Poster Paper: Boundaries of Inclusion and Exclusion: Making Meaning of Diversity in Higher Education

Saturday, November 9, 2019
Plaza Building: Concourse Level, Plaza Exhibits (Sheraton Denver Downtown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Alejandra Diaz, University of Minnesota

Diversity has proven to be an enigmatic term. It has the potential to encompass many identities and social factors all within the bounds of a singular word. At the same time, the inclusive nature of diversity ultimately renders it a decontextualized ideal. Scholars have for years tried to further define diversity, how it relates to its more historically contextualized counterpart, affirmative action, and how it intersects issues of inequality and particularly, race. However, the meaning of diversity can also be understood not in abstract terms, but in practice.

Institutions of higher education have proven to be sites of power and normalization of diversity policy. Though diversity as policy can have multiple interpretations, practitioners make decisions every day that ultimately delineate the boundary of what diversity looks like in practice. This paper seeks to better understand the meaning of diversity by learning from higher education diversity practitioners.

Existing literature reveals that diversity policies at institutions of higher education are diverse themselves. Each institution interprets, implements, and evaluates diversity according to their own broader mission and vision of education. Institutions of higher education can vary widely, from student body size, to the endowment, and resources. Geographical location is also important to consider as each region in the country has specific history or particular context in which meaning making around race and diversity is created. For these reasons, all data was collected at a single large, Midwestern, research university, hereafter referred to as the University.

Data for this paper was collected through a series of hour long semi-structured in-depth interviews. The interviews were conducted in person between October and November 2018. A purposeful sample of four staff and administrators working in various departments and positions across the University, each with at least ten years of experience working at the present institution, was recruited. The interviews were transcribed and then coded and analyzed using NVivo content analysis software.

The study’s findings indicate that the meaning of diversity is neither stagnant nor cohesive across the University. This is true for individuals, and it influences how they do their work. However, it is also true for offices, departments, and colleges- at an institutional level, the University operates using various definitions of diversity. Specifically, the study shows that the process of inclusion and exclusion in what constitutes diversity can have far-reaching consequences for underrepresented students. For example, deciding eligibility for programs is a process plagued with difficult questions such as delineating between domestic and international status. Furthermore, how diversity is defined in terms of who “counts” can influence how data is managed and communicated, ultimately impacting access to benefits and resources for students at the University.