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Over the past few years, I’ve noticed a marked increase in the use of the word “inclusivity” on my campus in Middlebury, Vt. Several of our campuswide committees include “inclusivity” or “inclusion” in their titles. Our vision statement, ratified in 2017, imagines “a world with a robust and inclusive public sphere.” We have a new director of education for equity and inclusion.

And we’re not alone: recent Inside Higher Ed articles have cited inclusivity as a factor in a range of issues, such as yearbook photos, the design of dormitories and the power dynamics in classroom discussions.

These questions seem particularly pressing of late, as inclusivity is frequently described as in tension with another important value in higher education: freedom of expression. A 2017 survey from Gallup/the Knight Foundation asked students, “If you had to choose, which do you think is more important: a diverse and inclusive society or protecting free speech rights?” (In response, 53 percent overall chose the former.) Upon reading this, I wondered, do we have to choose? Perhaps more important: Do students think we have to choose?

My research assistants, Bryan Diaz and Casey Lilley, and I have been learning a great deal about undergraduates’ understandings of inclusivity at Middlebury College. We’ve conducted pilot interviews with dozens of students and formal interviews with 35 of them. Some of the findings surprised me but have come to make more sense as I learn more about Generation Z students, also known as “iGen” or “post-Millennial” and defined as those born between 1995 and 2012. Below, I offer some initial insights -- a Gen Z Guide, if you will, to inclusivity in higher education.

One trend we saw throughout our data is that most students consider inclusivity a feeling, and they expect it to feel good. In our pilot interviews, we had asked students to define inclusivity in their own words. Very few were able to do so.

For formal interviews, we instead asked: “What word associations and personal experiences come to mind when you hear the word ‘inclusivity’?” The most common image described by students was what can only be categorized as multicultural clip art: a circle of students with different skin colors, smiling and/or holding hands. While this image was likely cited as an aspirational ideal, rather than a realistic objective, the same fuzzy feelings were present in many other students’ descriptions of what inclusivity should feel like:

  • “Inclusivity means having a sense of belongingness, but … the basis of that is feeling safe and comfortable.”
  • “Acceptance of everybody’s different lifestyles and identities … Nobody should feel outed or harassed due to their identity. No fear of violence or material that would make them feel less than.”
  • “Everyone’s happy. There’s no discrimination. There’s no tension between anyone.”

These representative quotes suggest that, for many Generation Z students, the measure of inclusivity is not the presence of particular structures, opportunities or resources at the institution, but rather, the absence of negative feelings such as fear, insecurity or social tension. As one student put it, “For me it’s not so much like a place is just open to anyone, but instead that anyone is welcomed in that place.”

This finding raises a question: Whose job is it to create these feelings of inclusivity? Students said much of the responsibility lies with faculty members. In their views, we are -- or should be -- the ones with the authority and expertise to create the ideal classroom climate. Students often look to class participation as a measure of inclusivity:

  • “Professors should be promoting an environment in which each student is respected and embraced by their peers.”
  • “In a perfectly inclusive classroom, I picture students from all walks of life being given equal attention by their professors and their peers.”
  • “Every student has their opinion -- get it out of them … It’s your job.”

Students also expect instructors to mitigate the tensions that might emerge when contentious topics are the focus of discussion:

  • “Even though you want to have free speech … you also have to be considerate of [students’] safety and well-being.”
  • “Although professors don’t have to actively call people out, they should act in a case where someone is racially attacked or if they see a microaggression. They have to make the call of when to act and when not to, but they should do their job and protect students.”
  • “I think that’s what a college campus is for -- to hear sides that might not agree with you. I think it’s important that everyone feels comfortable, though, and I think that’s what inclusivity means.”

One takeaway from these responses is that many students assume professors are more adept at managing discomfort and tension in the classroom than we probably feel ourselves to be. That is not to say that students do not accept any of the responsibility for creating inclusive classroom environments. Many said it is their job to be “open” and “respectful” with one another in the classroom. Some suggested, as well, that they have agency over their own emotional experiences.

