Beyond diversity, the need for equity in academia

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In 2026, the National Center for Education Statistics estimates white students enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools will decrease to 45 percent while the numbers of Hispanic and Asian Pacific Islander students increase.

This trend began a few years ago.

As racial and ethnic distributions within public schools shift, conversations on inclusion need to occur, said Judi Brown Clarke, diversity director of the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action and a Lansing City Council member. Many though resist dialogues on diversity.

Judi Brown Clarke smiling.

Lansing City Council Portraits Monday March 24, 2014 at the Lansing City Council Chambers. Photo by Kevin W. Fowler.

“People always feel that inclusion means that there’s got to be exclusion,” Clarke said. “When you include diverse individuals, this is not like the elevator in which somebody has to get off.”

Clarke said many people don’t understand why issues of diversity are being discussed in the first place.

“It’s to make sure we don’t have any skill set, tool, perspective or skill missing at the table to answer these really complex questions,” said Clarke. “Inclusion means that you expand the table for high performance and robustness.”

Differentiating equality and equity

Flennaugh smiling.

Dr. Terry Flennaugh is an assistant professor in the College of Education. Photo courtesy of Flennaugh.

According to Dr. Terry Flennaugh, an assistant professor in the College of Education, diversity is important, but we can’t just stop at having diverse bodies in the same space.

“Diversity, insomuch that it is about creating more equitable opportunities for folks, is something I can get behind,” said Flennaugh. “Diversity just for diversity’s sake is important, but insufficient in terms of what we need to be focusing on.”

Once diversity is achieved, a level of equity is the next step. Dorinda Carter Andrews, assistant dean of Equity Outreach Initiatives, said that many people tend to use the words equality and equity interchangeably, but they mean very different things.

Andrews smiling.

Dorinda Carter Andrews is the assistant dean of Equity Outreach Initiatives. Photo courtesy of Andrews.

“I think equality is a component of equity,” said Andrews. “Equity is about ensuring that people have what they need to be successful, whatever that success is. Depending on your areas of privilege or disadvantage, other people might need a little more and others might not actually need very much. So, the distribution of resources is different.”

Flennaugh said equality is more about sameness.

“Equality is about maybe that there are equal numbers of folks or that there is proportionate representation of certain communities,” said Flennaugh. “There’s nothing inherently fair about sameness.”

Expanding the definition of diversity

According to Pew Research, Americans are more likely than those from other countries to say that growing diversity makes their country a better place to live. However, most people only see diversity as having varied physical features present in a group of people. In reality, diversity can encompass many aspects of an individual, both physical and intangible.

“Diversity is about having difference in your environment,” said Andrews. “Difference based on their values, their beliefs, the ways in which they see the world. So not just based on race or ethnicity or language. Those are areas of difference also, but people come to know what they know in different ways.”

Diversity can also extend into levels of ability in the classroom, and a failure to take this type of diversity into account can leave certain students falling behind. Take, for example, professors who don’t allow students to use their laptops, record lectures or take pictures of presentation slides.

“It is extraordinarily difficult for a person that has dyslexia to listen to a lecture and take notes,” said Clarke. “It doesn’t work. If you know that, you would make classroom rules that are inclusive that ensure that people that have disabilities are getting their needs met and are able to get the information and record the information in a way in which they can be successful.”

Bringing diversity into the classroom

Clarke also emphasizes the need to bring together students from diverse educational backgrounds into the same learning space. As part of her position at BEACON, she ensures that the program has the funding to include top-tier students that come from failing schools. These students learn to navigate the field without the skills their educational institution wasn’t able to provide.

“That level of diversity brings different perspectives and skills and tenacity,” said Clarke. “When somebody’s had to navigate, their ability to be persistent in looking at more than one way to solve a problem, it’s the exact thing that’s needed to solve sensitive problems.”

Clarke said these types of students are the ideal fit for the BEACON program because of their independence and unique perspective.

“The more students I can ensure are in the lab, out in the field, that are in these classrooms, going to professional conferences and writing papers and so on,” said Clarke. “The more that I can ensure they are getting these opportunities, I guarantee their science will be robust. We are guaranteed.”

Personally invested

For many educators, the interest in race issues and equity is personal. Clarke said she’s had to navigate both racism and sexism since she was a child.

“People don’t see you as an equal so you’re always trying to have the same skill sets and make sure that you’re value added,” said Clarke. “My entire life has been about making sure that I’m at the table and have all the skills and tools necessary to be at that table.”

Part of the reason Flennaugh is an academic who engages in academic research is because he had opportunities as an undergraduate to start asking questions and learning more about his own experiences.

“I think demystifying and giving people opportunities to see what is going on in these contexts and why they are the way they are and really also to focus on the strengths and resilience that exists in these kind of contexts,” said Flennaugh. “It is empowering. It is liberating in some ways. It’s humanizing.”

For Andrews, who grew up in the south, having a specialization in diversity issues has allowed her to better understand her own place in the world.  

“I know I have lived my life as a person with [both] privilege and targeted identities,” said Andrews. “Right, I mean, I have four degrees. That’s privilege. But I also live my life as a black woman. There are a lot of ways that I have experienced racism and sexism.”

Her parents grew up in Jim Crow south and were very intentional about sharing their experiences with their children.

“I think through their indirect conversations with us, and sometimes explicit conversations, we internalized a certain passion for social justice,” said Andrews.

Starting a conversation

Starting conversations like the ones Andrews’ parents had with their children is important to not only make people aware of these issues, but also to make change.

“I think what we’re struggling with in classrooms and work environments is contending with our stereotypes and assumptions and biases without taking time to just get to know the people that you have to see every day and learn across difference,” said Andrews. “And learning across differences is not easy. It can be hard. But we have to do it to come to an understanding.”

Flennaugh stresses the importance of recognizing the multiplicity of identity. Individuals are not just their race, gender, language or sexuality.

“We are a combination of a multitude of things,” said Flennaugh. “It might be really easy just to look at someone that’s white and make all kinds of assumptions about the privileges they enjoy. But if we’re not recognizing the other ways that they can be diverse in terms of their economic background, their religion, their sexual orientation, their gender identity… all of these other things, it’s an incomplete story. That doesn’t help us advance really important conversations about difference and power and privilege. It just oversimplifies things and in some ways, alienates.”

According to Flennaugh, until we get to a place where we can recognize how significant race is in our society, even if it’s an uncomfortable subject for many, we’re going to be missing opportunities to advance these conversation and engage in work that is justice-oriented.

“My pedagogical perspective is that we don’t learn unless we get uncomfortable,” said Flennaugh. “I would encourage all of us to work to embrace some of this discomfort because it presents an opportunity to learn something new. And that’s exactly what we need so that we can make some important advancements in our society.”

Andrews stresses getting beyond the one-on-one level and thinking about all of these concepts in the context of institutions, systems and structures.

“If you stay at the micro-level, you can’t see how at these larger levels, inequity is being perpetuated. Not individuals, but whole communities are being systematically oppressed,” said Andrews. “I want people to try to scale up, not just think about their one-on-one relationship with so and so or the people I’m learning with in class. How are these things affecting systems, policies, institutions? And how do we need to be working at that level so that schools really become the places that our children need them to be?”

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