Changing Higher Ed Podcast 126 with Host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Guest Daniel Aguilar: How JEDI Can Improve Higher Education ROI
In this episode of Changing Higher Ed podcast, Dr. Drumm McNaughton, a leading expert on change management in higher education, and Daniel Aguilar, Ph.D., MDiv., a long-time higher ed consultant on diversity, equity, and inclusion issues, discuss how and why current practices in diversity are falling short, and new approaches for fulfilling its promise.
Aguilar founded the Center for Social Justice at Excelsior University last year and is its director, as well as the university’s chief diversity officer. His most recent previous experience was with Drew University, Ithaca College, and the University of Oregon. He offers consulting through his company, Pascoevision, and is a prolific singer and songwriter. He is a graduate of Indiana University Bloomington and Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University.
“We know that education can be a game changer—that it can transform lives. This is why we are in this business.”
Daniel Aguilar is in the JEDI profession—justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion, with a focus on higher education. For him, this endeavor is not about checking off politically correct to-do boxes. He believes that this is more than merely a moral responsibility—improving the lives of individual students also boosts the institution’s return on investment and creates closer alignment with the institution’s mission over both the short and long term.
How JEDI Improves Higher Education ROI
A focus on social justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion can certainly enhance an institution’s return on its mission and purpose. Aguilar argues that it also could enhance the institution’s ROI in individual students—both while on campus and after they leave—as well as in the overall campus culture, while also making a college or university more authentic, thus improving recruitment and retention.
When higher ed leaders come to think of JEDI work as something that impacts the bottom line in addition to being a moral responsibility, they also can find ways to make it integral to the overall culture, rather than the domain of a specific unit.
“We know diversity is valuable, and we pursue it with a great deal of energy, but I have yet to come across an institution that has invested as many resources and as much energy in preparing for that diversity, and adapting to that diversity, and growing from that diversity.”
For example, institutions squander an opportunity to improve when diversity is not considered an asset in decision-making and performance. Governance and oversight are strengthened when diverse perspectives and experiences are taken into account, and this generates a better ROI as well as better alignment with the institutional mission.
How JEDI Improves Teaching and Workforce Preparation
Used strategically, JEDI increases institutional effectiveness in the facilitation of teaching and preparing future leaders for the workforce. People learn best when the value of their learning is clear to them, and then by applying that learning.
“Leaders must stop expecting that we can bring diversity in a traditional package—it simply does not work that way any longer.”
On the other hand, students (particularly nontraditional students) often perceive their institution as an administrative/ bureaucratic maze—fragmented and/or siloed—that is frustrating to navigate, for example. In addition, a student’s ability to learn is diminished when the institution fails the real needs found beyond the campus walls.
For example, complex challenges such as homelessness and food insecurity are an increasing threat to the student population across the country. Aguilar maintains that it is very difficult to help students achieve the two phases of learning if their campus experience is fragmented from who they are and does not holistically address their challenges and barriers.
Likewise, JEDI can inform institutions regarding students’ preparation for post-graduation success. The nation and thus the workplace is becoming increasingly diverse, and if we do not prepare students to understand and implement diversity and inclusion as assets to the decision-making process at all levels, then-current social ills will grow rather than be healed.
The next generation of leaders must be ready to address systemic challenges by diversifying decision-making and enhancing the intercultural development of those seated at the decision-making table. Only a truly interdisciplinary and intercultural approach can create a dialectic that will allow society to identify solutions to its myriad problems.
Therefore, the training of the next generation of leaders cannot be delegated. Instead, higher ed leaders must figure out how to engage everyone in the on-campus and off-campus communities to scaffold student success in a way that engages everyone in this work. The goal is to integrate JEDI throughout the institution in order to offer robust and effective academic preparation and opportunities that currently are too often missed.
Integrating JEDI Into Campus Culture
How can leaders overcome this historical, multi-level fragmentation and integrate JEDI into their campus culture? Aguilar believes the process begins with institutional and individual narratives. Institutions that fail to leverage diversity send a pointed message to students: we alone know what you need to learn, what experiences you need to have, and what you need to succeed, so your story is not important.
“When I arrived for graduate school, I remember trying to decipher whether I could integrate my story into what I was learning. It became evident that I could not.”
When Aguilar came from Mexico to the United States as a student, he soon realized that he needed to push aside his own experiences and insights in order to absorb what the university presented to him. While he was eventually able to integrate the personal and the academic into a cohesive identity, he believes that many students do not and that this impoverishes both the institution and the individual.
Integrating narratives into the educational mission is important given higher education’s goal of preparing future leaders. If students feel that they must let go of the richness they bring in order to learn something new, then the authenticity they repress will be difficult to bring forth down the road when they assume leadership positions.
“The problem with leaving people behind is that by doing so, we miss their brilliance.”
For example, Aguilar maintains that most of us simplify the experienced realities of others, which means that we do not interact with each other in a way that allows us to see one another on a plane that is level with our own. This inadvertent simplification means we tend to “other” someone else—to define them by a single story. The challenge is that regardless of our ability to understand other people’s realities, we in higher education have the opportunity—and indeed, the responsibility—to see them as complex as we know ourselves to be and to engage with them under that assumption.
Therefore, to best fulfill their full potential for teaching and learning, institutions must address a fundamental problem: a lack of focus on the stories of students (and of faculty and staff), because we do not ask for or learn about this complexity. We miss it by not supporting the reality of students to help them learn, and by missing that complexity, we too often end up trying to facilitate learning in a vacuum or a fictitious space, when instead, we could focus on being grounded on these realities.
The student story typically does not become part of their curriculum. How many courses, for example, ask each student who they are and then customize the curriculum to their unique strengths and needs? Aguilar admits that this is costly and time-consuming—and thus rarely happens—but he urges leaders to consider and act on the fact that students, whether traditional or nontraditional, bring a wealth of perspectives, experiences, cultures, and understandings.
Three Takeaways for Higher Education Leaders
- Presidents could impact their institutions’ bottom line ROI by integrating JEDI throughout the academic and administrative culture instead of viewing it as a sideline relegated to specific staff members or units.
- Integrating student stories—as well as faculty and staff stories—into your campus culture ensures authenticity while uncovering brilliance that otherwise is overlooked.
- Social justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion must be central to our preparation of the next generation of leaders in our increasingly diverse world and should be infused into the curriculum and co-curricular materials, as well as into student recruiting, persistence to graduation, and professional and personal development following graduation.
About the Host
Dr. Drumm McNaughton is a Higher Education Consultant, CEO of The Change Leader Consulting Firm, and an international leader in transformational change for Higher Education.
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