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Seven ways to tell how committed your university is to diversity and inclusion

Top diversity and inclusion professor shares some tips on how students can explore whether their university is genuinely committed to change

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Pardis Mahdavi's avatar

Pardis Mahdavi

Dean of social sciences and a professor in Arizona State University's school of social transformation
April 16 2021
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Higher education is – thankfully – in a moment of transition. After the murder of George Floyd last year and in response to the continued push of the Movement for Black Lives, universities around the world are responding by pledging a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. Some are even going so far as to declare themselves “anti-racist universities”, which is a welcome change.

As students consider which university matches their core values and which institutions are truly committed to the work of inclusion and diversity, how can you tell who is really enacting change and not just saying they are?

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I have created a framework that looks at justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI), an action-oriented approach to systemic change inside colleges and universities. But how can we tell if an institution is really committed to the work of JEDI?

Your first stop should be the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings, which measure global universities’ success in delivering the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. By delving into these rankings, you can do the necessary background research that can be a good baseline on the JEDI commitment of a particular college or university.

In addition to these rankings, here are seven more ways to tell if your chosen university is really committed to the work of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.

1. Look at the list of faculty and staff across all ranks to see how much diversity exists there. You want to see that an institution has not only done well in recruiting diverse faculty, but has been emphatic about retaining them. 

2. Consider if JEDI is built into the performance evaluation system of staff, because that is evidence of a structural commitment to anti-racism. Are  students able to comment on what a professor has done well – or not – to foster an inclusive classroom? Are there mechanisms for faculty and staff to narrate their JEDI work as part of performance evaluations? These are markers of institutional transformation.

3. Many universities are built on native and indigenous lands. Some rest on sites of violent altercations. Find out if an institution recognises this challenging past. Is there a land acknowledgement on their website or in their promotional materials?

4. Related to point number three, many institutions also have a racially infused past that comes up in the names of buildings and sometimes in their mascots. Find out if their mascot has changed or not. Many institutions continue to promote problematic team names or symbols in offensive ways. Some universities have addressed this and changed their mascots and this change is a very good sign. Read up on the names of buildings or statues on campus – have there been controversies about past named spaces? How has the institution responded? And how accessible are their spaces? What kinds of thinking has gone into the built environment?

5. Does the institution engage in behavioural tracking? Some colleges have started using analytic software to track the behaviour of prospective students as part of admissions criteria. But this has raised red flags as having racial and class undertones. If these mechanisms track the kinds of extracurricular activities students engage in – who has access to elite tutoring, or certain types of extracurriculars that are expensive, for example – this could lead to  inequities in the admissions process.

6. Look for evidence of a plan of action to engage in anti-racist work. Universities are large and complex organisations, so change can’t always happen overnight. But many institutions have publicly committed to a plan to bring about structural change. Our president, Michael Crow, for example, has come up with a 25-point action plan called the LIFT Initiative, which details a programme for structural change at Arizona State University. In addition to announcing this plan, ASU has created a number of committees and support mechanisms to ensure that these become a reality.

7. Finally, look at the composition of different bodies at the university. See if they provide information on how diverse these bodies are, and how committed they are to supporting initiatives such as the one presented above. For example, who is on the board of trustees? Who is missing? Also look at the composition of staff and how they are treated. Are there reports of staff protests when you Google the institution’s name followed by “staff”?

Anti-racist work is not easy and JEDI is an ever-evolving framework to bring about the necessary change in higher education. But looking for these signs will at least help to give you a sense of the direction an institution is moving in, and if you want to be on that journey with them.

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