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To the Editor:

I was intrigued by Josh Moody's article "A University Rethinks DEI Work." It was succinct and provocative as it highlighted an institution grappling with creating a culture of inclusion. As a Black woman, first-generation college student with three degrees in the social sciences and humanities and over two decades of higher education administration and teaching experience, my personal and professional assessment is that the expectation for one office to address centuries of disenfranchisement, discrimination, and institutionalized racism is outdated.

Affinity spaces such as Black cultural centers and multicultural affairs offices have existed since the later part of the twentieth century. They were a symptom of a much larger problem. Since the late 1960s, African American students and persons of color desired and demanded visibility, representation, programs and initiatives that reflected their histories. That need has not changed but with the increase in diverse populations, campuses moved towards inclusion and equity and more was needed to improve the retention of diverse faculty, staff, and students. Increase in numbers was not enough. As a member of Generation X, I attended a college with minimal numbers of African Americans on campus which forced me to seek out spaces of acceptance and belonging. But as our demographics increase not only services, resources and initiatives are required but academic programs, policies and governance structures must reflect the constituents that occupy Ivy halls. 

Recently, institutions have begun to understand the necessity and the benefits of a holistic approach to student development utilizing theories such as the Student Life Cycle. This concept cannot exists in a vacuum. Campus leaders need to create a culture that addresses issues such as equity, access and opportunity holistically. This requires not only a sharing of responsibility, but also a sharing of power. The heavy lifting of institutional change occurs behind the veils of governance, policy, pedagogy, and practice. A college or university that espouses collaboration, shared governance, or inclusive excellence that does not make space for inclusion officers at the decision making table, contradicts the very mission or vision they articulate.

Equity and inclusion offices and officers need the necessary cultural and political capital to have their professional opinions and recommendations considered and proper resources deployed to manifest.  A college or a university that expects to remain relevant and adequate for the new demands and changes in demographics must centralize equity, access and opportunity within every policy, practice and plan. Otherwise, offices of inclusion are performative symbolic gestures of good will with little influence and ability to contribute to true systemic change.  

Another consideration in addressing restructuring and repositioning DEI work demands a more nuanced exploration of the actual office nomenclature and the titles of staff within these offices.  The terms, diversity, equity, and inclusion are often interchanged but are different words with meanings and garner different results on the continuum of equity, access and opportunity. But in everyday life, and in the practical application of achieving mission-driven endeavors, there are at times an over simplification of these terms and an underutilization of their distinctiveness in the power these terms can yield when they are deployed to disrupt systemic, collective, personal and interpersonal oppression.

Titles of these officers and their position in an organizational structure additionally signify an institutions commitment to advancing diversity requires representation. Advancing equity requires eradicating policies, social practices and customs that exclude individuals and collective communities from their preamblic pursuits of life and liberty (which is different from freedom). Inclusion advances the moral clarion call to every member of the community that every mechanism and obstacle that obstructs one's sense of belonging or the notion of happiness must be removed. Rethinking diversity equity and inclusion work requires a shift and reposition of an entire campus and not just restructuring or reconfiguring an office.  

--Meredith E. Davis

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