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The Future of DEI in Higher Education

The impact of the Supreme Court's decision to end race conscious admissions and the future of diversity work on college campuses
Diversity and Inclusion Playlist

The Supreme Court’s decision to end race conscious admissions and — actions taking place in many states to curb diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts on college campuses — has raised the question: What is next for DEI in higher education? Rich Reddick, a leading thinker on DEI in higher education, knows that the field needs to regroup and rethink the future of diversity — something on the minds of most college administrators.

“Many folks this summer, we all were sort of in a funk... . It's just disappointing to know that the work and the research that has gone on for the last 40 years [is] being dismissed,” says Reddick, Ed.M.'98, Ed.D.'08, the associate dean for equity, community engagement, and outreach for the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin.

“I remind people in both Fisher [U.S. Supreme Court] cases, there are amicus briefs submitted by the Fortune 100 and the military saying [diversity] is something that's critical to our ability to be competitive. Having a diverse population and having students have an opportunity to learn from each other and expose to each other's identities is such an important part of what makes us competitive economically, socially, politically. So that can't go away,” he says, asserting that this is a time to lean into diversity in the college admissions and lean on partners in higher education to continue being committed to diversity.

In this episode of the EdCast, Reddick shares his reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision, how it has impacted and changed his work with college administrators, and ways for those doing the challenging work of diversity today to stay committed to the fight.


JILL ANDERSON: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. 

Rich Reddick believes higher education needs to find new ways of doing diversity, equity, and inclusion work. He spent decades working and studying DEI in higher education. He's also the associate dean for equity, community engagement, and outreach for the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin. It's been a tough year for those committed to diversity on college campuses, with the Supreme Court ruling against race conscious admissions and a growing number of bills being brought forth by states to curb DEI efforts at colleges and universities.

Rich admits it can be disheartening to do this work at times and is a big advocate for what he calls restorative resistance. I wanted to talk to Rich about what this all means, not just for college admissions, but also the future of DEI. First, I asked Rich his reaction to the Supreme Court ruling.

Richard Reddick
Rich Reddick

RICH REDDICK: I think it was expected from most of us. I think many of us were buoyed to see the responses from Judge Jackson and the things that she kind of put out there as far as really invigorating dissent that gives hope and also presents the idea that this is not a settled question. The decision went against precedent. And then secondly, it also sort of put together these competing views of what a colorblind society looks like.


RICH REDDICK: I mean, it's so ironic that we are talking about this on the 60th anniversary of the Birmingham 16th Street bombing, right. There are people who lived through that bombing, still are living with the consequences of the trauma from that experience. And to posit that we're at this colorblind sort of apex of society, when in fact, the evidence is constantly around us that it's just not that way.  

So not a surprise. I think disappointment, but one that we were prepared for. And one that I think most institutions probably had already started thinking about, well, how do we respond to this?

JILL ANDERSON: You know, we've had a few months now to reconcile a little bit with the ruling. And as you noted, a lot of institutions were already thinking leading up to it, what way will this go? And how will I have to change? As someone who's worked in diversity, equity inclusion for many decades and you guide professionals in this area, has this changed the work? And if it has, tell me how.

RICH REDDICK: Many folks this summer, we all were sort of in a funk, you know. It's just disappointing to know that the work and the research that has gone for the last 40 years, sort of, being dismissed. And so, this summer at the Institute for Educational Management, we had Ruth Simmons visit with us.


RICH REDDICK: A giant, somebody I grew up reading about. And I'm sitting there interviewing with her with Jim Honan. And Juliet Garcia, who's another alumna and speaker, I have these two Texas giants of higher education. And one thing that Ruth said to us was, we do the work that we've always done. We just have to find new ways to do it. Kind of a very matter of fact framing of it.

So we have to adhere to the law. We'll do that. But we have to also find ways to meet our institutional goals. And I'm in a room of 70 higher education leaders, all of whom have something in their institutional mission about serving equitable populations and making sure that we are doing all the things to maximize human potential. We all have something like that in our mission statements. We had some very interesting discussions in the decision, one of which was Justice Roberts making the comment that, well, you should be able to talk about how race has impacted your personal development and your sort of opportunities.

And so, it's such a weird thing, Jill, because in a lot of ways I'm like, well, if you can do that, then why are we at this point with the ruling. But nevertheless, we heard them say that it's acceptable for applicants to talk about how race has influenced and shaped their lives.


