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Communicating About Diversity on Your Higher Education Website

Reflecting diversity and inclusion is a communications priority for many colleges and universities — here are some concrete ways to build these considerations into your content and editorial processes.

This post was updated on August 25, 2020

One of the most prevailing concerns in higher ed is diversity. From organizations like the American Council on Education and the Association of American Colleges & Universities, to scholarly journals like the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education and industry publications like Inside Higher Ed, there is significant attention around how to cultivate diverse and inclusive communities within colleges and universities. 

It’s a complex issue with no easy answers, and that goes for your digital properties as well. There is typically a lot of focus on creating an easy-to-find “Diversity” section on the website that contains a lot of strong, affirming language about creating inclusive communities, information about relevant executive leadership and offices, and links to non-discrimination policies. 

But while this information is important and should be clear and findable, communicating about diversity should not be limited to one section of your website — rather, it should be a comprehensive effort. It’s important to remember that diversity goes beyond race and ethnicity. Geography, socioeconomic factors, LGBTQ identity, faith, gender, age, and ability are just a few additional factors to consider. 

The point about accuracy is key — your website (or any other communication approach, for that matter) can’t in good conscience reflect something that you are not, even if it is something you aspire to be. If you publish photos inauthentically representing the diversity of your campus, the truth will surface easily enough. Third-party sites like Niche and College Factual, which prospective students use heavily in their research process, are aggregating real feedback from actual students around characteristics like institutional diversity, while rankings such as those from U.S. News and World Report are considered authoritative. How will your website corroborate the information they gather from those sources?

Here are a few opportunities to consider:

Visual Content

As you regularly revisit your photo assets, it is essential to take diversity into account. Your photography is one of the most powerful and visible ways you can communicate your commitment to an inclusive, diverse community — but the other side of the visibility coin means that if you get it wrong, you get it wrong in a big way. 

Maintaining a current visual style guide that provides high-level art direction while also showcasing exemplary images can help guide thoughtful decision-making about photography in alignment with your communications priorities, including diversity.

Using a digital asset management (DAM) tool can help you avoid perceptions of tokenism — if there is one student of color who shows up in every publication, people notice. Use your DAM to be intentional about which photos you use, where and how frequently you use them, and ensure they are current.

Be attentive in how you compose photos and videos and select subjects. Students pick up on environmental details in photos and will notice someone in a wheelchair or wearing hijab in the background, a gender-inclusive sign on a restroom door, or adult students in a classroom scene. 

They will also notice if it’s a white male professor standing over and lecturing to a group of female students, versus a professor of color leading a classroom discussion. Interpersonal dynamics — who is in an image or video, and how they are positioned alongside and interacting with each other — are not lost on savvy student audiences. We have also interviewed students who are sensitive to international students being featured in the context of communicating diversity — the composition of your international student body may be significantly different than that of your domestic student body, so be mindful of context when using specific photography.

Another type of visual content is your campus map — how do you reflect diversity here? Do you incorporate information about gender-neutral bathrooms, or accessibility features like ramps and elevators?

The task of ensuring diversity and inclusion in your visual content does not stop once you have created the photo or video. File names, alt text, and captions all provide meaningful context to visual content, and the word choice in those elements should reflect similar attention and thougtfulness around inclusion and identity. 

Examples and resources:

Style Guides

Language matters. How you talk to — and about — people reflects how you perceive and respect them. Your style guide is the user’s manual for how you engage your community through written and visual language. 

While it is important to define style around academic titles and your institution’s abbreviated name, a good style guide must go beyond that to provide actionable guidance around communicating inclusively.

California State University’s Diversity Style Guide opens with this bold statement:

As the country's most diverse and largest public four-year institution of higher learning, the California State University has a particular obligation in setting the example for inclusiveness.

While the CSU resource provides comprehensive and thoughtful communications guidance related to gender, LGBTQIA, people with disabilities, race and ethnicity, and students from low-income backgrounds, it also acknowledges that this is a moving target and an ongoing discussion:

This guide is just a first step in what we know will be an ever-evolving document. Which is why we look to you—the employees of the Chancellor's Office who will use the style guide in your work—to offer direction, note important omissions, and ask questions.

Your input will ensure this document continually improves and accurately, fairly, and compassionately refers and speaks to our many and varied audiences. If you have any questions, please Ask the Editor [email].

This is great to see. A style guide should always be a living document, one that not only evolves in response to institutional priorities but also the changing dynamic of the community and the world at large.

Examples and resources:

Accessibility is Part of Diversity

As previously stated, when talking about communicating inclusively to a diverse audience, we must consider ability, as well. (This 2014 article by Anne Gibson does a great job at showing the wide range of issues that fall under the umbrella of accessibility — hint: it’s more than just screen readers.)

In thinking about digital experiences, that means considering not only alt text for those with low vision or transcripts for those who are hard of hearing, but also how use of motion may affect those prone to seizures, or using plain language so those with learning disabilities or for whom English is a second language can more easily comprehend your content. 

Examples and resources:

Conveying Diversity Across Student Life

When we emphasize walking the walk and not just talking the talk, this is particularly pertinent when referring to student life. 

A lot of this can come out in photography, and this means it’s important to go beyond broad vistas of people walking across the quad, but rather focus on the moments and the events that truly comprise the student experience — conversations in the library, an audience enjoying a concert, midnight breakfast in the dorm. Within these moments, think about representation — someone in the audience is in a wheelchair, or there’s a sign for the gluten-free pancake line.

The trick is that, these are factors that writing and photography cannot introduce or resolve, but rather only capture — the more your institution is authentically creating an inclusive experience, the easier it will be to communicate about.

Here are some areas warranting particular attention:

  • A diverse student body will yield diverse clubs and organizations. Highlight the student groups that reflect the community you have and seek to build upon. 

  • Similarly, how do your housing and dining options welcome and accommodate a diverse population? Different populations may eagerly seek non-gender-specific housing or single-gender floors, so highlight both. 

  • Spell out how you accommodate people with dining restrictions, be they determined by religion, culture, allergies, health conditions, or other factors.

Elevating the Value of Your “Diversity” Section

Communicating about diversity and inclusion is the job of your entire website, not just one page or section. However, key audiences will be looking for this content to understand what you are doing at an institution-wide level to sustain a diverse, inclusive community. 

So while this section is not the end-all be-all, it is important and should be prominent and easy to find. Any commitments expressed should be worded in clear, unequivocal, and plain language, not muddied by overly floral prose or complicated syntax. 

This section should also reflect more than high-level, nice-sounding statements and promises — it should communicate concrete ways that this commitment manifests on your campus. This may include past and current initiatives (with dates and links to more details), milestone events on the campus calendar (e.g. an MLK Day celebration, an annual cultural festival, Pride Month traditions), and other tangible factors (e.g. endowed chairs for relevant fields or specialties, research institutes, diverse faculty hiring rates, awards from other organizations for areas related to diversity and inclusion).

While campus demographics are often surfaced on a “fast facts” page — or, more comprehensively but less visibly, on your Institutional Research site — it may be helpful to surface a data narrative about racial and ethnic diversity on campus, particularly if there is a positive story to tell. Showing the preceding years can help illustrate a positive trend toward achieving greater diversity.

If you are doing institutional soul-seeking around inclusion, find a way to be transparent about it online. Communicating about ongoing dialogue and seeking input from the community, coupled with honesty, are important ways of demonstrating openness and a commitment to progress, even if you as an institution are not where you desire to be.