Diverse Conversations: In Teaching Higher Education, the Difference Between Diversity and Equity

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by Matthew Lynch

Adriel HiltonThe nature of higher education is changing and the student population is changing at colleges and universities across the country. With luck, the promotion of equality in higher education will continue to engender equality in education ― not only in terms of student access, actually, but in terms of employment.

But how does diversity and equality work out in education ― in the practice of teaching in higher education? Given the issues of equality and diversity within education, how, in today’s changing context, can we move on and teach these principles effectively?

To grapple with this issue, I spoke to Dr. Adriel A. Hilton, director of the College Student Personnel Program and assistant professor of college student personnel at Western Carolina University. Hilton served as past director for the Center for African American Research and Policy as well as assistant vice president for inclusion initiatives at Grand Valley State University. He also served as chief diversity officer and executive assistant to the president and assistant secretary to the board of trustees at Upper Iowa University. 

Q: Concentrating on this issue of equality and diversity, first, let’s talk about how they are related. How do you see the relationship between equality and diversity in higher education?

A: I find it interesting that two words with contrasting meanings are used jointly as a way to improve higher education. Equality is synonymous with likeness, uniformity, fairness and homology; while diversity, on the other hand, means unlikeness, variance, mixed and heterogeneity. Yet, when the words are synced with higher education, they become mutually beneficial, having a powerful impact.

Much research has been done on the effects of diversity in higher education, concluding it has very positive effects on students. Exposure to diversity — whether it be cultural, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or those with disabilities — provides students the opportunity to learn about and from each other, resulting in cognitive growth and citizenship.

The equality factor in higher education is to assure all students legally start off on a level playing field. Equity policies have evolved over the years — from the first affirmative action laws in the ’60s to the One Florida Initiative of the late ’90s to the Student Non-Discrimination Act of 2013. These laws were not intended to give preferential treatment, but [were and] are an effort to break down the barriers that discourage underrepresented populations from enrolling in college and suffering injustices in the workplace. These efforts are still widely debated, particularly quotas, but with colleges today focusing on promoting diversity, having some sort of equality policies in place on campus set expectations for students, faculty and staff. They set standards of respect and call for all students to view each other as equals and for faculty and staff to treat each student, regardless of his or her differences, the same.

Q: Do you think higher education institutions are sufficiently aware of the difference and, if not, why not?

A: I would like to think that anyone employed in higher education appreciates equality and diversity and acts accordingly, but I am not that naïve — hence the need for equality regulations and policies. Personal experience has proved that people in higher education are human first, with learned prejudices that have been passed down through the generations and of which are hard to let go. It is only through knowledge of and exposure to people of different races, culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation and those with disabilities, that insight is gained about another person’s lived experiences. Without this knowledge, any degree of empathy, respect or joy about any person who is unlike us is impossible to understand. When no conscious effort is made to learn about diversity and equality, progress is impeded.

Q:  Explain why you feel it is imperative that courses in diversity and equality are included in college curricula. 

A: The obvious answer is knowledge about diversity equips our graduates with the tools needed to effectively cope in today’s diverse workplace and global society. We now live in an age where technology has allowed us to easily connect with all types of people from around the world. Sensitivity toward a person’s culture, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and disability is an absolute must.

Community service is another motivation for colleges to offer diversity and equality courses. Who better to pass on the importance of a college education to underrepresented teens than someone who has been through the process? When college students serve as role models through partnership programs with local public schools, it can be very fulfilling and even lead to a lifelong passion for community service.

However, the main reason diversity and equality should be taught at the college level is that it helps to develop empathetic, socially conscious individuals. I think former Florida Governor Jeb Bush is a good example of a college-educated, empathetic, socially conscious, wealthy, White male.

According to the NCSL (National Council of State Legislatures) website, when Governor Bush issued the One Florida Initiative in 1999, his intent was to reform college preparation in Florida public schools (P-12) for all students, regardless of race or ethnicity, and to do away with race-based college admissions. He stated in a press release, “With my One Florida Initiative, we can increase opportunity and diversity in the state universities and state contracting without using policies that discriminate or pit one racial group against another.”

According to the Foundation for Excellence in Education (Bush is founder and board chairman of FEE) website “…during his two terms, Bush championed major reform of education in Florida, raised academic standards, required accountability in public schools … created the most ambitious school choice program in the nation … progress is measurable … more high school seniors are earning a diploma … fewer students are dropping out … third through 10th grade students are outscoring 60-70 percent of their peers in all other states in both reading and math.”

Bush recognized a problem, developed a solution, and put it into action. In my opinion, without a strong conviction toward diversity and equity, Bush would not have seen the potential in all students, no matter their class, race, gender, religion or disability, nor would he have been empathetic or cared enough to want to help the underserved population so they too had a chance to be successful.

Q: What advice would you give to fellow academics and administrators looking to teach diversity and equality and promote it?

A: Be objective. Teach from diverse perspectives ― the first-generation Black male, the low-income Hispanic teen, women, and disabled veterans. Tell people’s stories, past and present. Bring in experts to speak. But most importantly, have your students be a part of the discussion by honestly sharing their own experiences, asking hard questions and having healthy debates so that they become personally vested in the learning process. Finally, initiate community service programs that partner with local schools to get students involved. It is through service that they will be able to see first-hand what a positive impact they can have on the lives of others. Remember, as instructors, our job is to plant the seed. It is the student’s responsibility to take that seed [knowledge] and, hopefully, choose to nurture it and make it grow.

 

We would like to thank Dr. Adriel A. Hilton for taking time out of his busy schedule to meet with us.

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