RICH REDDICK: As institutions, we can't probe into that. We have reporting necessities we have to do for the federal government. And so, that's a change. But certainly, I think students and people who are applying for universities should be talking-- as they always should be talking about the way that their experiences have shaped their lives. And race is obviously-- race and gender and sexual orientation and socioeconomic status among other things are very salient parts of how we navigate the world.

So I expect that students and applicants will start talking about those things more explicitly. I think also, it sounds to me that the folks who are helping students think about accessing higher education, it would be important for them to recall and remember that something that was said in the decision, that is part of what you can talk about. And they should talk about it and in all its forms, right. I don't think it's necessarily a story where you say, well, because I have a underrepresented identity, my life has been terrible. But it should be, here are the things that I've encountered that have created perhaps more obstacles to me fulfilling my potential. And here are some things that I've done that have been inspiration.  

So think about myself as an African-American male. You know, I've had so many wonderful experiences that are inclusive of my identity. But I also went to an under-resourced school. I also had less resources in my k-12 experiences. So those have to be part of the narrative. So I think that was one thing I think that's a really important takeaway.

I think also just to remember that the efforts that are happening both inside institutions, but also outside institutions. So a lot of times think it's the importance of having our partners who support higher education, the world of philanthropy, nonprofits, community organizations have an important role to play. So I hope that is an opportunity for us to come together and think about, well, perhaps in the institutional context, this has been made more challenging or difficult or even not possible.  

How can our community partners, how can our partners in philanthropy, how can the corporate sector who is constantly said... and I remind people in both Fisher cases, there are amicus briefs submitted by the Fortune 100 and the military saying this is something that's critical to our ability to be competitive. Having a diverse population and having students have an opportunity to learn from each other and expose to each other's identities is such an important part of what makes us competitive economically, socially, politically. So that can't go away.


RICH REDDICK: And so, I think the opportunity and the importance of us calling on those partners to say, we need you to also articulate the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in your respective spheres, whether it's the corporate sector, whether it's the military. And in fact, there is a carve out in this decision supporting the military academies use of race in their admissions process. So these are critical aspects of what we need to do to make ourselves ready to be competitive and do our work. We just have to find new ways of accessing that information and building diverse, inclusive communities in higher education.

JILL ANDERSON: Because we know research shows that removing affirmative action leads to declines in students of color enrollment in so many colleges. I mean, you just were talking a little bit about that, about the essays and that portion of applying to college. Is this something that you heard a lot of worry about from college administrators? What are we going to do? Are we going to have big drops in enrollment?  

Prior to this decision, that was a lot of the goal was to bolster, to try to make the student body diverse and enrich the higher ed community, enrich the courses. And now it's kind of a little bit of a question mark of what will things look like going forward.

RICH REDDICK: Jill, we did. And in fact, we have evidence of that. When California had the proposition that rescinded affirmative action, they saw a precipitous drop in African-American enrollments at their flagship institutions. So yes, I mean, that's kind of the expected result.  

And so, for institutions we have to do is be steadfast in our commitment towards equity and inclusion, right. And we have to say, and you heard this from many institutions. The ruling came down. Most institutions aren't spoiling for a fight or looking to be sued. So certainly, the incentive to stay within the constraints of the law are there, but also the understanding that this is such an important part of our mission. We can't just not do it.

So we have to really strive to think about how we do this. And of course, people talk about these proxies, or how do we find other ways of looking. And of course, I'm reminded of Justice Roberts and Justice Sotomayor having this back and forth in another case where Justice Roberts says, well, the only way to get over the color issue is to get over it. And Justice Sotomayor is saying, well, the only way to really address it is to actually address it.

So every other proxy out there, whether socioeconomic status or first-gen status is addressing an issue specifically about that. But racial identity overlaps in so many different ways. To think that every single person who is African-American, Latino, Asian, Native American comes from a low income background or comes from a first generation background is problematic, right. That's not the case.

It really does present this dilemma because, again, it's these two competing ideologies from the court that say colorblindness. And it just sort assumes that we've had some kind of transformation. And nobody sees anything from the lenses of race and identity, to folks who have lived experiences where they're like, well, wait a minute. That is not how the world works.

I always remind people to look at any sort of indicator of life outcomes, whether it's maternal mortality or all those things. You see racial disparities. They're still there. So I think the realistic perspective is to say, we have worked very hard. And I think we can make different assessments of how hard we've worked. But we've made efforts to make those things improve.

