How Can ‘Inclusion’ Be a Bad Word?
What it’s like to be asked by state lawmakers to justify your life’s work.
On our first day back to campus — refreshed after a relatively calm spring break — we received an email that stopped us in our tracks: Our university in North Carolina had joined the ranks of public institutions asked by state lawmakers to justify their programs on “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (“DEIA”) or other similar topics.”
It was more than a little unsettling, as two professors who have spent years writing and doing research on inclusive teaching. Yet it was not unexpected, given what we have seen happening in other
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On our first day back to campus — refreshed after a relatively calm spring break — we received an email that stopped us in our tracks: Our university in North Carolina had joined the ranks of public institutions asked by state lawmakers to justify their programs on “diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) or other similar topics.”
As two professors who have spent years writing and doing research on inclusive teaching, it was more than a little unsettling. Yet it was not unexpected, given what we have seen happening in other states. What was surprising was the email’s urgency — and the limited discussion or transparency about what will come of this data.
Both of us hold administrative positions in undergraduate education, which is why we were among those who received this email, from the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations, seeking information about any pertinent workshops and training in our unit that had occurred since June 2019. The commission gave us a very short deadline to document the costs and sponsors (read its full request here). At this point, we have no indication of how the information will be used. Yet a week earlier, the Board of Governors approved a ban on “compelled speech.”
How does it feel to have your work in this kind of political spotlight? Frustrating. In large part because of the disconnect between how these topics are discussed on social media and on the news versus what we know to be true about them based on evidence, research, and practice.
Certainly our state will not be the last to issue such chilling edicts to inventory DEIA efforts. Yet we also believe that — if some policymakers and members of the public can avoid a knee-jerk reaction against all things DEI — everyone will find in these programs meaningful policies and practices that should be supported. As educators, we can all play a role in helping the public recognize the intent, impact, and value of DEI efforts in higher education.
With a combined 30 years of experience teaching biology and statistics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, we’ve confronted the problem of inequity in college classrooms by using the same problem-solving skills and data-informed approaches that we learned as scientists. We began by adjusting our teaching methods to minimize disparities in educational outcomes between student groups.
More than five years ago, senior administrators — recognizing the impact of our efforts — asked us to share these inclusive strategies with other faculty members on the campus. Since then, we’ve talked about these ideas in presentations and workshops with thousands of academics, nationally and internationally, to positive acclaim. We compiled our research and ideas in a recent book, Inclusive Teaching: Strategies for Promoting Equity in the College Classroom, and in an advice guide in The Chronicle.
And now, inclusion is a bad word?
The methods we advocate can help every student. We feel deeply about student success — all students’ success — because this is what being an educator at a public university means to us.
Not only are we educators at Chapel Hill, but also alumnae. Watching what’s been happening in other states now happen at the university where we grew up has created a sense of hopelessness for us at times. Yet it is only hopeless if we give up on the power of discourse. We believe that many students, parents, alumni, and the broader population of North Carolina will listen to evidence that counters the one-sided narrative they encounter in the media they read and watch. And if they do, we believe they will judge for themselves that inclusion and diversity are not dangerous concepts but, rather, worthwhile values for all of us. Here’s how we define these values.
Diversity and inclusion. In our 2022 book, we defined an inclusive academic culture as one in which all learners feel welcome and valued. The simple and — we thought — inarguable goal of an inclusive classroom is that all students feel that they belong and are respected. Why wouldn’t every college want to pursue that as a goal?
Oftentimes when people think about the word diversity, they point to characteristics or identities that seem visible, such as gender or race. Critics seem to think that campus DEI efforts are solely focused on race and gender, and specifically on spreading “woke” ideologies that seek to exclude or punish white students for the sins of the past.
That’s not been our experience. In the workshops we lead on inclusive-teaching techniques, we ask faculty members to identify all of the ways in which their students differ from one another. When we look at the lists they generate, while race and gender are certainly there, we see many other forms of diversity beyond the visible. These lists include students who:
- are the first in their family to go to college.
