In recent years, institutions have confronted historical legacies of oppression, invested in faculty diversity, and developed retention programs for Black and Latino men, among many other initiatives. But since the surge in urgency around diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) in 2020 and 2021, progress has stalled on many campuses. Some institutions have even backtracked major commitments.
Higher ed leaders overwhelmingly agree that an unclear vision is one of the the biggest barriers to DEIJ progress. They disagree, however, about the most critical actions to invest in to drive progress on their campus. EAB research suggests that a lack of understanding, limited resources, and inadequate accountability mechanisms—all key elements of strong strategy—persist as barriers. As a result, senior leaders continue to find it difficult to make change.
To help, EAB developed the Institutional Strategy Index for DEIJ, a tool that comprehensively and objectively evaluates the current state of your institution’s efforts against best practice and creates a personalized roadmap of actions to close gaps. Here, we have organized all the work institutions must undertake to make progress on DEIJ into 33 mission-critical activities across six categories.
- Articulate inclusive vision
- Develop executive understanding
- Engage governing bodies
- Develop DEIJ infrastructure and resourcing
- Integrate stakeholder voices in planning
- Select metrics and outcomes
- Set and communicate accountability
- Develop inclusive faculty and staff policies
- Update budget processes
- Update procurement process
- Transform alumni and volunteer engagement
- Update campus safety policy and practices
- Update strategic enrollment management
- Align student support services
- Transform health and wellbeing
- Deepen student engagement and belonging
- Revitalize student onboarding
- Review and update curriculum
- Develop inclusive pedagogy
- Integrate academic and career development
- Update faculty recruiting and hiring approach
- Onboard and develop faculty
- Update tenure and promotion policies and processes
- Foster an inclusive climate for faculty
- Update staff recruiting and hiring approach
- Onboard and develop staff
- Update staff evaluation and promotion processes
- Foster an inclusive climate for staff
- Engage student activists
- Engage local community
- Develop flashpoint response plan
- Develop bias and harassment response
- Engage with institutional heritage
During the initial deployment of the Institutional Strategy Index for DEIJ, more than 215 cabinet and mid-level leaders (e.g., deans, AVPs of functional areas) scored these 33 activities on a scale of 0-100 based on how much of a barrier each activity poses to achieving their institution’s goals. Their responses provide a unique look into the areas of work they consider most urgent across both public and private four-year institutions. This is what we learned.
Why vision matters most: High-level aspirations fall short without a concrete roadmap
To be comprehensive, institutional DEIJ plans often choose lofty goals or—at the other end of the spectrum—create a very detailed list of action items. Both approaches, however, can set institutions up for failure, either by setting impossible-to-measure targets or building a to-do list that doesn’t amount to a coherent strategy.
Given the far-reaching nature of DEIJ, it’s unsurprising that activities within the "manage vision and strategy" category repeatedly scored highest. Top scores for activities like "articulating inclusive vision" and "integrating stakeholder voices into planning" indicate that leaders at all levels want to align on a coherent vision and agenda before addressing more granular challenges.
Cabinet leaders prioritize vision over divisional activities
The tendency to prioritize an actionable vision over a granular one was especially notable among cabinet-level leaders. In fact, they consistently scored activities within "vision and strategy" higher than those directly related to their functional area. This challenges the belief that cabinet members would prioritize their immediate area of responsibility over any other and further demonstrates their focus on setting a shared vision.
Just 10% of provosts selected any activity within "enhancing the faculty experience" as most critical. Meanwhile, no VPs of business and finance scored "update the budget process" highest.
It’s not that cabinet leaders don’t consider their terrains important (average scores show they do). Instead, they consider activities within the "vision and strategy" category the most critical in the near term. This is likely because colleges and universities without a clear institutional strategy to coordinate around increase the risk of units gravitating toward incremental and highly niche programming, duplicating efforts, and cannibalizing resources.
Why differences in priorities (may) help instead of hurt vision and strategy
Where cabinet members prioritized understanding and accountability, mid-level leaders scored resourcing and stakeholder involvement higher. A difference in priorities would suggest leaders might have a hard time aligning on a vision. However, EAB research suggests that this specific split may help to operationalize DEIJ initiatives, given the nature of strong accountability systems.
Top activities within the "vision and strategy" category
Accountability systems should incorporate actionable goals, success metrics, timelines, and resourcing. The best also assign specific objective owners at both the cabinet and unit level. Naming a senior leader for each item helps ensure buy-in and signals that DEIJ work is a cabinet-level priority. At the same time, assigning objectives to mid-level owners also establishes frontline commitment and helps to translate broad strategy to the department and individual levels.
By assigning dual ownership to cabinet and mid-level leaders with different but complementary priorities, institutions ensure that their accountability systems include all key components:
- The understanding needed to develop strong goals
- A focus on inclusion and resourcing
- Authority to set and communicate accountability
Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to setting a DEIJ vision. Strategies need to be institution-specific and contextualized to campus realities. With the Institutional Strategy Index for DEIJ, EAB can measure the criticality of DEIJ initiatives for your institution and help leaders agree on discrete initiatives to invest in now, versus in the future.
If you're interested in learning more about the Institutional Strategy Index for DEIJ and how to participate, please fill out the form on our partner service page.
Institutional Strategy Index for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice
Schedule a discussion with EAB’s experts to learn how the Institutional Strategy Index for DEIJ can help your campus on critical issues.