Why universities advance diversity & inclusion on campus

Diversity and inclusion (D&I) isn’t just a buzzword used in university marketing materials to attract top performing students and faculty to college campuses. It has evolved from “the right thing to do” into a pillar of university culture that has demonstrated return on investment (ROI) and return on mission (ROM).

Beyond creating a sense of increased diversity and fostered inclusion on campus, strong D&I programs can enhance the cultural intelligence of students– a key element that helps shape the whole person as students prepare to enter the world outside of the structured and protected college environment.

Diversity, inclusion and intelligences

Researchers distinguish cultural intelligence from emotional intelligence. Although they appear innately similar in that both capabilities facilitate effective interpersonal interactions, there are clear distinctions.

Emotional intelligence focuses on detecting and regulating one’s emotions. Cultural intelligence focuses more broadly on cognition, emotion and intentions of self and others, and explicitly on intercultural interactions. Specifically, research shows that cultural intelligence is a key predictor of performance when the work context is culturally diverse, whereas emotional intelligence plays a larger role when the work context is more homogeneous.

Thus, for higher education to best prepare students for the more culturally diverse workplace of the future, diversity and inclusion programs—the drivers of cultural intelligence—are imperative on college campuses.

Making meaningful change

The concept of diversity and inclusion has been around for years, but how are universities becoming successful at making meaningful changes on campus that drive impactful D&I cultures? For many, it starts at the top. Leading university D&I executives agree that in order for a D&I program to be successful, there must be buy-in from leadership – from the educational board to the college deans.

It is up to D&I leaders to educate stakeholders on the true benefits—the ROI—of D&I. Clearly, campus demographics are rapidly changing. For one, we have far more foreign students; according to Pew Research, new foreign student enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities doubled between 2008 and 2016, from 179,000 to 364,000, far outpacing growth in overall college enrollment. Additionally, the U.S. will shift to a multiracial majority in 2045. Thus, the question becomes can our higher educational institutions afford to not invest in D&I?

Measuring outcomes

Once a D&I program is established, it is crucial to measure its impact, not only to showcase financial ROI, but to highlight the power of the program on the student body. A common method of measuring impact is student and faculty-wide surveys. These can either be administered directly after a specific D&I training program or to measure overall sentiment on campus throughout the year.

Though stakeholders often look to quantify outcomes, for initiatives such as D&I, the human experience can often only be measured qualitatively. D&I experts encourage university leaders to measure results by looking around their campus—how are students of different ethnicities, genders and cultures interacting in the cafeteria, in the classroom and outside of school-sanctioned functions? Are people treating each other with genuine respect, empathy and demonstrating high levels of cultural intelligence? Only when these qualitative interactions show positive improvement can a campus confidently call its D&I program a true success.

The inclusive campus

Increasingly, administrators say that an inclusive campus is central to higher education. Both in college and beyond, young people need to learn how to navigate new relationships and situations—especially when these relationships and situations are culturally diverse.

“The opportunity to interact with those who have different experience, to have opportunities on campus to express your voice, and at the same time be challenged by ideas that are different than your own—that’s what’s necessary to equip the next generation of leaders,” said John Beisner, interim associate VP of human resources and diversity and inclusion at California State University, Fullerton.

As the demographic makeup of our country and college campuses diversifies, it has become both a challenge and an opportunity for universities to build D&I programs that create true impact and change on college campuses and within the student body. By securing buy-in from the top and measuring effectiveness through positive human experiences on campus, colleges and universities take effective steps to shape their students into high performing, culturally intelligent leaders of the future.

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