- have transferred from another institution.
- are from rural communities.
- are introverts.
- speak English as a second language.
- are neurodiverse learners.
- have caretaking responsibilities or work full time.
In short, there is no single, narrow list or set of demographic attributes that governs or defines “diversity” in higher education. Our role is not to blame students for the diversity they bring to the classroom, but to leverage it to enrich the learning experience.
Equity. Have you ever been at a busy airport when you weren’t sure what the ticket agent announced about which group was boarding? Or at a restaurant counter when you weren’t sure if you missed your order being called? In such situations, visual cues — electronic signs that show boarding or order numbers — can make the information more easily accessible. These systems were very likely designed for people with hearing impairments, but they can help many others know when to board a plane or when their meal is ready.
Similarly, in our teaching workshops, we talk about how subtitles, written instructions, and numerous visual aids supplement what instructors say aloud. Offering students multiple ways to access information is an equity issue. It’s inclusive. But it also benefits every student who doesn’t necessarily need those options.
Explained in that way, would any parent or lawmaker actually oppose equity and inclusiveness in the college classroom?
Small-group discussions are another way we promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. Would the public oppose the use of small-group discussions to ensure that all students had a chance to feel comfortable talking and asking questions? What if these small-group discussions benefited all students yet were even more helpful to particular groups of students, such as those underrepresented in higher ed or those historically excluded?
These vital elements of DEI programs never seem to make it into the public discourse. An analogy to a busy airport might be all someone needs to feel like they understand our perspective on inclusion, but we have far more to offer as educators and researchers.
In our own biology and statistics courses, the result of our inclusive techniques has been better learning outcomes (higher grades, lower failure rates, more interest in the subject) for all students and fewer performance disparities between specific student groups. Inclusive teaching leads to an increased sense of belonging. We frequently hear students say things like: “This is the first time in a large lecture hall where a teacher made me feel like more than a number.”
Plenty of evidence — compiled with different student populations at various institutions — continually demonstrates that more students do better with intentional inclusive design. The design can include many aspects of education such as the way an instructor facilitates interactions between students, the structure and frequency of assessments, and even the physical classroom space.
Furthermore, in nearly all professions, we aspire to improve our work, so why wouldn’t the same be true of education? One of us has a family member who characterizes herself as an introvert. This family member recounts that if the classrooms she were in 50 years ago used the techniques we describe, she would have had a very different and better college experience.
Teaching methods should and must evolve to serve today’s learners better. Now is not the time to shy away from encouraging DEI training. Rather it is the time to double-down on it so that more faculty members are skilled at facilitating difficult class conversations and structuring courses to increase student success.
What is at stake when faculty and staff training — and perhaps even conversations — about diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility are threatened by lawmakers who do not understand how these ideas help students?
The answer: everything from admissions to faculty retention. Without continued training on inclusive teaching practices, we are more likely to see:
- Recent gains in college graduation rates slide backward.
- Higher failure rates in individual courses.
- More controversies and protests by LGBTQ+ students or other underrepresented groups when hurtful language is used in classrooms.
- The disappearance of small gains that have been made in some places to close educational opportunity gaps.
These reversals may happen quickly when the professors who are most skilled and passionate about equity in undergraduate education flee public institutions and head to private ones, or to other states. We’re seeing it at our university already and even in our own employment decisions (one of us, Kelly, will be moving from UNC Chapel Hill to Duke University next year).
Reducing or eliminating DEI efforts is the opposite of what should be happening. This is a disheartening trend, but we are seeing the playbook passed around from state to state, and the results will be devastating.
We invite our fellow academics to help us state and restate a commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. We must help the public understand not only what happens in our classrooms, but also that we are committed to improving the craft of teaching to support all students’ learning.
Now is the time to do what we do best: Educate. We just need to reach a bit further than our classroom walls.