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Antinomies in the Concepts of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Different people support these values for different reasons, and their interpretations of them are sometimes in direct conflict, writes Nicholas C. Burbules.

April 15, 2021
 
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Colleges and universities are increasingly promoting diversity, equity and inclusion. They are creating campus offices and hiring administrators to promote those values, which is a good thing. But as with many slogans, the words mean different things to different people, and people support them for different reasons. In fact, sometimes their interpretations of these concepts directly conflict with each other. Here I explore the hidden antinomies within each of these three aims.

Diversity is promoted in two different ways. You could call one perspective affirmative action diversity, or the advancement of opportunity and representation for specific underrepresented groups. This aspiration is based on the desire to correct histories of discrimination and injustice for those groups -- and which groups are an object of concern partly depends on the kind of history that gets told, and who is telling it. Generally, this perspective emphasizes familiar categories of race, ethnicity, gender and social class. You could call the other perspective intellectual and educational diversity: the idea that, especially in educational contexts, it is productive to have a broad representation of voices, experiences and points of view.

These are both worthy aims, and they can overlap. Achieving greater affirmative action diversity, for example, can also promote intellectual and educational diversity. But these two concepts can also come into conflict. From an affirmative action view of diversity, opportunities and representation should be a priority for a few specific groups. But an intellectual and educational diversity perspective is concerned with a much broader range of goals: international diversity, cultural and linguistic diversity, religious (and nonreligious) diversity, political and ideological diversity, and so on. Indeed, you might even argue that from the standpoint of intellectual and educational diversity, some of these groups produce much more diverse outlooks than, say, individuals from different racial or ethnic groups who are all coming from similar domestic backgrounds. One example of how the two concepts can conflict is that, given limited slots for student admissions or faculty hiring, gains for diversity in the second sense might be seen as coming at the expense of gains for diversity in the first sense. That conflict was reinforced by a recent study discussed in this publication, which argues that underrepresented constituencies in education tend to favor the first view of diversity (which the authors call the “moral” view), while white constituencies tend to favor the latter view (which the authors call the merely “instrumental” view).

Equity, as is well-known, also has two principled components. Sometimes people should be treated equally, i.e., the same, and it is unjust or discriminatory to treat them differently. Other times, given relevant differences, it would be unjust to treat them the same; we want to take those differences into account and treat them fairly, i.e., differently.

Of course, a great deal depends on what counts as a relevant difference, and that can be contested. But, again, we see that in terms of specific policies, the aims of treating people the same (most of the time) and treating them differently (sometimes) can come into conflict. Two individuals with exactly the same identity characteristics may place quite different demands. One person might say, “Ignore the fact that I am X and treat me the same as anyone else,” while the other might say, “Never forget that I am X and treat me fairly.”

Indeed, the same person may voice the first demand at certain times and the second at others. As the poet Pat Parker puts it, “The first thing you do is to forget that I'm black. Second, you must never forget that I'm black.”

In my view, we seem to be in a time when the fairness principle is becoming predominant. In this country, starting with the Declaration of Independence, equality has been a founding principle, and many social movements, including civil rights, have been built around demands for equality and equal treatment. Today, as we become more aware of differences and identify more differences as differences that matter, there are more and more instances where treating people the same is seen as unjust.

Large institutions like colleges and universities depend on some degree of standard policy and treatment -- an approach that is increasingly challenged. Should, for example, classroom requirements and grading standards be the same for all students? From an equality standpoint, that is obvious; from a fairness standpoint, it might be seen as problematic. What counts as a relevant difference, and who decides that, is also being challenged.

Inclusion has a similar split between two principles that sometimes conflict. One sense of inclusion is an open discursive climate in which every voice and point of view can be heard respectfully, which is clearly essential to the spirit and function of a university. But some of those voices and points of view will be deeply offensive, even hurtful, to other people, and so people often want to regulate them. In those cases, another sense of inclusion is at work: a campus climate in which diverse people from at-risk groups can feel protected and welcome. This is a version of the widely debated “free speech versus safe spaces” controversy, but what I want to emphasize here is that both sides invoke the principle of inclusion while holding very different understandings of what the term means.

Thus, with all three concepts -- diversity, equity and inclusion -- we are appealing to principles that are widely shared at a rhetorical level but that actually require difficult balancing acts and trade-offs when it comes to specific policies and regulations. It may simply not be possible to satisfy all parties to a campus conversation when they place a different emphasis on conflicting aims within those principles, or see some interpretations as more or less favorable to them as individuals or as groups.

Finally, what I would call the postprinciple politics of many current campus controversies complicates these debates even further. Dedication to a principle involves a commitment to general norms that are consistent and that groups are prepared to extend to others, even their adversaries, as well as claim on their own behalf. The slipperiness of these three principles, unfortunately, creates opportunities for groups across the political spectrum to emphasize interpretations that suit them in some circumstances, while emphasizing other interpretations in other circumstances.

I see these disputes about diversity, equity and inclusion as proxy fights over fundamentally different visions of the university. And I do not mean to exaggerate that the future of higher education is at stake in how they get resolved. What I have tried to suggest here is that these fights are made even more intractable because advocates on different sides are often invoking, at least rhetorically, the same principles. Hence we need to go beyond slogans and head nodding that suggests agreement when people are actually holding very different, and sometimes conflicting, ideas in their heads. Opening up those conversations, as many places have started to do, will surface some of these conflicting values. The resulting conversations will be difficult but necessary.

Bio

Nicholas C. Burbules is the Edward William and Jane Marr Gutgsell Professor in the department of educational policy, organization and leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His primary research area is the philosophy of education.

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