Magazine Article

Diversity, Equity and Social Justice

What are the differences? How do these words relate to us in the CSU and in CFA?

By Sharon Elise
CFA Board of Directors, Council for Affirmative Action Representative
Sociology, CSU San Marcos

Words matter. They are symbols of shared meaning and, for those of us who serve in the public higher education system, the words we use matter enormously. Words allow us to direct the work of reconstructing the institution to make it accessible and responsible to all our residents.

An institution like the CSU, which originally was associated with the educa-tion and advancement primarily of young, middle-class white men, was assailed as a host of women and people of color contested their exclusion. Over the past 50 years, there has been a continuous effort to reform the academy. That is progress.

Yet, this work has been fettered by the lack of a shared understanding about where we are trying to go and what strategies will take us there. For example, some believe all we need to do is assure “diversity” in our institutions. For others, the quest is for “equality”—in which everyone has the same chance to succeed. And for others, the goal is based on creating equitable programs—work for equity—in line with principles of social justice.

As a goal, “diversity” is short-sighted. The most excluded populations in recent history have been underrepresented minorities. Hence, one of the first, most popular goals has been for their inclusion in public higher education. Programs to improve college readiness, to motivate high school stu-dents to be college oriented, and to teach potential and already seated members of our institutions that there is “strength in diversity” abounded. 

But, making “diversity” the goal falls short in important ways. It does not address structural problems that permeate how our educational systems operate, leading up to and through public higher education.

It does not require a particular quality of inclusion based on shared power over and decision-making about our academic pro-grams, practices, and culture.  

All too often, the bar for measuring wheth-er we have reached a “diverse state” of being is far too low. In some cases, a curriculum is pronounced diverse when there are a handful of Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies courses (that are not required). A departmental faculty is pronounced “diverse” when it includes token members of various racial/ethnic groups, or a couple of women faculty, or a faculty member who is LGBT or transgender. It seems that the tiniest deviation from all-white and male is enough to register the accomplishment of diversity!  

“Equity” over “Equality.” We may think solving educational inequality is as simple as assuring equality, but too often in our society equality implies sameness—same admission and promotion practices, treat everyone the same, don’t focus on differences. Given the persistent history
of accumulated and persistent disadvantage, however, equality rendered as same treatment is patently unfair. We do not all share the same starting point so the same practices will not give us an equal chance at the same outcome. This is illustrated in the graphic.  

As suggested in the graphic, we need different sets of strategies to achieve similar outcomes for everyone because we do not come from the same circumstances nor do we have the same advantages/obstacles.
“One size fits all” simply won’t do.

Students accumulate a set of advantages and disadvantages as they move through their education and if, by the time they reach college, we do not provide the means to surmount those accumulated obstacles, the result will be continued inequality of outcomes.

Equity programs are those with an eye to how we can counter differences in preparation, ability, motivation, confidence, connectedness and so forth to ensure student success. For all.  

Under the banner of “Social Justice.” When we wrap our educational agenda in the banner of social justice we are avowing our intention to treat members of our academic community differently—instead of “treating everyone the same”—as we respond to their different needs.  

Under this banner we commit ourselves to supporting the needs of people of color and Native people, LGBT, women, vets, people with different abilities, transgender people. There must be spaces and programs that provide them with the particular cultural, social, emotional and professional support that assure they can thrive in the campus environment.

At the same time, we actively work to combat all forms of oppression and discrimination—and this is challenging because we exist in a structure that is hierarchical and authoritarian to a great extent, while we are championing academic freedom, free speech, and democratic processes.   

As we move, hopefully, to embrace this work, let us confront the contemporary climate of despair and division with a greater vision, one based on social justice that will lead us closer to the realization of a form of “higher education” that will truly perform at its greatest potential.