DEI Defined: What Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Really Means

"from the desk of tabbye chavous" pen and paper

Along with serving as the Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Michigan, I am a professor of education and psychology. Evidence and facts matter at my institution and in my field. As a professor, my job is to help students understand how to support their ideas and assertions with evidence. I challenge my students to think critically about their information sources and show the data that supports their claims.

So when I tell communities that diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work at U-M is inseparable from our pursuit of excellence in education, research and public service, and when I say that DEI work makes our institutions and nation stronger because it drives innovation, improves decision-making, critical thinking and problem-solving skills, it is because I can reference 30 years of data across many fields and disciplines that demonstrate the educational value of DEI.

However, even with over three decades of rigorous research and empirical evidence, some people have positioned DEI as the root cause of all that ills our society – from plane doors being ripped off mid-flight, to boats crashing into bridges, to the economic and cultural failings of our education system, to causing the many centuries-old problem of antisemitism. DEI is also blamed both for suppressing free speech and for enabling too many people (or rather, the wrong people) to have free speech rights.

These are baseless assertions, and I offer some clear definitions and truths.

What is DEI? It is not a brand—it includes three terms that get at the heart of the conditions research shows are essential for better performance, problem-solving, and helping people thrive in their schools, workplaces, and communities.

Diversity includes race, ethnicity, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, language, culture, national origin, religion, age, disability and political perspective, among many areas of background and identity. Bringing together people with different experiences, pathways, and views results in a more intellectually rich learning environment, leading to more creative and effective solutions. To get the benefits of diversity, we also need equity and inclusion.

Equity recognizes that inequalities exist—that talent is equally distributed across all communities, but opportunity is not. So equity means doing all that we can to ensure that everybody has an opportunity to be successful and contribute to the larger good.

Inclusion means deliberate efforts to ensure that campuses are places where differences are expected and welcomed, where people can share and respectfully debate different perspectives, and where all can feel a sense of belonging. This doesn’t mean that people won’t encounter ideas or views that make them uncomfortable; it means that all feel valued and equally supported in using their voices. Inclusion also means different types of people and voices are included at the table when decisions are made.

In other words, DEI is not an empty phrase. It is not a single belief or ideology. DEI efforts include all communities. DEI requires a diversity of perspectives and supports free speech. DEI is integral to academic excellence.

The facts tell us that DEI work on our campuses affords us the best chance of solving problems by including all in solution-building, of deep learning and innovating, and offers our best chance for a prosperous future for our country.

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