Predominantly white institution’s responses to diversity, equity, and inclusion

By Deborah Perez

Predominantly white institution’s responses to diversity, equity, and inclusion

By Deborah Perez
Editor’s note: The following opinion piece was submitted as part of the inaugural “Op-ed Challenge” hosted by the University of Miami Graduate School. Open to all graduate students, entries were judged by media professionals.

Following the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor in 2020, universities broadcast Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) statements in support of their historically marginalized students. 

However, many of these statements have been criticized as opportunistic “branding” hashtags rather than authentic commitments to social change. While eloquently written statements were widely shared, what progress has been made and how have students felt about their institutions’ responses since? 

As a Latina graduate student and scholar activist who has worked alongside marginalized students for over a decade, I was devastated by the racialized violence ensuing in our country. As Black and Brown undergraduate student leaders at my university organized around these issues, I asked how I could be of support. I met these student leaders through a first-generation college mentoring program where they serve as mentors and I as a program coordinator.  

Students initially requested a gathering where members digested the sociopolitical climate and presented civic engagement opportunities. We interviewed 11 minority student leaders attending a Predominantly White Institution (PWI). Their perspectives represent counternarratives that can inform authentic change for universities committed to DEI initiatives. Our analysis of interview transcripts led to a “stakeholder blueprint” outlining three ways in which PWI’s can shift their intended promises for DEI towards meaningful change efforts that aren’t just for “likes.”   

DEI Dialogues cannot be Isolated “Selfies”  

At the height of 2020’s #BlackLivesMatter movements, institutional dialogues around DEI initiatives surged. Many of these initiatives fell short of sustainability. Within our study, one student affirmed, “It takes something to happen like a death, or a murder, and that’s when everyone wants to react... And once it blows over, time passes... and we’ll just wait for the next murder to happen.” Another adds, “I always feel like the conversations of race is something that is like hurricane season.  It comes and it goes, and then we don’t talk about it.” Both students challenge institutions to include plans for sustained DEI efforts and not disappear until the next incident provokes reactive responses.  

Institutional Responses must be “Verified” 

Students described University DEI initiatives as performative and necessitate mechanisms for accountability. Institutions must not only disclose their DEI goals, but outline how they will measure progress and publicly disseminate outcomes. Speaking to institutional changes, a student contributes, “I can’t say that I saw a lot of major changes. It was always just like performative things. Like yes, now we have a chair of DEI or now we have a council... but they didn’t really do much.” Students recommended the adoption of transparent accountability measures as part of DEI practices to gauge progress. If not, their vague approaches could cast further doubt on higher education’s commitment to DEI. 

Valuing the Lives of Students Over “Likes” 

Student perspectives in the study noted institutional decisions were aligned with the Board of Trustees’ “branding” goals, rather than their lived experiences as students. One student questioned, “How do we convey…our truth to them when they operate from a paradigm that is very different from our own?”   

It is imperative for institutions to reconsider prioritizing ‘clout’ over actual concerns for their students’ lives. Another student frustratingly recalled an administrator who stated that she had to be “impartial” to students and confirmed “this is not just me- this is a brand.” The student’s response was “but we are hurting!” Institutions must be willing to reshape power structures and invite diverse perspectives into positions of authority. 

Students also shared a desire for institutions to care more about the communities from which they benefit in regard to research, enrollment, and funding. A student shared his insight, “The only time that we’re present in these areas can’t be when we’re recruiting football players, you know?” Without authentic commitments to bettering social outcomes for their students, what practical value does higher education really have to offer them? In an effort to heal a historically severed relationship between minoritized communities and universities, institutions must proceed cautiously and with genuine care for diverse students. 

Although students took action and outlined ways in which their institution could promote DEI, their voices remain disregarded. While this study suggests that the fight for more diverse, equitable and inclusive spaces is ongoing, it highlights an opportunity for universities to reevaluate their commitment to serving students and model DEI authentically. 

If higher education really values student concerns for DEI, do not “ghost” them and leave them on “read.”  

Deborah Perez is a graduate student in the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Miami. Read more about the inaugural “Op-ed Challenge.”