A Conversation about DEI and Top IT Issues

min read

Higher education IT leaders are increasingly paying attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as critical to strategic workforce development and as a key IT issue.

A Conversation about DEI and Top IT Issues
Credit: HomeArt / Shutterstock © 2018

As alarming gaps continue to persist in IT ranks nationally, higher education IT leaders are increasingly paying attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as critical to strategic workforce development. In this, they reflect the concerns of institutional leaders. College and university presidents rank diversity as their fourth most-critical issue after financial management, fundraising, and enrollment management.1

Higher education information technology is not as diverse in terms of gender, race, and ethnicity as is the population it serves or the workforce in general. The higher education IT workforce is 15 percent nonwhite and 33 percent women, compared with 34 percent nonwhite and 47 percent women in the US workforce.2 Yet evidence suggests that a more diverse and inclusive workforce is a more effective workforce. Diverse teams are more fact-based, weigh evidence more carefully, and are more innovative. In the corporate sector, companies in the top quartile of ethnic and racial diversity are 35 percent more likely to show profits above industry means.3

As part of the EDUCAUSE Top 10 IT Issues research, three members of the 2017–2018 IT Issues Panel provided perspectives and advice on DEI as a strategic issue for IT leaders:

Ahmed El-HagganAhmed El-Haggan
Vice-President for Information Technology and CIO
Coppin State University


Landon PiriusLandon K. Pirius
Vice President for Organizational Effectiveness, Student Affairs, and Strategic Initiatives
Colorado Community College System


Kathryn RoseKatie Rose
Senior Director, User Services
University of Notre Dame


How do you think about the issues surrounding DEI?

Ahmed El-Haggan: By definition, diversity suggests "many." Gender, age, competencies, experiences, ethnic backgrounds, countries/states represented, and disability status are all factors I consider in my efforts to create a diverse and inclusive team.

Katie Rose: Like many other industries, higher education continues to struggle with ensuring that we have a diverse workforce that represents a wide array of backgrounds and experiences and with making each person feel welcome. And yet, to figure out the most challenging questions facing our industry, we need to find ways to recruit, hire, and retain people who can bring new ideas different from what we already get from our best teams.

Landon Pirius: I would add that the most critical conversations are about reflecting the demographics that students bring to the institution. Our definitions of diversity must include this locality. We benefit as an institution when our diverse workforce matches the demographics of our student community.

What is perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of DEI?

Rose: Some may view ensuring DEI as being simply a hiring task to make sure that you have candidates of different racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic backgrounds, but this issue goes so much deeper. While that is a critical step, the more important task before us is making certain that the conversations happening across campus welcome and encourage those diverse backgrounds and experiences so that we can learn from them. Those conversations require a campus culture of respect, humility, kindness, and openness to change. Without a culture that lives those values, no amount of "diverse hiring practices" will be effective.

El-Haggan: The most misunderstood aspect of DEI is the narrow lens that people use to define it. Equitable treatment of individuals—no matter their gender, race, disability, ethnicity, age, and sexual orientation—is critically important. But to fully benefit from a diversity perspective, we need to look beyond the usual categories or surface indicators to understand and embrace less-obvious differences, such as regional backgrounds. A culture of inclusiveness supports the goal of diversity.

Pirius: Myths stand in our way. One of the things I hear most often is that qualified diverse candidates do not exist or that they exist in such small numbers that we cannot compete to hire them. This is a misperception that we often claim is the issue. It's important to acknowledge that there are qualified diverse candidates and that the real issues are our own implicit biases and our processes that deter these candidates from applying to our institutions.

Why should IT leaders care about DEI? Who are the other campus stakeholders involved in this issue?

Pirius: DEI is a leadership issue. It is about building a campus culture that embraces DEI within all departments. Leadership must be involved, but so must other units on campus. Tackling this issue cannot be only top-down or only grassroots. It must be campus-wide, at all levels. This is important because our campuses and communities exist within a diverse world. It's critical for everyone—students, faculty, and staff—to feel welcome on campus. If they don't, this leads to dissatisfaction and perhaps shorter tenure at the institution.

Rose: As Landon says, DEI is very much a leadership issue. A diverse campus that celebrates and honors differences affects how our institutions attract under-represented students, how they are more efficient with limited budgets, and how they differentiate themselves from other institutions. Departments across the institution need to care about this issue. We need the help of our human resources teams to recruit more-diverse candidate pools and our provost offices to attract diverse faculty and researchers. Most importantly, we need each person at our institutions to live the values of kindness and respect so that when we get people with those critical new perspectives, we can keep their talents.

El-Haggan: Everyone should care about diversity and inclusion. We serve a world that is diverse, and in our leadership, staffing, and services, we must reflect that world for our students. It is in our best interest to hire diverse talent. At many of our campuses, a diversity strategy can help meet workforce shortages. We cannot find sufficient talent within any one demographic group. To identify, recruit, and retain good talent, leaders must promote diversity.

What advice would you give to those working toward a more strategic approach to DEI?