One student, for example, described a humanities course where she frequently felt “uncomfortable,” and said she continually asked herself, “Should I put in effort to not feel that way, or should the place itself give the feeling of inclusion?” Another reported similarly, “If I don’t feel included, I’ll make myself feel included somehow.”

A few students raised the possibility that they could expand their capacity for discomfort: “Leaning into discomfort plays a role in inclusivity,” one explained. “We shouldn’t shy away from it, but instead lean into that discomfort with a baseline of an open mind.” As another put it, students need to “take risks … in terms of expanding what you’re comfortable doing and in regard to what you’re in interested in.”

Such questions of responsibility and agency are closely tied to students’ lives outside the classroom as well. Many students in our study cited social “segregation” as a major hindrance to inclusivity. They described their own friend circles as fairly static and/or homogenous. “If students were able to step outside of their box more and interact with people they wouldn’t naturally interact with,” one said, “that could help inclusivity.”

Yet students who raised this concern seemed unsure about how to get outside their social comfort zone, and more than a few said that they would appreciate intervention from the faculty and administration. One student suggested that the college could have a dining space devoted to meeting new people. Others said more co-curricular events with the sole purpose of helping students broaden their friend groups were needed. One student admitted, perhaps a bit tongue-in-cheek, that he was nostalgic for the way things worked in kindergarten, where teachers “always told you to include everyone, that you can’t exclude kids, because that’s a form of bullying.”

These preliminary findings echo much of what research is showing about Generation Z students, who comprise a substantial proportion of today’s undergraduates. Gen Z students are characterized as diverse, driven and open-minded but also prone to experiencing higher levels of anxiety and depression than earlier Millennials. People have attributed these challenges to a variety of factors, including “overparenting” and too much time on smartphones, as well as to broader societal trends like economic uncertainty and political polarization.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that many Gen Z students equate “being included” with an absence of negative feelings. Inclusivity serves as a conceptual placeholder for students’ aspirations when it comes to engaging difference within community. After all, for this generation, diversity isn’t the end goal -- it’s the starting point. In this respect, our students’ conceptions of inclusivity are similar to the definition put forth by the Association of American Colleges & Universities: “The active, intentional and ongoing engagement with diversity -- in the curriculum, in the co-curriculum and in communities.”

Yet students in our study seem to be referencing not just opportunities for engagement but also a positive experience of engagement, as measured by feelings of comfort and belonging. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt claim that the use of emotion as an indicator of reality, known as “emotional reasoning,” is particularly prevalent among Gen Z students, in large part because influential adults may have overemphasized the importance of positive affect as the marker of success. Perhaps students’ lofty aspirations for inclusivity are rooted not in self-absorption. (“I deserve to feel good.”) They may instead stem from a faulty understanding of what it means to engage successfully with difference. (“This feels uncomfortable, so something must be wrong.”)

Given how abstract and fraught students’ views of inclusivity seem to be, is the concept still worth talking about? I would say yes. But we need a meta-conversation about what we’re aspiring to and how we’ll know that we’re headed in the right direction. The students in this study who seemed most pessimistic about inclusivity were those who framed it as a yes/no binary: Do I feel included in this class? Do I belong on this campus? Am I comfortable or uncomfortable?

If we frame inclusivity instead as a dynamic process in which discomfort is inevitable, but will not be ignored or dismissed, perhaps we can shift the conversation. I am quite confident that this shift is possible, keeping in mind that Gen Z students also have a reputation for altruism and creative problem solving. We need to talk with them -- not at them, as is often the case in institutional statements about free speech.

If many of the struggles of Generation Z are the result of panic-provoked intervention from parents and educators, let’s make sure we recalibrate in a more thoughtful and deliberative manner. And let’s not assume these students are too “fragile” or “coddled” to want to reimagine with us a vision for inclusivity that is messier but also much richer than the multicultural clip art.

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