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Solidifying social progress: How to protect postsecondary EDI from political influence

To protect strategic investments in EDI, universities must embed EDI throughout the organization.

BY DWAINE TAYLOR | JAN 09 2024

According to data published by Indeed.com, jobs related to equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) increased 123 per cent between May and September 2020, coinciding with the rise of global protests against anti-Black racism and promises from companies and institutions to address inequity both in and beyond the workplace.

However, EDI is not new, particularly in the postsecondary environment. In the U.S., colleges and universities have incrementally invested in EDI for decades. In Canada, a 2019 report by Universities Canada showed that “77 per cent of universities [referenced] EDI in their institution’s strategic plan or long-term planning documents, and that 70 per cent of institutions either already [had] or were in the process of developing an EDI action plan.” As of 2022, the latter figure jumped to 83 per cent. Considering the increasingly diverse youth demographics in both countries and the well-researched and reported benefits of diverse and inclusive workplaces, it makes sense that the institutions responsible for preparing tomorrow’s social, political and economic leaders would prioritize EDI.

Yet, in 2023, we saw the opposite.

In the U.S., senior EDI role retention has declined across the postsecondary sector, and role creation is in the crosshairs. Importantly, this shift is not the result of the post-pandemic economic market adjustments seen in tech and other industries around the same time. Instead, it results from strategic divestment campaigns led by politicians in large states, including Florida and Texas, with a high concentration of colleges and universities. The articulated reasoning of these politicians, a muddied combination of fanning ideological fears about “indoctrination,” “wokeness,” “socialism,” and “reverse-racism” veiled as cost-cutting and inclusion through equality – treat everyone the same and ignore the compounding impact of historical oppression on marginalized communities having access to, and inclusion in, postsecondary education.

Unfortunately, the rhetoric driving this movement is starting to creep into Canadian political discourse.

More jarring than the ideological and political motivations that have ignited such a radical shift in postsecondary EDI investments, is how effectively a handful of legislators have dismantled years of work to build more representative and inclusive campuses. It reflects a larger issue in the U.S. and Canada – how EDI roles are funded and structured.

Funding for postsecondary institutions is similar in both the U.S. and Canada. Institutions receive varying degrees of funding through national or federal contributions, state or provincial contributions, tuition, research grants and philanthropy. Institutions in both countries also have various academic and administrative roles that can be either tenured/permanent or contract/temporary. Each role is typically associated with one funding stream. For example, tuition typically funds administrative roles and expenses. Research funding usually compensates researchers for their research and instructional duties. On the surface, this model seems straightforward. However, as we’ve seen in the U.S., whether institutions are exposed or protected from external influence depends on the intention allocated to how EDI roles are funded and structured.

EDI roles at postsecondary institutions are financed primarily through state funds in the U.S., which allowed state legislators to essentially hold institutional funding hostage and force the defunding of EDI on campuses. Although it’s too early to know the widespread impact of this shift on U.S. postsecondary institutions, the U.S. has taught us that if Canadian institutions are serious about an ongoing commitment to EDI, they must fund and structure EDI roles for long-term success.

While little research addresses how to do this effectively in the postsecondary sector, extensive knowledge is available from the corporate world. Three key themes stand out – EDI role structure, EDI role proliferation and EDI role resourcing:

1. EDI role structure: Make EDI roles permanent and tie them to the organization’s power structures.

The data is clear: EDI is effective socially and economically. As demographics shift, the scope and scale of work for EDI staff may change, but the need for their expertise will not. That expertise must exist in perpetuity and have the ability to influence decision-making; this means executive-level roles with executive-level influence.

2. EDI role proliferation: Invest in more than one role across multiple channels.

When organizations enter cost-cutting phases, the first jobs to go are those that are perceived to have the smallest impact or exist in isolation from the organization’s core functions. To protect your strategic investments in EDI, it is important to embed EDI throughout the organization, in multiple teams and critical program areas; this makes it difficult to dismantle internally or externally.

3. EDI role resourcing: Resource EDI teams and initiatives accordingly.

The number one factor that influenced senior EDI leaders to leave their roles voluntarily was a lack of resources. Like any institutional investment, long-term success depends on long-term resources and vision. By providing appropriate people and financial resources to EDI, organizations are more likely to achieve long-term success.

If leaders of Canadian postsecondary institutions adopt these actions, they will not only thwart the politicization of work that is increasingly critical to student success and well-being before it metastasizes; they also move closer to the economic and social benefits EDI provides today’s organizations.

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