Pirius: DEI requires culture change. No single person can effect change, and what's more, if the initiative depends on one individual or influencer, it may not last. It takes organizational leadership, departmental leadership, and front-line and middle management employees as well. It takes time and work—a DEI initiative is not a six-month project. To go back to the leadership question, this is where a good leader can help people feel comfortable about change, by talking about how important this issue is, engaging people, and modeling inclusive behavior. Keep people involved and informed, and know that it takes time. Institutionalize the change with concrete goals, and develop and implement a continuous improvement strategy.

El-Haggan: Yes, it is a difficult, long process, but not as scary as it seems if leaders are intentional, open-minded, and strategic about the change they are trying to accomplish and if they understand the ups and downs of getting there. Don't take early progress for granted. As the IT leader, you have to personally plan and work to build an inclusive team. If you haven't already, consider moving to a talent management strategy based on developing and recruiting for competencies, which leads to better candidates and more equitable and inclusive search results.

Rose: As leaders, we often see that it is most difficult to assess ourselves. Any campus or team may need to bring in outside perspectives to look objectively at its diversity and inclusiveness efforts and to find the critical adjustments that may be needed. Even if a school has done a great job of ensuring a diverse campus that is inclusive, that job is never done. Just as society continues to struggle with DEI, in higher education we must continue to think about it, adjust, and keep the conversation going.

What opportunities does DEI provide for institutions that excel with it?

El-Haggan: It's important to recognize that diversity can be a strategic differentiator. For example, institutions that cultivate diversity have an advantage in recruiting. It makes getting better talent for the institution, and especially for information technology, much easier.

Pirius: In higher education, we have a unique opportunity because of our student-focused mission. We can create a virtuous circle in which an inclusive culture leads to a diverse workforce, which benefits students. When we see diversity in our workforce, students see that as well. They are observing where they may be 5, 10, or 15 years from now. A diverse and inclusive workforce helps model the future for students.

Rose: We know that other industries see value in diversity because it improves the creativity, effectiveness, and success of their teams. But IT organizations in higher education are just beginning this journey, so we have few exemplars. It will be interesting to see where the opportunities and benefits are as the sector evolves.

What could trip up IT leaders as they address DEI?

Rose: I'd like to reinforce what we said earlier: you cannot frame up DEI as a one-time initiative. At its heart, DEI represents culture change, and so it requires time, patience, and careful, deliberate planning. Most importantly, you need champions for diversity and inclusion throughout the institution. Executive leadership must voice this change, set the example for others, and continually call attention to the issue to support the advocates.

Pirius: Because DEI is about changing the culture, communicating wins is key. Improving DEI is a jagged line with ups and downs, and there will always be naysayers who are waiting for something bad to happen. If you have one ineffective hire, they will claim that the entire process does not work. You must stay on course, telling your story to help counteract the potential influence of skeptics.

El-Haggan: Don't isolate your diversity efforts in the IT organization from the rest of campus. Because of its contacts with industry, the IT organization can reflect general trends and changes in workforce management and may be a campus leader in diverse hiring. Promote your diversity initiatives campus-wide; otherwise your efforts can make you look like an outlier instead of a leader.

Group of people on steps in front of a building
IT Diversity Day Celebration at Coppin State University

What can we do at the ecosystem level to address DEI?

Rose: IT leaders can leverage their vendor relationships to gain a wider view of approaches to DEI. We can partner with C-suite peers—from student life and human resources, for example—to identify areas for action and initiate activities. At the same time, EDUCAUSE can work in parallel with corporate members and association peers in the higher education ecosystem to publicize best practices and strategies that work.

Pirius: We have a unique opportunity to recruit students into the IT workforce pipeline. Students don't think about work in higher education. We can model and mentor them to consider this alternative. Making students aware of higher education as a career possibility is where the ecosystem could help.

El-Haggan: We can share our stories to celebrate our diversity. For example, at Coppin we have an IT Diversity Day: we share our stories, food, music, experiences, and the diversity of our attire. Higher education is probably more open to the idea of diversity and inclusion than anywhere else. Sharing information and bringing case studies will make it easier for everyone to address the issue at their institutions. Continue to bring DEI to the forefront and discuss openly.

The EDUCAUSE Top 10 IT Issues Website Offers the Following Resources:

  • A video summary of the Top 10 IT issues

  • Recommended readings and EDUCAUSE resources for each of the Top 10 IT issues

  • An interactive graphic depicting year-to-year trends

  • Top 10 IT Issues lists by institutional type

  • Additional subject-matter-specific viewpoints on the Top 10 IT Issues

  • The Top 10 IT Issues presentation at the EDUCAUSE 2017 Annual Conference


  1. American College President Study 2017 (Washington, DC: American Council on Education, 2017).
  2. EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research (ECAR), "Current Faces of the Higher Ed IT Workforce," EDUCAUSE Research Snapshot, EDUCAUSE Review, May 2, 2016.
  3. See, for example, studies cited in David Rock and Heidi Grant, "Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter," Harvard Business Review, November 4, 2016. 

© 2018 Ahmed El-Haggan, Landon K. Pirius, Katie Rose, and EDUCAUSE. The text of this work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.