3 Realities Facing Liberal Arts Colleges in DEIJ Efforts


3 Realities Facing Liberal Arts Colleges in DEIJ Efforts

Over the last two years, increased pressure from students, faculty, staff, alumni, and broader communities have forced higher education institutions to renew promises on diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ). To meet the charge, institutions began hiring senior-level diversity officers, built DEIJ-focused strategic plans, and increasingly grappled publicly with historical wrongdoing.

Selective liberal arts colleges face a particular set of challenges to meet their commitments to institutional change. Liberal arts colleges face a higher burden to serve the needs of their students, given their focus on building a strong community and student belongingness. The lack of clear progress on diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts threatens the environment students at liberal arts colleges value so much.

EAB hosted a virtual advisory session with chief diversity officers (CDOs) of selective liberal arts colleges to learn how these barriers impact their institutions. The leaders shared the challenges they run into in their work and how they are focusing their next steps to ensure systemic change on campus. The discussion revealed three realities of DEIJ efforts at liberal arts colleges.

At EAB, we have found four barriers impede institutions’ efforts for long-term progress.

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Selective liberal arts colleges are often just getting started on major DEIJ efforts

While selective liberal arts colleges faced pressure from students, faculty, staff, and the greater community for major commitments to DEIJ progress across the last few years, they have not had to face the harsh light shown on many large public institutions. While large research institutions have been mired in scandal and forced to reckon with their institutional histories, selective liberal arts colleges saw fewer outside pressures to effect change.

Now, however, selective liberal arts colleges are beginning to tackle major projects and planning to improve DEIJ on campus. Selective liberal arts colleges are just beginning to hire senior-most chief diversity officers, with over a quarter of the officers who joined our session being within their first six months of tenure. Attendees discussed how they are just getting started, and that a major aspect of their role was to initiate campus-wide efforts toward DEIJ.  This means that liberal arts colleges are playing catch up in the eyes of prospective students. They must demonstrate progress on DEIJ commitments quickly to stay competitive.

Institution-wide effort is the only way to create real change

The CDOs continually highlighted the need for support for DEIJ efforts across the institution during our session. They highlighted two clear imperatives that underscore the value of an institution-wide focus on DEIJ. First, they highlighted the necessity of support for action from the most important campus stakeholders, namely the president’s cabinet and board of trustees. Without their support, even the most thought-out plans will not come to fruition. Multiple CDOs shared that efforts to change controversial names of buildings, departments, and even the institutions themselves failed to gain traction without board-level support.

“You can’t be a 2022 institution with a 1749 mentality.”

Chief Diversity Officer, selective liberal arts college

Institution-wide support is also critical because it helps ensure that responsibility for action is not siloed to one individual or team. Real progress cannot be made without a shared sense of responsibility. The selective liberal arts college CDOs shared that without institution-wide support they could not get things done, especially given they often lacked many, if any, dedicated staff.

Choosing where to start may be the hardest part

Selective liberal arts college leaders shared that the multitude of action steps they need to take across student life, instruction, recruitment, and other aspects of campus, make it difficult to know where to start. With small teams and many inequities to tackle, some changes will take time and the prioritization of efforts is critical to establish trust with community stakeholders and ensure continuing support. This decision point, more than any other, stumped the gathered CDOs. They sought a way to identify the interventions that would yield the most impact on campus, knowing that time, dedicated personnel, and impacted constituencies all play a role in that calculus.

Liberal arts colleges are not alone in their commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice progress, but success will require navigating these three realities. For guidance along the way, EAB has curated our most impactful DEI resources to help college and university leaders cultivate diversity, foster inclusion, promote equity, and fight for justice for their students, faculty, staff, and communities. Learn more about how EAB is helping institutions make forward progress on their major strategic initiatives here.

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More on this topic

This resource is part of our larger research initiative, focusing on DEIJ initiatives. 

Be prepared when addressing historical legacies of racial harm on campus.

Use this toolkit to help your institution determine and communicate its preparedness for transformational change.

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