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What does it take to foster a campus climate of inclusion?
Male and female college student studying in library

James Soto Antony is faculty director of the Higher Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

College and university campuses have long been locations of social protest, dating back to the earliest days of American higher education. But the last academic year felt particularly challenging to higher education leaders, with several describing it as the most contentious year they could recall.

Our country continues to face deep challenges, and the ire raised by students has been pointed directly at college and university leaders. A primary aim has been to ask these leaders to work harder to foster an inclusive climate on campus. Unfortunately, too many leaders are unprepared to do so and, as a result, are simply hoping debates and protests won’t come their way. This sort of fantasy thinking is neither strategic nor helpful.

Leaders who do not actively pursue strategies for fostering a climate of inclusion on their campuses fail to fulfill an important part of the leadership imperative. This is because not working to create an inclusive climate prevents us from meeting our publicly professed institutional goals for student learning and growth.

Here’s what I mean:

Research has shown that campus environments that promote engagement are more likely to improve all the student outcomes we care about. Such engagement is borne, partially, from a sense of belonging, which a climate of inclusiveness across campus fosters. And an inclusive environment is good for all students, faculty, and staff because it helps them feel comfortable with being different, and with learning to work with others who are different from themselves.

In what follows, I outline a few ideas for campus leaders interested in fostering a climate of inclusion.

Start with numbers, but go beyond numbers.

It is challenging to create a climate of inclusion if there is little diversity on campus, so developing strategies for increasing diversity — and collecting data to clearly understand their progress — is important. 

Yet having more people of color on campus, or greater numbers of people representing different other categories of diversity, does not ensure the campus will enjoy a climate of inclusion. History is replete with examples of institutions that have increased diversity, only to see little interaction among different people, or to see people leave the institution after a short period of time.

Leaders have to make sure their institutions are not focused only on getting people in the door, but are equally focused on the experiences people have once they arrive. People need to feel a part of the campus environment; need to be given genuine opportunities for shaping its culture and policies; need to feel they have a voice and are respected; and need to see themselves, and their ideas, reflected across campus. This kind of inclusive climate is good for everyone, not just those from “diverse backgrounds.”

Building an inclusive campus — A few more concrete suggestions:

  • Leaders should ensure that the people they name to leadership positions across campus are committed to promoting an inclusive climate.
  • They should address problematic, harassing members of the community and make it clear that such behavior is not tolerated.
  • Leaders should incentivize the behavior they wish to see, creating pockets of money to reward departments that are promoting inclusion.
  • Before requiring others to undergo diversity training, leaders should demonstrate that they, and their staff, are learning about bias and diversity.

Speaking of problematic behavior, it’s harder to be outright racist or sexist (for example) when women and minorities have actual institutional authority. And underlying elements of structural racism and sexism have a better chance of being addressed, too, when women and minorities have influence. So leaders should actively promote the advancement of women and people of color to positions of leadership.

Leaders should fiercely defend academic freedom and free speech, and honor diverse forms of scholarship — but they should also help everyone understand that such freedoms are coupled with deep responsibility and, when used as “cover” for manifestly hateful speech, will be met with equally strong speech representing other opinions (and sanctions, when appropriate).

Leaders should examine policies that set conditions for workers who don’t have the protections, or rewards, of powerful faculty members and administrators. For example, they should:

  • promote policies that improve work-life balance;
  • take a serious look at the campus relationship with unions;
  • develop a strategy to address living wage issues;
  • have an ongoing dialogue about graduate student welfare, making sure working conditions are healthy for those graduate students who serve as teaching and research assistants;
  • and develop campus resources to help service workers feel part of the campus community, as opposed to marginalized and disposable.

Leaders should critically examine financial aid policies to ensure they are not unintentionally creating barriers for poor students. They should strive to create work-study opportunities that promote the academic ambitions of students, as opposed to providing cheap, nonunion labor for the campus. And financial aid should aim to cover the true costs of attendance, ensuring that even poor students can take advantage of opportunities such as internships and study abroad.

Finally, the most important suggestion of all: Don’t be passive. Leaders need to actively pursue inclusion, because it does not happen on its own. 


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