Adult Learner

Recognizing the importance of diversity and inclusion in higher education

diversity and inclusion in higher education

The desire to learn and grow one’s own understanding of the world and its wonders is an innately human urge. All people should have the chance to attend a supportive and welcoming school. Yet throughout its history, the American school system has failed to provide this opportunity to students from marginalized communities.

Recently, the importance of diversity and inclusion (D&I) in all spaces — including higher education — has been pushed to the forefront of the national consciousness. Institutions and organizations of all kinds have started new D&I initiatives and/or doubled down on existing efforts.

To better understand this critical work and why it is an essential part of a college education, we spoke with Hugo Yepez, director of strategic plan evaluation and assessment, and Dr. Jalin B. Johnson, vice chancellor of equity and inclusion, chief diversity officer and professor. Yepez and Dr. Johnson serve students through their work in the Office of Equity and Inclusion (OEI) at University of Massachusetts Global.

A brief history of diversity and inclusion in higher education

Although marginalized people have always agitated and organized for their right to fully participate in school and society, significant legal changes weren’t implemented until the 1950s. The cruel farce of the “separate but equal” doctrine of racial segregation was federally affirmed in 1896 by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Plessy v. Ferguson case. It took nearly 60 years for this unconstitutional ruling to be struck down in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which called for an end to school segregation.

Activists, organizers and student protesters successfully lobbied congress to pass a number of civil rights statutes prohibiting discrimination in educational programs and activities, including:

  • Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (prohibiting race, color and national origin discrimination)
  • Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (prohibiting sex discrimination)
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (prohibiting disability discrimination)
  • Age Discrimination Act of 1975 (prohibiting age discrimination)
  • Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (prohibiting disability discrimination by public entities)

The civil rights movement of the 1960s achieved significant developments within higher education. Students and faculty alike were empowered to call out a lack of representation and diverse narratives in history lessons and demand decolonized curriculums resources. New “affirmative action” policies resulted in many more formerly excluded students being admitted to higher ed institutions.

As late as 1976, more than 80 percent of college students were white. That number dropped to 57 percent by 2016 as the higher education landscape became more diverse. But it soon became apparent that simply getting diverse students into the classroom wasn’t the end goal, but rather the first step in a long process.

Going beyond diversity and inclusion

Although more students than ever finally had access to college, they were now immersed in schools that had not yet started to dismantle oppressive systems like racism and ableism within their institutional culture. Marginalized students often felt — and still feel — alienated, tokenized and misrepresented in spaces where diversity is championed in theory, but not in practice.

According to Yepez, this dissonance can be partially attributed to the fact that D&I work requires deep introspection and the ability to empathize with experiences outside of our own.

“Discomfort is welcome and expected. This work is supposed to be challenging,” he says.


It’s not easy for anyone, but starting a dialogue is the first step to creating actionable steps that lead to more peaceful, just and thriving communities.

One powerful way that the OEI shapes school culture at UMass Global is by introducing language that encompasses the breadth of the marginalized student experience. Dr. Johnson explains that the OEI’s work is grounded in the Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) framework proposed by Dr. D-L Stewart (pronouns they/them, he/him) in his influential “Language of Appeasement” essay. In it, he posits that the diversity and inclusion initiatives cannot truly be effective unless they are paired with justice and equity.

To get a better idea of the nuances in this theory, consider the following:


Diversity asks: “Who is in the room?” Equity responds: “Who is trying to get into the room but can’t? Whose presence in the room is under constant threat of erasure?”
Inclusion asks: Have everyone’s ideas been heard?” Justice responds: Whose ideas won’t be taken seriously because they aren’t in the majority?”


“It’s important to acknowledge that we all begin from different vantage points and with different lived experiences,” Dr. Johnson says, adding that many people enter conversations on this topic thinking they have to know everything already, but that doesn’t have to be the case. “Is it a good idea to expand your knowledge base and read ahead of time? Absolutely — but it’s not required to start the conversation.”

A commitment to justice, equity, diversity and inclusion

While the OEI office leads many initiatives, one that was particularly meaningful to Dr. Johnson was the creation of UMass Global’s Commitment to Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.

“In the summer of 2021, we came together with over 160 colleagues, students, community partners and alumni to help define and draft our statement,” she shares. “We have a truly amazing community who offered their insight and diversity of thought, and I’m thrilled that this work can now be shared.”

The UMass Global JEDI statement reaffirms the commitment to achieving the following goals.

Prioritize inclusive education and student success by:

  • Developing an environment that is respectful, supportive and all-embracing of the many intersecting identities found in the university community.
  • Removing barriers to recruitment, retention and overall success for students who are disabled, first-generation, immigrant, migrant, military and/or minoritized.
  • Curating curriculum that is inclusive, accessible, relevant and compliant.

Incorporate diversity and equity into our hiring practices by:

  • Recognizing the barriers that have systematically marginalized and excluded people and communities based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, socioeconomic background, age, disability, national origin and religion.
  • Holding ourselves accountable to incorporating diversity and equity in our recruitment, hiring and retention of students, staff and faculty whose backgrounds reflect those of our communities.
  • Being mindful of the need for cultural agility in the ever-changing landscape of higher education and embracing intersectionality and respect amongst our community.

Create a thriving university climate by:

  • Affirming and protecting the dignity and rights of all people.
  • Embracing the tenets of cultural humility, compassion, empathy and respect for our fellow humans.
  • Continually developing spaces where ideas and viewpoints are welcomed and shared.

To help support this effort, the OEI is also actively building a repository of resources in the following areas:

  • Anti-racism
  • Cultural events
  • OEI nomenclature and resource materials
  • Indigenous recognition
  • Racial trauma, mental health and post-traumatic stress disorders
  • Culturally inclusive curriculum
  • Disability Critical Race Theory (DisCrit) and accessibility
  • Military service advocacy
  • Social justice

Dedicated to inclusive education and student success

While measuring organizational performance can be straightforward with things like budgets or enrollment numbers, evaluating the progress of diversity and inclusion in higher education is more nuanced. The process of recognizing and unlearning unconscious biases is a task that can’t be completed in a day, a week or a month.

Dr. Johnson believes success in JEDI initiatives can be measured in engagement and continual growth. “We know that the work is working when our community is engaged,” she says. “We’re honored by the fact that our colleagues, students and peers keep coming back to the table. It shows that we really are building a supportive environment where people can be heard and valued.”

At UMass Global, students can count on our ongoing commitment to justice, equity, diversity and inclusion in higher education. Learn more about what we offer in our article “What students can expect from UMass Global.”


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