Make it diverse (but don’t oversell it)


In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the nation’s renewed focus on diversity and inclusion, higher ed institutions are under increased pressure to showcase a tangible and measurable commitment to D&I, and rightfully so. Putting these surprisingly polarizing concepts into action is a necessary strategic focus for institutions who boldly declare a commitment to developing well-rounded, lifelong learners. But in the words of Meek Mill, “there’s levels to this.” Specifically, there is a cringeworthy conundrum many institutions can easily misstep into: attempting to portray a level of diversity that misaligns with the inclusivity that students actually experience — or don’t.

Let’s start by breaking down the definitions of “diversity” and “inclusion.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, diversity involves “including or involving people from a range of different social and ethnic backgrounds and of different genders, sexual orientations, etc.” This could consist of one person or several. Inclusion, on the other hand, is simply “the fact of being included.” Whether it’s three people or a hundred, inclusion reaches beyond diversity to ensure that diverse individuals are seen, heard, and included, and have equal access to opportunities and resources.

Following the tragic murder of George Floyd, like many predominantly white institutions in America, colleges and universities felt compelled (and/or pressured) to take immediate action. More students of color in the recruiting materials. Check. Campus convenings to discuss Ibram X. Kendi’s 2019 trendy bestseller, How to Be an Antiracist. Check. Webinars breaking down buzzwords like “unconscious bias,” “privilege,” and “belonging.” Double check.

And yes, diverse imagery, inclusive messaging, and holding safe spaces for critical conversations are cool. The problem arises when the words, images, and sound bites don’t match the day-to-day realities of people of color. You know those “what I bought” vs. “what I got” social media posts? Funny, right? When it’s about a botched Amazon delivery, sure. But not so much when it pertains to the lived experience of a young person of color who’s left home and purchased a five-figure education, sold on a brand promise of a “We Are the World” collegiate experience, only to find that they’re severely in the minority, both in race and perspective, within a majority-white institution.

You see, diversity is quantifiable, with benchmarks often constructed from behind a lens of unconscious bias and privilege. While having the presence of one or some people may feel like a win, it’s simply a starting point. Do students from diverse backgrounds feel welcomed, respected, and supported? Do they have easy-to-access opportunities for finding and forming community? Answering questions like these is the foundation for inclusion — and more importantly, they relate to the lived experiences that can make or break someone’s academic journey and a university’s reputation.

As marketers and brand communicators, we can’t end longstanding university racial gaps with a tagline or two. But we can begin to intentionally create a more balanced view of a college’s actual state when it comes to showcasing inclusion. And the good news is, doing this doesn’t require a degree in rocket science.

  1. Be transparent. Be honest in sharing the current state, benchmarks, goals, and vision around inclusion. This means acknowledging where you are, where you want to go, and how you plan to get there.
  2. Assess proactively. If the people are telling you there’s a problem, you’re already behind. Rather than waiting for external pressure, proactively assess policies, statistics, and networks to identify and address systemic barriers to inclusion.
  3. Bring in the experts. If you’re not a D&I professional, now isn’t the time to try. Rally your dollars and consult with subject matter experts who can provide valuable insights and go-forward strategies.
  4. Do an audit. Talk to your audience. They’ll tell you where you’re winning, and where the areas of opportunity are. Listen, learn, and then activate.
  5. Open the curtains. Now isn’t the time to be shy. If great work is being done, celebrate it, but don’t oversell it. Better yet, let your audiences and ambassadors tell it for you.

While diversity might paint a pretty picture, inclusion ensures that everyone in the frame feels welcomed and knows they belong. It’s the authentic DNA that permeates every aspect of campus life. In a world full of diversity showcases, inclusion is the ultimate mic drop.