Marketing, diversity and inclusion in #highered

It's 2015, right? One university's course catalog shows white men winning the race for success.
It’s 2015, right? One university’s course catalog shows white men winning the race for success.

On Friday, Aug. 8, 2014, the day before the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, a few of us higher ed types took to Twitter for a (mostly) weekly discussion known as #strategycar. The topic of that day’s chat had to do with how we portray diversity in higher education.

As #strategycars go, it was not the most active I’ve seen. There were only a few of us who joined the conversation — as I recall, Ma’ayan Plaut of Oberlin (guest-hosting the chat that week for Alaina Wiens), Meet Content co-founder Georgy Cohen and I were doing most of the tweeting on that subject. Perhaps it’s because diversity is an uncomfortable topic and, frankly, one that many of us struggle to talk about. We may worry that our comments might come across as insensitive, overly sensitive or politically correct.

Had we known at the time what would transpire in our nation following the next day’s tragedy — the fatal shooting of a young black man by a young white police officer in a St. Louis suburb — would our #strategycar discussion have gained more attention? Would it have involved more participants? Would our conversation have had more substance?

Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe the issue would have been too raw, and maybe we would have been even more worried about how our online remarks would come across in the wake of the shooting.

Who knows? All we know for sure is that since the Michael Brown shooting, the topic of race and race relations in the U.S. has risen to the forefront of our national consciousness. As we all know, other incidents involving the death of black men at the hands of police — in New York City and Baltimore, specifically — have further elevated the conversations of race relations in many corners of our nation. Over the past academic year, it’s become a hot topic on college campuses, where students have held “die-ins” and administrators have sponsored town hall-style discussions.

‘Inclusive excellence’

Of course, diversity, as we in academia like to define it, encompasses much more than race relations. We speak of racial diversity, ethnic diversity, gender diversity, socioeconomic diversity, religious diversity (or diversity of belief systems), diversity of thought and many more facets of the word than my mind can conjure right now. We welcome diversity and talk of our institutions as “inclusive” environments, where students, faculty, staff, alumni and others feel comfortable expressing their diverse viewpoints without fear of any repercussions.

The Association of American Colleges & Universities has established a set of guiding principles called Making Excellence Inclusive. These principles are designed to help AAC&U member schools “integrate diversity, equity, and educational quality efforts into their missions and institutional operations.” It is a call for institutions to practice “inclusive excellence” and “address diversity, inclusion and equity as critical to the well-being of democratic culture.”

All well and good. The goal of achieving inclusive excellence on our campuses is crucial for the future of higher education in a nation that is becoming increasingly diverse in terms of ethnicity and socioeconomic status. It’s necessary for strengthening the social and ethical fabric of our country.

At the same time, the volume of sexual violence complaints to the U.S. Department of Education is on the rise. Students are engaging in hate speech — on Yik Yak and on campus buildings. And despite all of the discussions on race relations held on campuses across our nation this past year, the public sees race relations as getting worse, not better.

‘We’ve got minorities, yes we do’

All of that was a long introduction to ask a question relevant to the subject of this blog: Marketing.

It seems a no-brainer that marketing and communications teams on college campuses should be working with their leaders toward that goal of “inclusive excellence.”

“The higher education community is right to be worried about minority enrollment and wise to look for ways to improve it,” writes Brian C. Mitchell, founder of the Edvance Foundation, in a recent Huffington Post article. “From a policy perspective, higher education must ask a fundamental question: ‘Do we want the composition of our student body to mirror the demographics that will define America in a global setting in the 21st century?’

“Most involved in college governance — trustees, administrators and faculty — say that they do. The problem arises when they try to move their philosophical principles to implementation.”

How do we as marketing professionals help to achieve those goals?

When we see a course catalog from a real university in 2015 using a stock image that shows two white men in suits crossing the finish line of a track meet while a caucasian woman and a black man lag behind, it’s fair to say we have a way to go.

Those sorts of tone-deaf images may be rare in modern-day marketing materials. More typical is the opposite offense: College marketing collateral that disingenuously portray their institutions as utopias of diversity.

In a 2013 study called We’ve Got Minorities, Yes We Do: Visual Representations of Racial and Ethnic Diversity in College Recruitment Materials (PDF), researchers compared the racial and ethnic makeup of the student bodies of 165 institutions with how those colleges and universities portrayed their students in recruitment materials. (The research was conducted using 2011 marketing materials.) The results shouldn’t surprise any of us: “The majority of institutions provided images of diversity to prospective students in 2011 that were significantly different than the actual student body. Furthermore, diversity was typically symbolized by portraying African American students at higher rates rather than presenting a more representative student body.”

Marketing’s role

So how can those of us in the marketing and communications business help our colleges and universities achieve that goal of “inclusive excellence” while not sugar-coating issues or portraying our institutions in a manner that may come closer to wishful thinking than reality?

I certainly don’t have all of the answers, or many of them. But I have a few ideas.

  • Talk about diversity with your team. A good place to start is to talk about how you present diversity in marketing materials. You might start by sharing that research paper cited above and discussing it with your team. Think about how you present diversity. Do you focus only on the visual, ethnic appearances? Do they truly reflect your student body? Talk about other aspects of diversity beyond race. How do your materials represent the gay community on your campus, for example?
  • Educate yourself. Many institutions offer diversity training. Typically the training is focused more on student affairs and HR offices. But there’s no reason a marketing person shouldn’t be able to sit in on some training. Ask your HR staff if any diversity training is available. Then take advantage of it.
  • Serve. Most colleges and universities should have committees dedicated to diversity, inclusion or equity. Volunteer to serve on that committee. You’ll have the chance to work with many people from outside the marketing and communications field. In the process, you’ll learn more about other aspects of your campus administration, your student body and yourself. You’ll also provide a perspective that is sometimes missing from these sorts of committees. You could also serve as an advisor of a student organization that represents some aspect of diversity.
  • Recruit for diversity. If you are a manager, make it a priority to recruit for diversity. The teams that work best are those that bring diverse viewpoints to the table.
  • Tell your school’s diversity stories. Authentically. Every institutions has stories of diversity. These stories are an integral part of the fabric for your university’s meta-narrative. Tell these stories, authentically. For example, when our university’s chapter of the black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha celebrated its 50th anniversary earlier this spring, our writer didn’t shy away from talking about the struggles early members had establishing the organization. “There were some difficulties in getting the fraternity off the ground,” one of the founding members is quoted as saying in the story. He describes the challenges of starting an African American fraternity in a small, predominantly white Midwestern town during the racial unrest of 1965. That story is an important part of Missouri S&T’s larger story, which is part of our nation’s larger story. It needs to be told.

As I re-read these suggestions, I’m struck once again with how challenging it is to talk about this subject. All of those ideas sound so superficial. And this topic is so weighty. I hope you will weigh in with your own thoughts on this topic. Marketing must play a role in helping our institutions move forward to create that climate of “inclusive excellence” we aspire to.

In the meantime, I leave you with one of my favorite TED Talks about the importance of diversity. It’s called The Danger of a Single Story, by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I hope you’ll take the time to watch it. Maybe you could watch it with your team.

Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

5 thoughts on “Marketing, diversity and inclusion in #highered”

    1. Rose – That’s a great question and another aspect of diversity that I failed to address specifically in this post. You’ve given me even more to think about. But my immediate assessment is that we don’t do very well in portraying inclusion related to ability and disability. It would be interesting to see a study similar to the one on portrayal of ethnic diversity and gender applied to students with disabilities.

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