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Research Report

4 key components of a strong DEI plan

December 2, 2020 , By Katie Herrmann, Senior Research Analyst

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are top-of-mind priorities for higher education leaders facing a uniquely difficult 2020 climate. The effects of the pandemic and subsequent economic downturn mixed with reinvigorated outrage over racial injustice and a contentious presidential election add urgency to demonstrate effective institutional DEI responses.

Generation Z deeply values accountability and transparency, and students are no longer satisfied with empty statements and vague promises. This makes it more pivotal than ever for leaders to craft and implement concrete DEI plans. We reviewed over 40 DEI plans across the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the U.K. to better understand how campuses are demonstrating real work and commitment to DEI. EAB identified four key components of strong DEI plans that are actionable and compelling.

4 key components of a strong DEI plan

  • Define

    A campus-specific vocabulary & vision

  • Create

    Achievable goals through action items

  • Facilitate


  • Communicate

    Transparency on progress

1. Define a campus-specific DEI vision and vocabulary

Without proper framing, some stakeholders may be confused or uncomfortable discussing DEI strategy. To maximize effectiveness, campus leaders must define why DEI work is important and key terms to understand before introducing strategic goals. A clear vision and common vocabulary are integral to making DEI plans feel both accessible and personal.

For example, the University of Alberta’s Strategic Plan for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusivity defines eight key terms before outlining the institution’s strategic goals. Defining terms like, “equity,” “diversity,” and “inclusion” ensures campus stakeholders are on the same page and can continue to communicate about DEI with a consistent vocabulary in the future. Alternatively, Southern New Hampshire University’s plan makes the distinction between “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion” clear by breaking out each strategic commitment into diversity-, equity-, and inclusion-specific objectives. This underscores that diversity, equity, and inclusion are distinct objectives that shouldn’t be used interchangeably.

2. Create achievable goals by defining specific action items

Including pointed action items for each strategic goal ensures that goals are achievable. These types of goals are often referred to as “SMART” goals – specific, measurable, action-oriented, results-oriented, and timebound. The University of Toledo’s Strategic Plan for Diversity, Inclusion and Equity matches action items to each of its strategies.

For example, to “develop institutional structures that support student retention and graduation initiatives, including efforts to reduce equity gaps, for underrepresented students” the institution will take four actions:

  1. Establish a University-level Retention Committee (URC) and College-level Retention Committees (CRC) for each college
  2. Create Provost’s Office Student Advisory Committee
  3. Develop Student Success Web Page in the Office of the Provost to communicate major student success initiatives, standing committees, etc.
  4. Create and charge an Underrepresented Minority (URM) Advisory Committee tasked with advising the University-level Retention Committee and supporting College-level Retention Committees as well as institutional efforts to improve access, retention and graduation for Underrepresented Minority students

For each action, the plan defines responsible units, units of measurement, and expected timeline. These components clarify the path to goal achievement by defining who will work on them, when actions will be completed, and how success will be measured.

3. Facilitate follow-through by building in accountability measures

The third key component of a successful plan is building in accountability. Too often, institutions fail to make progress on strategic goals because they have not assigned responsibility for goals. Systemic change requires buy-in and action from many stakeholders and can’t be accomplished by any one person alone. Still, it is important to delineate accountability owners to ensure there is senior-level accountability for progress.

Arcadia University’s Anti-Black Racism Initiatives plan embeds two layers of accountability into each of their 41 initiatives–cabinet-level and unit-level project owners. Dual project owners establish both frontline commitment and senior-level buy-in to accomplish goals. Project owners must also establish deadlines and timelines for their projects as another level of accountability. Taken together, these accountability measures help develop credibility with the campus community and safeguard real progress on goals.

4. Communicate transparently on current standing and regularly update stakeholders on progress and roadblocks

Include data on current institutional standing within your plan to provide readers with context, and an understanding of how DEI progress could positively impact the institutional landscape. For example, American University’s “Candid Assessment” of key enrollment and survey data offers insight into the institution’s current environment and practices.

Even if you don’t yet have reliable measurements about where you are, provide some information about your plan’s development for reader framing. Pima Community College’s “Highlights” section simply acknowledges that the plan is the first of its kind in the College’s history, and significantly evolved since work began in 2015.

To further foster campus support and encourage DEI progress, regularly update campus stakeholders on DEI plan progress and roadblocks. Periodically updating the campus community invites stakeholders to engage more directly in DEI conversations and helps ensure that your DEI plan and revisions are in line with stakeholder needs.

For example, Southern Utah University released a DEI Strategic Plan Progress Report at the end of 2019 to summarize a year of progress on its 2019-2024 DEI Strategic Plan. The progress report labels each initiative included in the 5-year strategic plan as “implemented,” “in progress,” or “not yet implemented.” DEI work is complex, and not all goals will be achieved within the same time frame. The report transparently signals to stakeholders that DEI work is continuous – not forgotten – and reveals which specific areas will receive institutional focus in the future.

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