Universities Face Rising Challenges to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) refers to the frameworks that seek to promote the fair treatment of historically marginalized groups that have been subject to discrimination in the past. Although the terms have been used interchangeably, diversity represents people and viewpoints from different backgrounds. Equity is about making sure that people get access to the same opportunities. Inclusion is “diversity in practice” – setting up systems that welcome, appreciate, and protect people of various backgrounds.

DEI has been a constant presence in higher education and universities. Faculties are expected to demonstrate their commitment to diversity during recruitment. At the same time, state funding supports DEI through training, workshops, scholarships, and appointments to DEI-based offices, aiming for a more inclusive and equitable university environment.

There is a reason why DEI should play a crucial role in higher education. Women, students of color, and those who identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community are sorely missing in several higher education circuits, both at the student and faculty levels. Women accounted for only 24% of the total bachelor’s degrees conferred in Physics in 2021, while Hispanics earned about 12%. Even at the faculty level, most people in the physics and astronomy departments identified as white. In 2021, about 7% identified as Asian/Asian American, 2% as Black/African American, and 4% as Hispanic/Latino. Among tenured faculty members, the numbers were 8%, 2%, and 4%, respectively. Research also indicates that, on average, Black/African American faculty members received tenure 1.5 years later, and Asian/Asian American faculty members 0.8 years later than similar white colleagues.

This shows that there are systemic barriers to specific groups of people, even if they are equally qualified as others. The effects of these barriers often get hidden. Correctly administered DEI training can be beneficial in making people aware of these systemic barriers and giving them the means to overcome them, allowing us to ensure equal opportunities for all. Having a diverse workforce can only be beneficial for the university. Research also indicates that having a diverse faculty can improve student retention by providing representation. A diverse campus fosters cultural awareness and enhances critical thinking, enriching the educational experience for all.

The attack on DEI

Recently, DEI efforts have faced significant pushback from US lawmakers, with nearly 85 bills in 28 states (Figure 1) aiming to restrict or regulate initiatives in higher education. Particularly, Republican politicians claim DEI efforts are ‘discriminatory’ and advocate for merit-based systems. This debate mirrors broader societal tensions around equality and social justice issues, and it is important to understand these dynamics to fully grasp the significance of DEI in higher education.  

Figure 1: Map representing states across the USA where anti-DEI legislation has been proposed. Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The case for equality vs equity

Imagine a law mandating everyone wear size 10 shoes, the average size. This might seem fair, akin to equality—treating everyone the same but it doesn’t consider that people have different needs. Not everyone wears a size 10 shoe, those who do will be comfortable, but those with smaller and larger feet will always have blisters, trip more frequently, or maybe not be able to wear shoes at all. Equity, however, ensures fairness based on circumstances, like providing shoes that fit each person. So, if someone needs more support or resources to reach the same level of opportunity as others, equity means providing that additional support (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Figure highlighting the difference between equality and equity and why ensuring the latter is more important. Source: LeadMN

What can we do?

While the future of DEI in higher education may seem uncertain, faculty members remain committed to their work.  Most agree that they will continue to do the DEI work they do but find new ways to do it so they will not be under fire from the law.  While Florida’s law, for example, prohibits the “spending of university funds on DEI efforts,” it does not explicitly ban DEI efforts led by student organizations.  Though it is unfair that students shoulder much of this responsibility alongside their academic and personal duties, many have risen to the challenge. Creative solutions, such as disguising events like Florida Atlantic University’s homecoming drag show, demonstrate student resilience. Rallies and protests against anti-DEI laws further highlight student activism supporting equity.

While faculties and students courageously stand up against the DEI laws, it is high time university administrations step up. They benefit from the contributions of the diverse faculty and student body. They must provide unwavering support and protection from legal pressures.  Many administrators are unsure what the laws expect them to do and, as a result, offer ambiguous support to the anxious student body or participate in malicious over-compliance (as in Texas). With other states likely to replicate Florida and Texas’ actions, well-paid administrators must act to safeguard university integrity without yielding to political influence.

Department administrations and faculties must play a proactive role in establishing DEI-related organizations within our department. Too often, the burden of setting up and maintaining these vital organizations falls on the shoulders of graduate students, adding to their already demanding responsibilities. Faculty involvement is crucial to truly benefit from the inclusive environment these organizations foster and to ensure our continued participation in DEI-related discussions and activities under increasingly restrictive laws. 

Finally, the only reason why these lawmakers are in power to make such anti-DEI laws is because the people of this country elected them to do so. Regardless of our location, educating our friends and family about the detrimental impact of these proposed laws is vital. As America heads to elections this year, it falls upon all eligible students and educators to cast their votes responsibly. Let’s ensure that higher education remains barrier-free and accessible to all!

Astrobite edited by Erica Sawczynec and Graham Doskoch

Featured image credit: Gerd Altman

About Archana Aravindan

I am a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Riverside, where I study black hole activity in small galaxies. When I am not looking through some incredible telescopes, you can usually find me reading, thinking about policy, or learning a cool language!

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