Opinion: DEI in higher education advances our nation

By DONALD L. BIRX

Published: 08-28-2023 6:00 AM

Donald L. Birx, PhD is president of Plymouth State University and the author of “Redesigning Higher Education: A Small New England Public University Changes Higher Education.”

Dozens of bills aimed at curtailing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programs in public colleges and universities have been introduced in more than 20 states. Lawmakers might want to think twice before joining this national trend because as president of a public university, I see DEI’s many benefits.

I won’t wade into the debates on the merits of proactively supporting racial and ethnic minorities, gender-nonconforming individuals, and other members of the LGBTQ+ community, to name a few examples. DEI isn’t just about ensuring certain marginalized groups have the same opportunities as others. It’s about embracing difference as an asset that can help us bridge divides, exposing young minds to new ways of thinking and to backgrounds different from their own, and combining the best ideas to solve some of the world’s greatest problems.

Plymouth State University believes that we should be able to work with people who represent diverse disciplines and backgrounds, who have developed different perspectives by virtue of their unique life experiences, and, in doing so, broaden our own ways of thinking and doing.

Beginning in their first year, our students engage in carefully designed courses that bring out the richness that comes from combining varying academic disciplines. These “Wicked Problem” courses are just one aspect of an academic and social environment that prioritizes listening and engaging in discourse that bridges differences.

My background is in science, where the importance of understanding and working across disciplines has long been recognized because it’s at those intersections where the greatest discoveries occur. AI, biology, genetics, and space are just a few areas where breakthroughs and achievements result when several fields work in tandem.

This holds true in other educational and cultural contexts as well. Important developments often take place where diverse ideas are brought together. When that diversity of disciplines is coupled with diversity of backgrounds and thinking, the chances for creation and innovation increase exponentially.

All of the big challenges that we see in the world today boil down to this: ‘How do we find a way to work together and find an approach that utilizes a variety of skillsets, disciplines, and perspectives?’ Higher education must develop problem-solvers who capitalize on diversity’s benefits as a natural resource rather than viewing differences as outliers.

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DEI is more than just embracing people who may be different than the majority. On my campus, it’s part of our fundamental philosophy to recognize and appreciate the best in each other and to encourage debate. We want people to feel that they belong and can bring ideas together in dialogue and come up with something better. We want them to believe that they, too, can contribute meaningfully to their own future and future generations.

We believe colleges need to create enriching environments that produce graduates who can lead in this economy. An important piece of this is mastering the art of civil discourse.

How do you listen to another’s perspective and integrate it into something new? It takes time to learn about others and how to work effectively with them. We see learning to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and how to put different perspectives together to come up with something better than you had before, as part of DEI.

When you embrace this philosophy, DEI has a powerful role in bolstering enrollment, retention, persistence, and graduation rates. For us, this has positive effects on both our community and our state, as our learning model focuses on building a network of future career connections and employment opportunities.

Cutting DEI programs shouldn’t be viewed as a money-saving strategy, and programs that are being curtailed typically account for less than one percent of an institution’s overall budget. Thanks in large part to our DEI initiatives, we’ve seen significant return in the form of increased student body enrollment, richer diversity, and new ways for individuals to get involved and contribute.

The United States is an inventive, entrepreneurial country because people from different backgrounds and diverse approaches have opportunities to come together, work on common challenges, and succeed. By incorporating diversity of thinking, background, and culture in a positive way as part of the college experience, we’re preparing students to be creative leaders who know how to work with others and have the skills to advance our nation.

If higher education is not empowered to be a place where different backgrounds can collaborate and learn from one another, how can we hope to do so in the outside world?

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