Why Isn’t DEI in the Top 10?

min read

If the benefits of making higher education information technology more diverse, equitable, and inclusive are so clear and if many institutions appear to be onboard, what prevented DEI from breaking into either the overall or the categorical Top 10 IT Issues lists?

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Credit: Donaire / Shutterstock © 2019

The author would like to thank the following individuals for their contributions to this essay: Mark Askren (University of Nebraska), Allan Chen (Muhlenberg College), Keith McIntosh (University of Richmond), Jackie Milhans (Northwestern University), Sharon Pitt (University of Delaware), and Melissa Woo (Stony Brook University).

The promotion and cultivation of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is a critical priority for higher education IT and academic technology organizations. While this prioritization of DEI is grounded in compelling moral and ethical principles, it is also based on solid empirical evidence. That is, research has demonstrated that diverse organizations and workplaces are more innovative, creative, productive, resilient, and effective than homogenous ones.1 Moreover, half of higher education institutions report that DEI has already been incorporated into or is currently exerting a major influence on emerging IT strategy, with another third reporting that DEI is having at least a minor influence on emerging IT strategy.2 And in this year's Top 10 IT Issues survey, DEI rose to the top 15 for the first time for bachelors, private masters, and smaller institutions.3 So, if the benefits of making higher education information technology more diverse, equitable, and inclusive are so clear and if many institutions appear to be onboard, what prevented DEI from breaking into either the overall or the categorical Top 10 IT Issues lists?

One explanation could be that IT professionals think of DEI as something so important that either it is diffused throughout or it rises above all the other IT issues. In the case of the former, some individuals may see DEI as part and parcel of many other Top 10 issues—for example Student Success, which tends to focus more on underrepresented groups, first-generation college students, and other nontraditional groups. In the case of the latter, individuals may view DEI as being such an essentially important concept to IT organizations that it categorically transcends being on a Top 10 list.

Another possible explanation for DEI's limited ascent is that although DEI may very well be regarded as a critically important (if not cross-cutting) issue, its relationship to the technical and operational issues with which IT organizations are preoccupied—and on which the Top 10 IT Issues lists focus—may not be clear. Certainly, IT professionals may see the inherent significance of DEI to their institution, organization, and daily work, but when DEI is compared with pressing, tangible, and (relatively) easily measured issues such as Information Security Strategy, Student Success, Digital Integrations, and Data Management and Governance, it inevitably takes a back seat. In this way, DEI is at a strong disadvantage for not being a traditional IT issue.

Finally, perhaps the simple lack of diversity in the current higher education IT community best explains why DEI is a less urgent priority. According to 2018 EDUCAUSE workforce data, higher education IT is predominantly white (83%), male (62%), straight (91%), and non-disabled (92%).4 The relative homogeneity of the higher education IT workforce may generate a kind of privilege that makes it difficult to identify problems that stem from a lack of DEI in the workplace. That is, many in higher education IT organizations may quite simply not see DEI as an issue. Although many IT professionals may believe in the importance of DEI, they may not think it is an issue on their own campus, or they may not understand why it requires an urgent and/or systematic response, or they may think that the responsibility for addressing DEI lies with others. This is not to suggest any callousness or ill will; instead, many IT professionals may simply not have experienced the challenges with which those who are currently underrepresented are confronted on a daily basis.

Any of these specific explanations or a combination of them might help us to understand better how DEI fell short of the Top 10 IT Issues lists for 2019. However, all of these explanations ultimately can be distilled down to the fact that there is a pervasive lack of awareness and understanding of how DEI is indeed an issue for higher education IT organizations. For many, DEI may very well be a new concept. To increase awareness and understanding of what DEI is and to help IT professionals understand how it influences their work and workplace require a holistic organizational strategy that (1) cuts across all levels of management, (2) does not slough off the responsibility of DEI to the human resources organization or to a campus diversity officer, and (3) moves beyond superficial gestures of solidarity and goodwill.

The fact that DEI has become more visible but has not risen to more prominence among IT issues simply underscores the importance of continuing our efforts and affirms the importance of the work that EDUCAUSE has undertaken to promote DEI. EDUCAUSE is outlining the challenges and is providing higher education IT leadership with the language to understand the importance and impact of DEI. It is curating its own and external DEI resources for higher education IT professionals to increase awareness of what DEI is, to improve understanding of why DEI is of critical importance, and to help CIOs, managers, and staff implement organizational change that elevates DEI as an issue. And the EDUCAUSE Board of Directors and senior leaders are encouraging CIOs to sign a"Commitment on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion," which is dedicated to "enhancing opportunities for these groups to eliminate barriers to full participation in technology professions in our institutions and the technology industry generally." To date, over 400 CIOs have already signed the commitment.

Although DEI did not rise to the level of a Top 10 IT issue in 2019, understanding the possible reasons why this did not happen informs how much and what kind of work remains to be done. Moreover, the fact that DEI was not on the list adds a sense of urgency to the overall work: there is much more to do before than behind us. Fortunately, EDUCAUSE is up to the challenge and is situated to help make DEI a strategic priority for all higher education IT organizations.

Additional Resources on the EDUCAUSE 2019 Top 10 IT Issues Website:

  • An interactive graphic depicting year-to-year trends
  • A video summary of the Top 10 IT Issues
  • Recommended readings and EDUCAUSE resources for each of the issues
  • More subject-matter-specific viewpoints on the Top 10 IT Issues
  • The Top 10 IT Issues presentation at the EDUCAUSE 2018 Annual Conference


  1. See, for example, Richa Gupta, "Workforce Diversity and Organizational Performance," International Journal of Business and Management Invention 2, no. 6 (June 2013); Claire Armstrong, Patrick C. Flood, James P. Guthrie, Wenchuan Liu, Sarah MacCurtain, and Thadeus Mkamwa, "The Impact of Diversity and Equality Management on Firm Performance: Beyond High Performance Work Systems," Human Resource Management 49, no. 6 (November-December 2010): 977-998; Forbes Insight, Fostering Innovation Through a Diverse Workforce (July 2011).
  2. EDUCAUSE, "Higher Education's 2019 Top 10 Strategic Technologies and Trends" (forthcoming), cited in Susan Grajek and the 2018–2019 EDUCAUSE IT Issues Panel, "Top 10 IT Issues, 2019: The Student Genome Project," EDUCAUSE Review Special Report, January 28, 2019.
  3. Grajek, "Top 10 IT Issues, 2019."
  4. Joseph D. Galanek, Dana C. Gierdowski, and D. Christopher Brooks, The Higher Education IT Workforce Landscape, 2019, research report (Louisville, CO: ECAR, forthcoming).

D. Christopher Brooks is Director of Research for EDUCAUSE.

© 2019 D. Christopher Brooks. The text of this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

EDUCAUSE Review Special Report (January 28, 2019)