Opinion: What university leaders like me mean when we talk about diversity

Much of this work is just common sense, but it does not happen without intentionality, without educators posing the very questions politicians want to forbid.

(Photo courtesy of Westminster University) Westminster University in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Confusion is swirling around the nature of diversity work in Utah’s universities. Gov. Spencer Cox criticized requirements for new employees to sign diversity statements – calling them “awful, bordering on evil” — even though no such loyalty pledges exist.

Following his lead, the state Legislature is poised to run bills at its upcoming session limiting diversity efforts. In the spirit of helping legislators and taxpayers better understand this work, I will clarify what educators like me mean when they talk about diversity.

Diversity, equity, inclusion and access, or DEIA, work has been taking place for over half a century. Rather than some passing fad or liberal fantasy, efforts to eliminate discrimination and ensure individuals are treated fairly in public spaces have been taken up by both major political parties, corporations and governments across the U.S. This was the central goal, for example, of the 1972 Title IX legislation enacted under President Richard Nixon’s administration.

This is what that work looks like at my university.


The great Russian chess champion Garry Kasparov has noted “talent is universal, but opportunity is not.” Human beings have incredible capacities, but because access to education, health care, wealth and other resources differs widely across groups, individuals are not running similar achievement races.

Therefore, as educators, we often ask questions about how to level the access playing field. For example, since scores on standardized tests like SAT and ACT correlate most positively with family income, we try to design admissions systems that identify students with potential who might not come from privileged backgrounds, especially because wealthy families can game the system through test prep and private college counselors. Because test scores mirror the inequities in our society, some universities try to address that reality.


When I invite someone to my home, I hope they feel welcome in that space. Similarly, I want students at my university — many of whom are living alone for the first time — to feel included in the community, not only because it’s polite but because it creates a better climate for learning, as research on student belonging by Terrell Strayhorn and others has shown.

So, what does inclusion look like to me? It means calling someone by their name. It means assigning readings that reflect the diversities of cultures from which students come. And those varied cultures contribute to the viewpoint diversity that everyone seems to want.

Inclusion means employing faculty and staff who can serve as mentors to a diverse student body. It means programming, staffing and mental health care attuned not just to straight, abled students but to those with disabilities and LGBTQ+ students. Research shows that individuals learn better when they feel safe and supported.


Equity does not mean equality or sameness: Our differences give richness to the world. Rather, equity means setting up systems that ensure — as much as possible — that students with a range of experiences, backgrounds and identities have similar opportunities to succeed.

For example, students from rural and low-income communities typically have access to fewer high school AP courses, the classes most tied to college readiness. How do we make sure that such students are ready to learn? How can we support students who are unsheltered or who are food insecure?

Universal Design for Learning tries to create greater equity by considering how students access materials or the built environment of the university. For example, curb cuts on sidewalks make it more likely that students in wheelchairs arrive at class on time, while classroom videos should have closed captioning so that students with hearing impairments can process the content.


Diversity work examines how we can change our practices so everyone’s voice is welcome, heard and celebrated. As the Tribune Editorial Board pointed out recently, “Diversity in our schools is not a theory or a warped dream. It is a fact.” Sticking our heads in the sand or silencing those doing the work will not make diversity magically go away.

Learning about diversity is a crucial outcome for Utah students. The world is a diverse, complex place, and we do our students a disservice by graduating them without the skills to navigate cultural differences. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints knows this better than anyone, for it sends millions of missionaries around the world to work and live in diverse spaces.

If we value this outcome and the benefits that it brings, we need educators who can help all students succeed, particularly as college populations become more racially and ethnically diverse. That’s why many universities ask prospective faculty to discuss how they can be effective teachers to the diverse students in their classrooms.

Much of this work is just common sense, but it does not happen without intentionality, without educators posing the very questions politicians want to forbid.

Richard Badenhausen

Richard Badenhausen is dean of the Honors College at Westminster University. He has spent over 35 years working in higher education, including past service as president of the National Collegiate Honors Council.

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