Welcome to Race on Campus. Twenty years ago the phrase “inclusive excellence” was introduced in higher education. Now, colleges use it to describe, among other things, strategic plans and job titles. But what does the phrase actually mean? And are colleges acting on the values of “inclusive excellence”? Sarah Brown has more.

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What Is ‘Inclusive Excellence’?

In recent years, you’ve probably seen an increasing number of references to “inclusive excellence.” These days, the term appears atop strategic plans, in job titles, and all over campus websites. I’ve noticed more senior administrators talking about their institutional commitment to “inclusive excellence” during interviews.

But in those conversations, it’s been difficult to pin down what the phrase actually means. I also found myself wondering where colleges got it from.

Inclusive excellence “sounds really good, but they have to do the work to make it so,” said Alma R. Clayton-Pedersen, who coined the term 20 years ago when she was a vice president at the American Association of Colleges and Universities. Clayton-Pedersen, who now consults with colleges, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations, has mixed feelings about how the concept has taken off across higher ed — because she doesn’t think many colleges grasp how to act on those values.

Basically, inclusive excellence is a framework for thinking about equity, diversity, belonging, and student success in higher ed, and how colleges can tackle those challenges.

In the early 2000s, the AAC&U had just published its landmark “Greater Expectations” report, which was a call to action for colleges to reimagine liberal education. “Even as college attendance is rising,” the report’s abstract stated, “the performance of too many students is faltering.”

The association started brainstorming potential projects that could put the report’s vision into practice. Clayton-Pederson said she and other senior staff members got together and tried to answer a key question: “What’s the DEI piece of this ‘greater expectation?’” In that meeting, Clayton-Pedersen landed on “inclusive excellence.”

“We argued about it,” Clayton-Pedersen said. Her colleagues worried that “excellence” was too high of a bar.

In some ways, the term cements hierarchy, said Lynn C. Pasquerella, current president of the AAC&U. “When we talk about inclusive excellence, it implies a kind of exclusivity that is not intended, but can send a hidden message about who really belongs in institutions of higher education,” Pasquerella said.

Still, she said, “the language itself doesn’t matter as much as the actions.”

Clayton-Pedersen believed that higher ed needed to strive for the ideal of excellence, even if it wasn’t 100-percent attainable. “The goal is to broaden who can become excellent,” she said.

Applying the Framework

Inclusive excellence got its start through a grant funded by the Ford Foundation, and expanded into the “Making Excellence Inclusive” initiative. The AAC&U conceived it as a model for improving academic outcomes, especially for students of color and other marginalized groups.

But the framework that resulted touches every part of a college campus, including the diversity of faculty and staff members and partnerships with the surrounding community.

Clayton-Pedersen feels that many colleges have pigeonholed inclusive excellence as a classroom idea, when it’s supposed to be broader than that. “It’s not just about students’ learning,” she said. “It’s also about organizational learning.”

Higher-ed leaders are still battling the false narrative that more diversity means less merit, Pasquerella said. “There are continuing fears that if we diversify the student body, if we diversify the faculty and staff, that there will be an erosion of excellence,” she said.

Some people yearn for a past where excellence supposedly reigned supreme. But for much of higher ed’s existence, Pasquerella noted, it excluded large swaths of the population: women and people of color. Were colleges really that excellent back then?

The AAC&U has embraced inclusive excellence as part of its mission. “There is, of course, the danger that it becomes such a common part of the discourse that it loses its meaning, especially when it comes to accountability and how we’re assessing ourselves,” Pasquerella said.

‘Intellectually Dishonest’

When Shaun R. Harper was frequently traveling to college campuses pre-pandemic, he often sat down with members of the president’s cabinet. Senior officials discussed inclusive excellence, said Harper, a professor of business and education and executive director of the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center. But the term didn’t appear to have taken hold on the rest of the campus.

Campus leaders would talk about inclusive excellence, Harper said, and then continue to trumpet the narrative that excellence equaled prestige — like winning big research grants and publishing in top journals. In other words, leaders often weren’t connecting their institution’s pursuit of excellence to inclusion.

There’s another problem with feel-good diversity language, Harper said: It doesn’t accurately represent the experience that many students, faculty members, and staff members have had. “It feels so intellectually dishonest,” Harper said, for colleges to profess inclusive excellence without any data showing whether students, faculty members, and staff members actually feel included on campus.

There are some institutions that are walking the walk on inclusive excellence, Clayton-Pedersen said, like the University of Colorado at Boulder and San Diego State University. SDSU has a Center for Inclusive Excellence that aims to increase faculty diversity and runs professional-development workshops for scholars from underrepresented groups. In the materials Clayton-Pedersen uses when consulting with colleges, she stresses the importance of identifying specific goals, collecting data, and measuring progress.

What does inclusive excellence look like? One example, Pasquerella said, is that colleges should make sure all students have access to study-abroad programs, undergraduate-research opportunities, and other key experiences outside of the classroom. When Pasquerella was president of Mount Holyoke College, the institution began providing paid internships to every student at some point during their college career. That was designed to compensate for the fact that many low-income, first-generation students couldn’t afford to take advantage of internships.

Ask most college leaders what they believe inclusive excellence is, Clayton-Pedersen said, and they’ll probably talk about racial equity. But that’s not how she envisions it. Inclusive excellence must also center the experiences of disabled students, LGBTQ students, and other groups, she said.

In a similar vein, Harper said, it’s also important for administrators not to leverage inclusive excellence as a way to keep talking in generalizations and avoiding the topic of race.

—Sarah Brown

Read Up.

  • In May 2020, Fredrick Miller bought an estate called Sharswood in his hometown of Gretna, Va. Soon after, Miller and his siblings discovered that their ancestors had been enslaved there. (The Washington Post)
  • Despite being well represented in scientific communities, less than 7 percent of scientific-prize recipients are Asian scientists, according to a recent analysis. (Cell)
  • Brittany Murphree grew up with conservative views in Mississippi, one of the country’s most Republican states. During her second year at the University of Mississippi Law School she took a course called “Law 743: Critical Race Theory” — at the same time that Republican state legislators were introducing bills to ban teaching critical race theory. Here’s what she thinks now. (Mississippi Today)
  • The University of Alabama will rename Graves Hall as Lucy-Graves Hall. Autherine Lucy Foster was the first Black student to enroll at the university, in 1956, and Bibb Graves is a former Alabama governor and Ku Klux Klan officer. (The Crimson White)

—Fernanda