Expert Commentary

Reporting on DEI in higher education: 5 key takeaways from our webinar

Three researchers offered journalists tips and insights to help strengthen news coverage of college DEI efforts and legislators' push to restrict or ban them.

DEI diversity equity inclusion higher education college

U.S. lawmakers have introduced a flood of legislation to limit or eliminate colleges’ DEI initiatives, which are designed to improve diversity, equity and inclusion on campus. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education’s DEI Legislation Tracker, a total of 82 such bills have been filed in 28 states and Congress since early 2023.

Diversity, equity and inclusion are three closely linked values that, together, have become an umbrella term for efforts to ensure people from various backgrounds are included and supported. DEI programs at colleges and universities tend to focus on students, faculty and staff from groups that historically have been marginalized — for example, racial and religious minorities, military veterans and students who start college later in life.

Anti-DEI legislation often targets DEI offices or staff as well as schools’ diversity statements, training programs and policies on hiring and promoting employees and admitting students, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

To help journalists better understand what DEI is and how anti-DEI legislation could impact higher education nationwide, The Journalist’s Resource co-hosted a webinar March 28 with Harvard Kennedy School’s Institutional Antiracism and Accountability Project.

If you missed it, you can watch the recording. Keep reading for five key takeaways based on presentations from:

  • Kristen Renn, the Mildred B. Erickson Distinguished Chair and Professor of Higher, Adult, & Lifelong Education at Michigan State University and a former dean in Brown University’s Office of Student Life.
  • Khalil Gibran Muhammad, the Ford Foundation Professor of History, Race and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Institutional Antiracism and Accountability Project.
  • Erica Licht, IARA’s research project director and co-host of the podcast Untying Knots.

1. A wide variety of student groups benefit directly from DEI initiatives.

“DEI efforts often get, particularly in some parts of the country, framed simply around race, sometimes around gender or sex,” Renn said.

She noted that framing is incomplete. In fact, two broad categories of students benefit directly from DEI initiatives: those with minoritized identities and those whose experiences are underrepresented on campus, she explained.

Minoritized students are from groups that historically have been marginalized, discriminated against and excluded from higher education based on race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability, Renn added.

Students whose experiences are underrepresented include neurodiverse students, students who are military veterans, first-generation college students, low-income students, students who returned to college later in life, international students and students who are raising children or caring for older adults.

2. Many colleges and universities have tried to incorporate DEI values across campus — from student housing, dining services and health care to coursework, academic advising and mentoring.

Institutions often use a variety of approaches across campus to promote DEI, including revising course syllabi so students study the work of diverse authors, and launching programs that celebrate or raise awareness about different cultures and world views. Ohio State University’s Native American and Indigenous Frybread Community Social and South Dakota State University’s World Languages and Cultures Film Festival are examples of such programs.

Many colleges and universities have created communities within student housing to make it easier for students of the same identity group — first-generation college students and transfer students, for instance — to find and support one another.

Hiring faculty and staff from different backgrounds also promotes DEI. Not only does it provide career opportunities for diverse groups of people, it allows students to seek help from academic advisers, mental health specialists, professors and other campus authorities who have similar life experiences.

Some DEI programs offer support and resources for specific identity groups, like Bristol Community College’s Women’s Center, the University of Georgia’s Pride Center and Duke University’s Her Garden, a mentoring program for female students of color.

3. Journalists reporting on anti-DEI legislation must familiarize themselves with academic research on the impacts of DEI in higher education.

In the webinar, Licht spotlighted several studies suggesting students who attend schools with DEI programs perform better academically, work better in teams and are more engaged in their classes. Meanwhile, Muhammad introduced the Race, Research & Policy Portal, a free online collection of research summaries created by the Institutional Antiracism and Accountability Project.

Muhammad stressed the need for journalists “to show extreme skepticism” for claims that critics of DEI make to justify anti-DEI legislation. Elected leaders and organizations that oppose DEI efforts often mischaracterize research findings on the topic or claim there’s no research to support the need for DEI at higher education institutions.

“Much of what is being blamed on DEI doesn’t actually have a basis in fact other than a few anecdotal examples, you know, of some terrible training models that went haywire,” Muhammad said.

He acknowledged that it’s difficult to know what programs are offered at each institution and how they’re working. Schools customize their programs to serve their own student populations.

“There are thousands of DEI offices around the country,” Muhammad said. “No one can actually know exactly what everyone is doing.”

4. Because of the number of people and institutions affected, curbing or eliminating DEI initiatives will have a bigger impact than banning race-based affirmative action in admissions.

Over the past year or so, politically conservative organizations and politicians have worked together to sway public opinion against DEI initiatives and push anti-DEI legislation, news outlets have reported. Earlier this year, The New York Times characterized the movement as a backlash against “wokeism.”

The focus on DEI has grown sharply since last summer, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down race-based affirmative action in college admissions. The nation’s military academies are now the only higher education institutions that can consider race and ethnicity when selecting students.

That ruling will affect students at dozens of selective colleges and universities. Anti-DEI legislation, however, will have a significantly larger impact on American higher education, Renn said.

Race-based affirmative action policies have helped racial and ethnic minorities get into the most selective institutions, such as Ivy League schools. DEI initiatives, on the other hand, benefit a bunch of student groups across all types of colleges and universities.

Renn noted that anti-DEI bills target the institutions most U.S. college students attend — community colleges, state flagship universities and mid-tier public schools and universities. More than 10.2 million students — 35% of undergraduates nationwide — went to community colleges in the fall of 2021, according to a 2023 report from the U.S. Department of Education.

“It’s very important to talk about DEI as what’s happening on campuses,” Renn pointed out. “When politicians or legislators restrict curricula and campus climate efforts, that actually has a much greater harm than curtailing affirmative action in admissions.”

5. Journalists need to ask more probing questions about DEI efforts and higher education history.

Licht said journalists should delve more deeply into schools’ histories to better understand campus culture and the need for DEI programs.

“Journalists should be asking these questions of, does the university know its own history?” Licht said. “Do the people who work there know it?”

It’s also important, she added, to ask legislators and critics of DEI if they know how higher education institutions discriminated against, exploited or excluded certain groups of people well into the mid-20th century.

Other questions worth exploring:

  • Which initiatives work best for reaching the goals of diversity, equity and inclusion, according to peer-reviewed research?
  • How will anti-DEI legislation affect historically Black colleges and universities?
  • Could any anti-DEI bills infringe on student rights protected under Title IX, the federal law that prohibits colleges and universities from discriminating against students based on their sex?
  • How does the amount of money an institution spends on DEI efforts compare with the amount of money it loses on other programs, including student athletics?
  • What disparities have existed among different student groups over the past decade? For example, how do students compare in terms of graduation rates, debt accumulation and job placement? If DEI efforts are prohibited, how will schools address disparities?
  • How should the perspectives and experiences of women, students of color and LGBTQ students shape campus policies and practices?

Further reading

This tip sheet was updated for clarification on April 4, 2024.

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