related expertise in almost every industry, ranging from agriculture to finance to technology. According to a report from McKinsey and the World Economic Forum, an increasing number of multinational organisations are offering EDI certificate programmes in the hope of maximising long-term impact and helping professionals develop the skills needed to unlock the potential of workers from typically under-represented communities.

In higher education, many universities worldwide have responded to the demand by offering diversity-oriented certificates for professionals, while some institutions are now expanding their core academic curriculum by offering full degrees in EDI.

These programmes are promising for prospective students, who become able to pursue their education through progressive lenses of inclusive and equitable growth. Creating EDI degree programmes also addresses the growing demand for people with explicit expertise in this field. LinkedIn data shows that across the world there was a 71 per cent increase in diversity and inclusion roles over the five years between 2015 and 2020. And other research suggests that EDI-related roles have increased further since 2020. According to Indeed.com, EDI job postings in the US increased by 123 per cent between May and September 2020.

This has also expanded worldwide. According to LinkedIn, EDI jobs in Europe, the Middle East and Africa grew 1.65 times faster than HR jobs. When it comes to executive leadership positions, the number of people globally with the job title “head of diversity” more than doubled (107 per cent growth) in the five years to 2020, while the number with the title “director of diversity” grew by 75 per cent and “chief diversity officer” by 68 per cent. Conversations/posts revolving around EDI have tripled and company updates around diversity and inclusion on LinkedIn have accelerated massively, more than tripling in volume for both companies and LinkedIn members in the recent past.

As companies seek improved EDI as a corporate necessity, it seems like academic institutions are providing a useful and valued proposition when they offer EDI degree programmes to meet the demand for these specific skills. As such, here are some ways that institutions can evolve their EDI offerings to deliver on these demands:

Practise what you teach

Academic institutions should lead by example and be intentional in hiring a diverse faculty with a variety of expertise. Most US colleges and universities have more diverse students than faculty members. Additionally, there is an inverse relationship between faculty demographics and academic rank – the diversity of faculty decreases as academic rank increases.

If universities are going to offer EDI-related degrees, the personnel administering such programmes should also be diverse, equitable and inclusive. Colleges and universities should develop a clear recruitment plan and devote time to developing strategies that improve the diversity of the candidate pool. Institutions should also consider how each applicant might enhance diversity in both the department and university. Going further, recruiters can actively inspect prospective employees’ diversity affiliations such as membership of a diverse social organisation or attendance at a historically black college, Hispanic-serving university, women-only or disability-focused institution.

Less theory, more practice

Students would benefit from a practical EDI degree programme that does not rely too heavily on theoretical processes. Institutions should put emphasis on developing a curriculum that involves real-world applications of EDI. This could include industry-related research projects in which students apply their academic learning to a real-world challenge and participate in a consulting engagement with a leading corporate or institutional project sponsor.

Furthermore, the curriculum could and should include scores of case studies that span industry sectors including finance, healthcare, consumer retail, media and non-profit, preferably including real-world, EDI-related scenarios from global companies and organisations.

Regardless of the sector, all EDI case studies should contain a practical, industry-related problem, one or more case protagonists who are women and/or from under-represented minorities and the need for rigorous collaboration on ideas from both faculty and students that focus on solving these issues. They should also take into account that in many such cases in the workplace, these dilemmas do not only focus on the protagonist’s identity – be that race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, socio-economic background or anything else – but often intersect with core management challenges that organisations face on a daily basis in areas such as finance, hiring or marketing.

Promote peer-to-peer coaching, mentoring and sponsorship

Outside the classroom, institutions should establish EDI-related organisations for students, administrators and faculty – and facilitate routine meetings. Within these meetings, members can provide networking resources, including internship opportunities for EDI students, and host impactful events such as career mixers and lecture series that feature influential professionals.

Students who are enrolled on an EDI programme should not feel lost when navigating their academic and professional journey. Thus, coaches, mentors and sponsors play a key role in allowing students to enter and stay in the room. Students should be assigned an adviser (a third-degree supporter who is willing to offer academic and professional guidance of any kind), mentors (a select group of supporters who are willing to offer discrete support for the student’s goals through referrals and recommendations) and sponsors (a highly selective group of people who are willing to advocate for students when they are not in the room).  

Institutions can tap into their alumni network and facilitate a networking programme that enables students access to a diverse group of professionals inside and outside the classroom.

Keep track of progress

Institutions should develop a continuous report that collects data on how they are progressing on EDI. As colleges and universities move forward with their commitment to creating a diverse, equitable and inclusive environment, administrators should curate routine surveys across different programmes within an institution. These surveys can provide insight into how satisfied respondents are with recruitment efforts and the current level of faculty diversity within an institution, as well as help address incidents of discrimination, unfair treatment and microaggressions resulting from negative stereotypes and prejudice within an institution.

The key determinant of success in implementing an innovative new programme is progress, and institutions can take advantage of the information on diversity, recruitment and discrimination that is gathered using these reports, enabling senior administrators to make the necessary adjustments needed to keep students, faculty and staff members satisfied.

Eli Joseph is an educator, author and professional speaker. He serves as a faculty instructor at Columbia University, New York University and UCLA and is the author of The Perfect Rejection Resume: A Reader’s Guide to Building a Career Through Failure.

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