DEI and 21st-Century Business Strategies

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DEI is an important contributor to one of the themes of the 2019 Top 10 IT Issues: 21st-Century Business Strategies.

DEI and 21st-Century Business Strategies
Credit: Cienpies Design / Shutterstock

Each year EDUCAUSE members select Top 10 IT Issues for the coming year. These are the issues members anticipate will be the most important IT-related issues facing their institutions and higher education. From that list, EDUCAUSE identifies a primary focus and set of themes that encapsulate the state of our field. This year's focus is "The Student Genome Project" because in 2019 higher education is focused on organizing, standardizing, and safeguarding data so that we can use those data to address our most pressing priority: student success. The three themes for 2019 are Empowered Students, Trusted Data, and 21st-Century Business Strategies. This is one of a series of three Data Bytes blog posts exploring how another pressing priority of higher education and of EDUCAUSE—diversity, equity, and inclusion—pertains to each of the three themes of the 2019 Top 10 IT Issues.

Everyone's diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) lens is shaped by their personal experience. I grew up in an ethnically diverse but racially and socioeconomically homogeneous environment. My education at a state university gave me opportunities to meet, become friends with, work with, and learn from people of many different races, religions, sexual orientations, socioeconomic levels, military experience, and prison records. It was perhaps the most richly diverse period of my life. My college education opened my eyes, my mind, my heart.

I have come to view higher education as a critical gateway for diversity, equity, and inclusion. It may be the last melting pot we have. Higher education can provide numerous benefits to individuals from historically disadvantaged and underserved groups. At the same time, higher education can cultivate empathy among individuals from all walks of life, demonstrating the value of diversity and the need to expand access and equity to everyone.

Technology can amplify higher education's potential benefits, or it can stymie them. In this series of blogs about DEI, EDUCAUSE staff are asking how the 2019 Top 10 IT Issues reflect and ought to support the expansion of DEI in higher education. Two other blogs address the Top 10 IT Issues themes of empowered students and trusted data. Here we examine the theme of 21st-century business strategies.

Three of this year's Top 10 issues relate to the role of technology in institutional funding and strategy:

  1. Sustainable Funding: Developing funding models that can maintain quality and accommodate both new needs and the growing use of IT services in an era of increasing budget constraints

  1. Integrative CIO: Repositioning or reinforcing the role of IT leadership as an integral strategic partner of institutional leadership in supporting institutional missions

  1. Higher Education Affordability: Aligning IT organizations' priorities and resources with institutional priorities and resources to achieve a sustainable future

No organization can survive without an effective set of business strategies, and few business functions are independent of information technology in the 21st century. The effective and cost-efficient use of IT solutions is a major source of value, serving as a critical success factor in achieving institutional goals and objectives. This dynamic calls for strong IT leaders who can work effectively across the institution, which requires accommodations from both IT and institutional leadership. IT organizations that are predominately aging, white, male, and straight are at a disadvantage when trying to partner effectively with the institutions they serve, which represent a broader and growing range of diversity. Institutions that sideline IT leadership or that silo investments within academic or administrative fiefdoms are implicitly emphasizing cost savings at the expense of value.

DEI is a 21st-century business strategy. If higher education is to survive, it must be able to serve an increasingly diverse set of students, faculty, and communities. IT leaders can no longer set priorities without understanding institutional objectives, timelines, and constituents. Colleges and universities need a high-functioning IT organization and leadership that understands the needs of its constituents, empathizes with them, and reflects their cultural and demographic diversity. The emphasis here is on alignment between the IT and institutional missions and areas. An integrative CIO who is an inclusive partner can make all the difference in helping institutional areas use technology effectively and embrace collaboration with IT and with each other.

Technology can either facilitate more diverse constituencies within an institution or impede them. A website with images and stories that reflect strong diversity among faculty, students, and staff indicates a welcoming and inclusive institution. Institutional websites and online resources should adhere to accessibility standards to attract and support students and faculty with disabilities. An integrative CIO understands the needs of the institution and how to apply technology to meet them. An IT funding model that accommodates the needs of an increasingly diverse institutional community—by, for example, building accessibility requirements into project and service funding criteria—can advance an institution's DEI priorities; an IT funding model that can't accommodate DEI needs will undermine them. An IT leader who anticipates the institution's future needs and recognizes that diversity is necessary to achieve a sustainable future can begin to make the technology, funding, and IT workforce course corrections to support a more diverse and inclusive institution even before institutional leaders have set explicit DEI priorities. This is not premature—it's wise. It can take years for an organization to become meaningfully diverse, meaningfully equitable, meaningfully inclusive.

An emphasis on DEI means an emphasis on people. And an IT organization that loses sight of its customers will quickly fail to meet their needs and never quite align IT strategy with organizational strategy. Neglect of DEI might in fact be associated with the kind of IT organization that privileges technology over business value. This is particularly important for institutions that aspire to serve diverse and global populations.

Higher education affordability is reflected in this year's Top 10 as alignment of the IT organization's priorities and resources with the institution's. The clearest opportunity for alignment is between IT goals and institutional goals. But a different, subtler kind of alignment is equally important: alignment between the makeup of the IT organization and the institution's existing and aspirational community. The more closely our institutions and the departments within them mirror and adapt to the changing populations we serve (and aspire to serve), the better we can make decisions that will advance the institution. Today's IT organizations are whiter and more male than today's students, and they are failing to attract a Millennial workforce.1

This lack of diversity not only makes it harder for IT organizations to understand their customers, it limits their effectiveness. Twenty-first-century business strategies rely on high-performing organizations. IT organizations need to be innovative and productive, and diverse teams have been shown to be more innovative and productive.2 Inclusivity is not only a baseline employer requirement for most of the younger workforce; it is also a necessary quality for organizations to get the most out of their staff: inclusive work environments have the best financial performance.3

It's time to play catch-up. Things look hopeful: half of IT organizations are already incorporating DEI into their IT strategy, and at another third DEI at least is exerting a minor influence on the IT strategy. These are the institutions that are best poised to accommodate not only 21st-century business strategies but 21st-century needs.


  1. Joseph D. Galanek, Dana Gierdowski, and D. Christopher Brooks, The Higher Education IT Workforce Landscape, 2019, research report (Louisville, CO: ECAR, February 2019).
  2. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Melinda Marshall, and Laura Sherbin, "How Diversity Can Drive Innovation," Harvard Business Review, December 2013.
  3. "Appendix: Why Diversity and Inclusion Matter: Financial Performance," Catalyst, August 1, 2018.

Susan Grajek is Vice President of Communities and Research at EDUCAUSE.

© 2019 Susan Grajek. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.