It was powerful, I think, to hear Judge Jackson ask the question during the oral arguments about, how would you assess a person who had similar credentials but had different experiences because of their racial identity? And the lawyer couldn't really respond to it, right, because it is a salient part. And that's the thing that's, I think, really hard to square because I think it's understandable to say that, perhaps the goal is for some people to say we want a colorblind society. And people often abrogate Martin Luther King's words and saying colorblindness. And they don't think what that actually means.

What that meant was there was no negative consequences because of one's racial identity, not to let it go. And there seems to be this idea that we just need to ignore the role of race in our development. And what has-- or we've done something monumental to advance so those things don't happen. But again, I look at the things like mortality rates. I look at things like looking at the rates of certain diseases among the populations. Those are racially, you know, salient sort of spaces.

So it's hard to make a good faith argument to say that's not happening.


RICH REDDICK: It's fine to say, the goal is that. And we're working towards it. But we're not quite there.

JILL ANDERSON: Right, we've also just seen the work of DEI just coming under attack. We're seeing legal action being taken to bar colleges and universities spending money on DEI programs. We're seeing limits to how race can be discussed. And even though we can talk about the state where this gets the most media mentions, it's not just happening in Florida. It's happening in a lot of states, dozens of states.  

And there were many bills introduced in this past year putting forth efforts to curb DEI. For you guys who are doing this work is this just totally demoralizing?  

RICH REDDICK: Yeah. So I think that's a fair assessment. I think for many folks it is. This is not something that just came out of the blue. It's not, like, a trend. We called it different things, Multicultural Affairs, I think when we first started out.

But this is truly a body of research and a body of professional identity that many folks have. It shouldn't be surprising if we study history because we know typically when there are advances, there are backlashes. So in the summer of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd, there was this renewed focus and commitment from organizations. I remember when the New York Times best seller list, every book on the list was addressing issues of equity and inclusion and the invariable backlash.

And I think people need to understand this. So when you think about the Manhattan Institute putting out a paper saying, abolish DEI. That Christopher Rufo who's-- you mentioned Florida-- is the architect of what's happening there when they make very clear claims.

And again, they're not grounded in fact because as I've said already, I mean, these institutions and commitments to DEI have to work within the constraints of the law. So there are no quotas in spaces, right.


RICH REDDICK: Another thing I think, of course, is it's interesting that the response was, I see shortcomings in the DEI space. And I think all of us who work in the diversity, equity, inclusion space would say is, every DEI policy is every training at the very maximum? Of course not, that's true of anything.

But the response is to get rid of it, not to, let's revisit it. Let's analyze. Let's understand better. So I actually find, a lot of times when you talk to people about what the work actually is about and who's included in the work. The work is often organizations such as those that address veteran issues, that address issues for women, that address issues for rural students, a lot of populations that people do not think of as the DEI space.

People are often surprised to hear that. And of course, when I mentioned the Manhattan Institute, they were very explicit about pulling out, like, let's not have Title IX things in there or things that refer to veterans. But nevertheless, in most DEI organizations, those are part of the populations we serve.  

The other thing, of course, Jill, is that intersectionality is a real concept. It's not a boogie person that they talk about. Intersectionality would say that it's possible to be a white, rural, veteran and access services from a DEI office, right. You're not just one slice of identity.

And so, it's one of those things where I think people sort of see soundbites. And we're in a new media environment too, where I think the media, depending on what your media consumption diet is, you could start to walk away and think, well, it's this thing and take these sort of outlying kind of experiences and saying, well, that's what it's about. Instead of saying, there are very different ways of approaching this work.

And again, for somebody who's been doing this work as long as I have, I certainly think that I've grown a lot in the work I've done. I've taken different approaches. I think most of us who do the work seriously, I think my colleagues at Harvard like Robin Chapman at the Kennedy School, we do this work in a sense of trying to build communities and coalitions, right.

So everybody has to do the work. Everybody should be invested in maximizing the human potential in our organizations. And it isn't just for a certain population. It isn't just for certain people. And it's not as if people in the organization who have certain identities are either thriving or not thriving. It's kind of understanding that it's a much broader undertaking than that. And I've always been a person who's looked at this work as being work that is truly inclusive.

In fact, in my work I often challenge people who often feel, well, I don't hold a marginalized identity. So why am I in this? I'm like, you need to be in this because you're part of the organization. You're a leader in the organization. How you challenge and frame things matters.

So and, it's unfortunate because I do, again, think about what it means to be making people ready for world readiness. Like, how do we do that work when we in fact, have this incredible benefit of multilingual and multi identities that we can actually access and understand? We're actually harming ourselves if we walk into the world and say-- we come from a nation that has an incredibly diverse population, but because we've made certain policy choices.

