November 29, 2023

Numerous state legislatures have been in the news recently asking their campuses to report budgets and resources dedicated to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts and a list of DEI-focused programs, services and efforts.

Their goal? To identify and reduce DEI in higher education.

Florida has become the poster child for the state leading this conservative backlash against DEI, but several other state legislatures including Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, Idaho and Iowa have joined. Model state legislation has been written—and if passed, will prohibit colleges from hiring DEI officers, spending money on DEI, and bar training that instructs staff/faculty to identify and combat systemic racism.

Because DEI has not been institutionalized to a great extent on most campuses – these efforts to “trim” DEI are likely to be successful. Cuts can be made relatively easily because DEI’s efforts are isolated and muted — outside of the normal work of the campus. Dr. Adrianna KezarDr. Adrianna Kezar

One of the main reasons DEI efforts are in jeopardy on campuses across the country is that DEI has not become part of school culture or normative practice. Instead, it has remained outside our normal ways of conducting the business of universities and colleges. DEI’s efforts are more easily threatened because the cuts can largely be glossed over to the chief diversity officer and the office. As conservative politicians become aware of these DEI resources and offices, campuses and their staff and DEI offices may become easy targets for political attacks.

But we set our own goals. For decades, we’ve had the opportunity to build DEI into daily practice and campus policy, but we haven’t. Now is the time to change this paradigm.

A research team at USC’s Pullias Center for Higher Education recently studied campuses that have made progress in addressing equity gaps and advancing their DEI agendas. We have identified Shared Equity Leadership (SEL) as an approach to real progress that creates cultural change. The SEL approach deeply and successfully integrates DEI into daily campus operations.

In SEL, capital becomes everyone’s job and not the job of the Chief Diversity Officer or the DEI office. By embedding DEIs in faculty, administrative and staff roles across campus, the job will not become a target for cuts. Not only does this approach protect DEI from cuts, but it also ensures that the work has a critical mass of human resources to engage and move forward to transform student experiences to be more positive.

This leadership model encourages an organizational structure to distribute work widely, providing a planning and accountability apparatus so that work is sustainable over time, even if it is distributed among many more people. What’s more, campuses that have implemented an SEL approach are becoming much more diverse when it comes to hiring, promoting, and retaining racially diverse faculty and staff. And campus leaders are dismantling problematic policies and practices that stood in the way of justice.

Can SEL fully protect DEI from attacks? Not quite, as seen in the bans on critical race theories, but it can certainly make it more difficult for lawmakers to find and isolate DEI for blanket cuts and bans. And if fairness is routinized more like a best practice—say, disaggregating data to find equity gaps—it’s much harder to see the activity as problematic because it’s hard to get headlines for following good administrative practice.

Dr. Adrianna Kezar is the director of the USC Pullias Center for Higher Education and the Wilbur-Kieffer Professor of Higher Education at the USC Rossier School of Education.

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