Jan 18, 2021

The Primary Reason Private Schools and Colleges Fail in Seeking Diversity


About 20 years ago I was leading a strategic planning process at a university where I served as a senior officer. During one the longer meetings, the topic of diversity emerged, quickly gained support, and moved to the discussion level of a major priority for the strategic plan. One very impassioned faculty member stood up and summarized the discussion quite well:

“We can become more diverse because we have lots of people around us to recruit. There are Hispanic migrants working in the fields just a few miles from our campus. We need to go introduce the University to them and recruit them to our campus.”

From his perspective, and the others in the discussion, diversity was something to be acquired. Yes, “diverse people” were to be recruited into our community. And, that has been the prevailing model for over two decades. I believe this model is among the primary reasons that private schools and colleges have failed miserably in their diversity efforts.

There are so many strategic and moral dilemmas with the acquisition model. It contains a complete lack of cultural understanding that underpins the approach. Here are some of the real dilemmas that we faced at my university in the story I shared:

  • My university had been around for over 150 years and had never given a rip about this audience in the past. So, now that we had decided these people were important to us, they became a target for our acquisition? Doesn’t make sense, does it?

  • We had no relationship with these people in the past, no position of relevance, yet all of the sudden we believe we can do something for them? What made us think that they would listen to us or value the interest from the university?

  • Most importantly, we knew nothing about them, their culture, needs, ambitions, or even how we could help them achieve those things. We had no training in their ways so how could we even think we could offer a position of relevance?

We simply suspected that our institution would benefit if we could recruit them to our community. They were our target to acquire.

People were meant to be understood, not acquired. Diversity through acquisition is among our most significant moral sins as an industry. Diversity is a competency, not a statistic. And, it starts with a thoughtful, inclusive approach to building relationships with people based upon shared meaning and understanding.

I find it odd that our industry is still – after all of these years – plagued with this thinking. While inclusion and equity have worked their way into the vernacular of these schools, none of it works if they are still following the acquisition model.