And then, maybe I'm not able to access those experiences. And then walk into other spaces. And I'm ignorant. Or I don't have the tools to engage the way I should. And one thing I do, Jill, which I really have enjoyed as a professor is, I take my students abroad. And I can see the benefit of my students being in diverse spaces because they know how to engage with people from other countries because they've met people from those countries before.

They've had opportunities to understand how the world operates outside of their own context. Why would we want to take that away, I don't know. That's the thing that confounds me.

JILL ANDERSON: You referenced your own work on restorative resistance. If I'm understanding what that is, it seems like there has never been a time where that is needed more than right now. So tell me what restorative resistance is in the context of DEI work.

RICH REDDICK: First of all, I found that other people were using this term in other ways. But what I was trying to get at was this idea that, I think about the 30 years I've been doing this work. There's always been challenges, right. And then, how do you keep doing the work because one thing I think is very true of people who work in the DEI space is fatigue, right.

You're working to create a more inclusive climate. You've got sort of budgetary constraints. You've got policy constraints. You've got legal constraints. You have all these things kind of working against. It's Sisyphean. You're pushing a boulder up the hill. And there's stuff coming the other direction.

Well, how do you keep doing that work? And really it's trying to find the ways to build community and to prioritize selfcare, which I saw I think post George Floyd, the first time I saw people saying, you know, I've had enough. And in the book, I talk about the parallels in the sports world.

So Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles were both going through these moments in their careers where they were like, I cannot do any more right now. I can't perform at the peak performance. I need to take time away from this. And then I think, fairly mediocre people were critiquing them for this.

We're talking about the people who are the best at the world at what they're doing. And they had comments. And I realized this idea of preserving one's self is so important. And this concept of sustainability, which we apply in the environmental context applies to our lives as well.  

Like, to do this work in a sustainable manner, I think about my heroes in the work. The Beverly Daniel Tatums, the Charles Wylys, my mentor, Bridget Terry Long who's my advisor at Harvard. You have to know how to do the work and also live your life.

One of my favorite pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. Is when he's on vacation in Jamaica. And there's Dr. King in a pool with swim shorts on. And it just shows you, the work is unyielding. It's always there.  

But we have to make sure we prioritize our own well-being to do the work well and make sure we find the people in the world who are fellow travelers. And the fellow travelers are not simply in your institutional space. They're in other universities across the country, across the world, right.

And it means a lot when you can talk to somebody who is in a different context and say, I'm doing this work. Can you help me with some resources? Can you help me with just brainstorming? Or I tried something that didn't seem to be very successful. What's the feedback you had for me?

When I think about the joyfulness because people have often asked me those kinds of questions. And I'm like, I like what I do. Not like it's an onerous all the time. They're definitely challenging days. But you only have that when you have a chance to restore and prioritize your own well-being.

And my own transformation in the last several years was saying to people, if you feel the institution or the field is not giving what you need right now, it's acceptable to take time away from it. And hopefully we get to have that talent and those ideas and those skills back.

But there's so many spaces to execute the work of creating more inclusive climates, I think, moved in a lot of places. So a lot of my friends who worked in higher education have moved into nonprofits. They've moved in the medical sector. They've done all kinds of spaces to do this work.  

It's necessary. And it really is about this idea that we are doing our utmost to make sure that when we bring people in our organizations, we're getting the most we can out of their contributions. They're not holding back parts of their identity. They're not contributing because they don't feel it's safe to do so.  

And I always make that argument to people. I say, can you imagine what it must be like to be part of an organization, to be brought into an organization because you have an incredible skill set, but feel you can't truly be who you are because there's bias, there's prejudice, there's racism, there's homophobia? Wouldn't it be amazing if we could get those things out of there and allow those people to really bring all of the traits that they bring to the organizational stage? Of course, it is.

And so, we do that by helping people understand how to work in spaces that are inclusive and welcoming. And that sounds a little bit less scary, I think, to some people. But a lot of times it's just the matter of having it broken down. Haven't given up on the idea of making sure that people truly understand the work that we do and not falling into these tropes or these kind of media hyped false narratives about what the work actually is.

JILL ANDERSON: Rich Reddick is the inaugural associate dean for equity, community engagement, and outreach for the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin. There he is also a professor in the program of and in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy. He is also the author of Restorative Resistance in Higher Education, Leading in an Era of Racial Awakening and Reckoning.  

I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening. 


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