A push to increase diversity seems to be on every organization’s list of goals. This could include bringing more women and minorities on board, or pushing for representation from a range of ages, backgrounds, and economic statuses.
But while the goal of improving diversity has traditionally stemmed from a push to increase access in higher ed, Jason Owen-Smith, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan, suggests there may also be a strong “business case” for embracing those from various racial, social, and cognitive backgrounds.
In his book, Research Universities and the Public Good: Discoveries for an Uncertain Future, Owen-Smith argues that a diverse team of students and faculty ensures that the academic research conducted by a university reflects and supports the needs of the surrounding community. Plus, “varied intellectual orientations carry with them different approaches to problems.”
In other words, diversity encourages creative problem-solving. “A mix of backgrounds helps by making it easier for researchers to uncover relevant information that may be known to one of them but not to others,” writes Owen-Smith. “Diversity also helps make sure that no single approach to a problem or particular disciplinary scripture will necessarily dominate the work of a university.”
In fact, research by Alison Reynolds, a faculty member at Ashridge Business School, and David Lewis, the director of the London Business School‘s Senior Executive Programme, suggest that diversity—and cognitive diversity, in particular—heavily influences a team’s success.
Reynolds and Lewis found that groups with high cognitive diversity—that is, groups with variation in how each individual processes knowledge—were able to complete a series of exercises faster than groups lacking cognitive diversity.
And several other studies suggest that homogeneity in groups can dampen problem-solving and decision-making skills. For example, a recent study published by Harvard Business Review found that cognitively diverse teams were more successful at solving novel problems and that cognitive diversity may be correlated with better overall performance.
“When team members are all the same, you start getting group think,” explains David Rock, a leadership expert and co-founder of the Neuroleadership Institute. “By contrast, when you have diverse perspectives, people have to work harder to explain themselves and understand each other. They attack problems more robustly and from many more angles. It may feel like harder work and more uncomfortable, but it is in fact more creative and effective.”
So how can colleges create diverse teams to both serve their communities better and improve their institutional success?
Here’s what diversity experts recommend:
1: Take responsibility. Top administrators need to be directly involved in campus diversity issues. Gregory Vincent, vice president for diversity and community engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, has worked with the school’s presidents on programs that support underrepresented and first-generation students. “Everyone has to strap in and say, OK, this is going to be at least a decade-long initiative to get going,” he says.
2: Include all faculty members in decisions. Diversity plans tend to be hashed out by small groups of people with disproportionate minority representation and little power to enact change on campus. But all faculty members have a stake in hiring, curriculum design, and to an extent, admissions. “If faculty don’t own an issue, it’s impossible to make progress on it,” says Brown University President Christina Paxson, who spearheaded a $100 million campaign to increase diversity on campus in 2016. “If there’s one lesson for college presidents, it’s that.”
3: Bring students into the conversation. College presidents miss out on important conversations when they ignore, dismiss, or take at face value students’ demands that come off as too extreme. “Their demands are often jarring, but they’re meant to force a conversation,” says Ajay Nair, senior vice president and dean of campus life at Emory University. However, “we are not very good as higher education institutions at listening very carefully to our students’ concerns.”
4: Call in the experts. Conversations about campus diversity initiatives tend to be too complex for administrators to handle on their own, says Mitchell Chang, a professor of higher education and organizational change at the University of California, Los Angeles. Sometimes it’s best to invite diversity experts to weigh in on the issues.
5: Practice accountability. If a diversity agenda falls through, administrators need to recognize what went wrong and come up with new solutions. “There aren’t any other areas where you would establish the degree of effort we put forth without accountability, except for diversity,” says William Harvey, a distinguished scholar at the American Association for Access, Equity, and Diversity. “We pat ourselves on the back, say we gave it a good try, and move on” (Owen-Smith, Research Universities and the Public Good: Discoveries for an Uncertain Future, 2018).