The Critical Role of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Higher Education

Harvard students joined in a rally on July 1, 2023, protesting the Supreme Court ruling against affirmative action. (Craig F. Walker / The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The Supreme Court last month struck down affirmative action, effectively banning colleges and universities from considering race as a factor in admission decisions. Around the same time, in Texas, Governor Greg Abbott (R) signed Senate Bill 17 into law, which bans DEI offices and trainings at publicly funded universities—making it the second state in the country to ban higher education diversity initiatives, after Florida. These bans follow wider discussions about the future of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in a collegiate setting.

Marginalized groups—particularly Black women like myself—routinely battle against the judgment of our appearance when we enter a space. The assumptions made when my name is seen on a resume or my new hairstyle is noted in the workplace can have consequences for my experiences in those spaces and my financial earning potential.

To engage in productive conversations about diversity and inclusion, we must understand the impact of discrimination and how it is felt across a spectrum of emotions, behaviors, thoughts and actions.

DEI is the pathway to breaking down these barriers that threaten our humanity. These initiatives help create a supportive and inclusive environment at universities—allowing diverse recruitment strategies, providing support systems that cater to a wide range of student needs, and fostering an environment where all students can thrive and reach their full potential. Universities that promote DEI help students develop important skills such as cultural competency, collaboration and empathy, which are highly valued in the global workforce. 

DEI shaped my own college experiences, making me—a graduate of two different predominantly white institutions—the woman I am today.

The four years I spent at the University of North Texas prepared me for “the real world” and corporate America. It allowed me to study alongside students with different backgrounds, cultures and ideologies. I was able to challenge stereotypes and develop greater empathy and understanding for one another. I had professors and classmates that looked like me and had the same interests, including communications and journalism, and could go to them when an issue arose or have an honest conversation or dialogue in class if a race-based issue happened. When my own mental health was suffering, I was able to seek help from my university and was referred to Black therapists and resources.

In 2021, 26 percent of college students said they think their schools still need to develop strategies regarding on-campus DEI. And in 2022, 62 percent of prospective and current students said they believed racial and ethnic diversity improves the experience of college.

In February, Abbott directed state agencies in February to stop considering diversity in hiring practices. And when Texas’ SB 17 officially takes effect Jan. 1, 2024, universities won’t have the ability to create offices or hire employees to conduct DEI work and must eliminate any existing DEI offices and employees. DEI provides a sense of belonging professionally and personally for underrepresented minorities—it’s about creating opportunities. The very thought that the policies put in place to support the underrepresented or discriminated against are considered illegal should be illegal.

DEI programs “on a college campus [are] vital because [they allow] students the opportunity to critically think about who they are, how they are showing up in the world and the impact they are having not only on themselves but the people around them,” said Brianna Welsh, assistant director for diverse student engagement at University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

“When you try to educate people on the truths about history and what is going on around us, people that don’t believe in it and have the power, will do whatever they can to keep their version of history alive.”

Up next:

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.


LaCriessia Malone is a communications expert, project manager, advocate for amplifying Black voices, and a public voices fellow with the OpEd Project.