Black female poses in her gown for college graduation

Knowing Who We Serve: What is Diversity in Higher Education?

4 min read

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) are rightly important topics on college campuses throughout the United States. 


It’s the responsibility of every college and university to create a sense of belonging for every student and staff member, and to establishing school-wide policies that promote inclusion while rejecting discriminatory or harassing behavior.

Dr. Yancey Gulley, an author and associate professor at Western Carolina University, joined Mongoose for a discussion on DEI on our live event series, For Your Institution. Dr. Gulley joined as an expert panelist, having 15+ years using his extensive experience in student affairs to advocate for social justice through his scholarship, teaching, publications, presentations, trainings, and volunteer endeavors.

Throughout the episode, the conversation touched on what it would be like to be a higher ed professional who wants to either be more active in promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion on their campus, or help change an environment that was less than ideal become more welcoming. Dr. Gulley says it can a daunting task that needs to be met with open eyes.

“Maybe you think you’ve found an institution that jives with you. Maybe, for example, maybe Residential Living is doing amazing stuff around DEI, but then you get to the institution and find that everything outside of Residential Living is not on the same page. But you want to be a part of change. So often I talk to folks who say it’s just too big of a problem and they don’t have enough power to fix it. That might be right, but you have enough power to do something. We all have to think about what am I willing to give up to do the work. What are the risks I’m willing to take and not willing to take.”

- Dr. Yancey Gulley


Representation is not the same as inclusivity. The best way to make sure everyone on your campus feels respected is to pay attention and listen to the students. According to Dr. Gulley, students will voice their opinions when they feel they are misrepresented or under-represented, you just have to make sure you’re communicating with all groups and empowering advocates. 

Promote diversity through education. The more people know about different cultures and ethnicities, the greater the acceptance. How you promote people is important.

Tasking the President of the institution to send out a social message or email promoting, for example, a national heritage day is not as effective or inclusive. Empowering individuals from your institution who belong to that particular heritage group to use their voice and their perspective to communicate with the community is an effective way to promote diversity.

“I think we need to be centering people’s voices all the time. You do get people upset about it, even people from other non-dominant populations will say, ‘Why didn’t I get airtime?’ That’s an opportunity for education.”

- Dr. Yancey Gulley


Dr. Gulley also says that there are different times where it’s important to differentiate between being an activist, an ally, and an accomplice. You can be an accomplice by helping to amplify the voice of a person or group of people, but the intent behind your action is key.

It might be unfair to assume a certain group of people need to have their voice amplified. By listening and asking questions, you can find out if a group of people feels under-represented and what message they want to communicate when given the chance. Ask what people want others to know about them. 


“How do people in power amplify a voice using our power and privilege and platform? If you want to acknowledge your school’s love and respect for a group of people, ask them what they want to talk about and what they are most proud of in their community, if they’re willing and if you’re not tokenizing them.”

- Dr. Yancey Gulley


Promoting, protecting, and nurturing diversity in higher education is not only difficult, but it’s ever-evolving. Dr. Gulley stressed that institutions must decide which aspects of diversity, equity, inclusion, or justice they value. Individuals within the institution need to examine their sphere of influence and locus of control to determine opportunities for change. 


“The structure of higher education in the U.S. was NOT created to promote diversity so the work is not to fix a broken system, it’s to create a new one. Various stakeholders in higher education and individual institutions have unique motivations for their ideas and choices. It is imperative to actually know who your students are today instead of relying on the view that your student body is made up of historic trends.”

- Dr. Yancey Gulley


Watch and/or listen to the full episode with Dr. Yancey Gulley below for more insight on diversity in higher education and knowing who we serve. Register to join us live



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