Engage in higher ed’s conversations about racial equity and inclusion. Delivered on Tuesdays.
From: Fernanda Zamudio-Suarez
Subject: Race on Campus: Want to Start a DEI Major? Read This First
Welcome to Race on Campus. Before protests for racial equity and against police brutality roiled the country last summer, scholars at Bentley University, in Massachusetts, were already thinking about a new field of study to offer undergraduates. Last summer’s protests and students’ increasing political activism prompted the college to make the program a reality. I spoke with two scholars who pitched the major and helped make it happen.
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What you need to start a DEI major
This fall, undergraduates at Bentley will be able to major in diversity, equity and inclusion — a set of courses not commonly offered for undergrads.
Students in the major can earn either a B.A. or a B.S. Both degrees will require students take some common classes, such as ones on managing diversity in the workplace and on gender and the law. B.A. students will take more courses in philosophy, literature, and sociology; B.S. students will enroll in marketing, management, and more law courses.
The program seeks to meet students’ interest in equity, and help fill a growing demand for DEI professionals and consultants. It also aims to help graduates understand the nuances of and differences between diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice.
Students will be able to enroll in the major on July 1, about one year after every state saw protests for racial justice. But the idea for the major preceded last summer’s activism.
Kiana Pierre-Louis, a senior lecturer, and Gary David, a professor of sociology, were among the instructors who pitched and worked on the new program at the business-oriented university.
Pierre-Louis teaches courses called “Race and the Law” and “Social-Justice Law,” and in recent years she’s noticed that many students want to learn more and go deeper than the course material.
She says she began thinking about a major focused on DEI and how systemic and institutionalized racism works in society. David wanted a major that moved DEI away from compliance — where institutions, companies, and nonprofits feel they need to or are required to meet certain diversity standards — and toward opportunity, with graduates working on ideas and programs to improve society with diversity, equity, and inclusion at top of mind.
The protests of 2020 pushed the plans into motion. “When last summer hit, it was like, We’ve been thinking about it for so long, let’s just do it,” Pierre-Louis says. “We think that we won’t get as much pushback as we might have gotten prior to that.”
Capitalizing on the growing demand
David has worked at Bentley for 21 years. Though it’s known as a business school, he says, he’s never seen students as politically “conscious” as they are now.
Getting buy-in from other instructors was simple, Pierre-Louis says. Many were already teaching some of the material now required in the DEI major, or were toying with developing classes that elaborated on those lessons. With the new major, the new courses have a home.
Some people at Bentley were surprised at how quickly the major was developed, David says. It took about a year. Some colleges have a tendency to start programs that remain untouched for years. That’s why some people favor a years-long, multistep process to craft a new major, so there’s no need to adjust it later. He says they did the opposite.
The scholars who created the program wanted to be thoughtful about it, but also capitalize on the growing demand for DEI professionals, David says. They also didn’t want to lose the momentum of the political moment.
Tapping into your networks
David and Pierre-Louis have advice for colleges that want to create a similar major. First, identify resources, human or educational, that your college may already have, David says. You may be surprised to find that your campus is already well on its way to forming a DEI major. Then, figure out how you want to group those courses together.
“Always start with finding the buried treasure,” David says. “We only created one new course, and that was from an external recommendation to have this unified, foundational DEI course that Kiana developed. Everything else already existed.”
Pierre-Louis stresses the importance of talking with folks outside the college, not just other faculty members or administrators. When creating the major, she and others spoke with alumni who work in DEI and asked what skills students should be equipped with when they graduate and what the alumni want potential interns to know.
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