Today’s post from Janelle Elias with the WCET Steering Committee working group on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion reviews her research on how WCET member institutions are addressing equity work in strategic plans. This post continues the series started earlier this month on “Enabling Difference.” WCET leadership will continue the series throughout the month of August 2021! Thank you to Janelle for conducting this study and presenting the results to us today!

Enjoy the read and enjoy your day,

Lindsey Downs, WCET

The strategic planning process is a critical opportunity for institutions to reflect on current-state performance and outcomes, engage internal and external constituent groups, identify areas of continuous improvement, and envision roadmaps to future success. Governing and accrediting organizations expect institutions to use qualitative and quantitative data – in alignment with organizational vision, mission, and values – to drive planning and inform resource allocation. In an ideal state, strategic goals, objectives, initiatives, metrics, and targets will be explicitly defined for public consumption. Taking this lens into account, WCET was curious to understand how its member institutions are addressing the work of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) within their publicly documented strategic plans and initiatives in an effort to identify trends and best practices. 

The study

As of May 2021, WCET’s membership network was comprised of 395 organizations from the following sector types: Corporation (N=22); Governing/Coordinating Agency (N=36); Non-profit organization (N=29); Private, independent institution (N=75); Public, 2-year institution (N=68); and Public, 4-year institution (N=165). We selected a 10% random, stratified sampling of 41 strategic plans from the WCET membership for qualitative analysis. Member organizations from 24 states were randomly selected. 

Five organizations out of the 41 selected did not have strategic plan documents nor strategic plan web pages published, bringing the total sample size down to 36 plans. One plan was expired but included in the analysis because it was still published. The two corporate organizations did not publish strategic plans.

WCET Membership Strategic Plan Sample

Type Total sampled analyzed
Corporation  22 2 0
Governing/ Coordinating Agency 36 4 4
Nonprofit 29 3 2
Private, Independent 75 8 8
Public, 2 – year  68 7 6
Public, 4 – year 165 17 16
Totals 395 41 36

Five organizations (14% of the sample size) did not have strategic plans published.

We reviewed whatever strategic planning documentation was publicly available. In cases where a strategic plan document was unavailable, we analyzed the publicly available content on any strategic planning website. A limitation of this approach is that we understand other strategic initiatives, metrics, and targets may be established and underway that are not published on the institution’s public-facing website; however, the public-facing content may be a directional indicator of this body of work.

The variation in planning documentation is significant, ranging from a few paragraphs on the web to more than 30 pages including thoroughly quantified metrics of success. Wide variation is expected since strategic planning documentation reflects the context and culture appropriate to each institution. 

The results

We intentionally sought to study the language used to describe Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) strategic efforts, and we assumed these terms would be used. However, we expanded our search to include the following terms:

  • Access
  • Attainment
  • Success 
  • Graduation
  • Completion
  • Diversity
  • Diverse
  • Equity
  • Equitable
  • Inclusive 
  • Inclusion

The concepts of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion were used by all but three organizations in the sample, with “Diverse/Diversity” being referenced 222 times; “Inclusive/Inclusion” referenced 117 times; and “Equity/Equitable” referenced 110 times. In one plan, “Diversity” was mentioned 35 times.

Sum of Diversity References Sum of Inclusion References Sum of Equity References
222 117 110

As you might imagine, the terms were used inconsistently and often coupled or combined in their usage. For example, common couplings were “Equity and Inclusion” or “Diversity and Inclusion” or “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion”. The concept of “Inclusive Excellence” was presented as a gold standard, and multiple organizations emphasized “cultural competence”. Just one organization cited “racial and cultural tolerance.”

In most cases, the terms “Diverse,” “Equitable,” and “Inclusive” were used as adjectives throughout the strategic plan to define the community, the student population, and the culture. There did not appear to be relevant distinctions by sector type. 

There were three cases (8% of the sample) where these terms of “Diversity”, “Equity”, and/or “Inclusion” were absent from strategic planning documents. In five cases (14% of the sample), institutions used Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) terms as core values and commitments, yet there was an absence of definitions, goals, initiatives, metrics, and/or action plans. We found six institutions (17% of the sample) included definitions of the concepts; one institution shared a framework for DEI; and one organization had a diversity statement.

In five cases (14% of the sample), institutions used Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion terms as core values and commitments, yet there was an absence of definitions, goals, initiatives, metrics, and/or action plans. 

In six cases (17% of the sample), there were explicit goals focused on DEI. One organization was working on a DEI plan in conjunction with strategic planning processes, and at least three organizations indicated that developing a DEI committee/task force/council/office and producing a DEI plan would be part of their strategic initiatives. Just one institution was explicit about integrating DEI work into all other goals and objectives.

When referring to DEI goals and initiatives, the following themes emerged from the sample in order of frequency:

  • Processes for recruiting, retaining, and promoting staff and faculty.
  • Recruiting students.
  • Culture and environment.
  • Policy development and implementation.
  • Professional development and training.
  • Curriculum and co-curriculum.
  • Committee/Task force/Council/Office.
  • Action plan.
  • Pay equity.

In reviewing strategic plans, we also reviewed the concepts of “Access and Attainment” to determine if goals and targets were explicit in these areas, if they addressed DEI interests, and if they were measurable with explicit targets for success. We found 21 organizations focused on increasing access, and yet only nine of these (not even half) had published measurable targets. The eight private institutions sampled did not have goals or targets on increasing access. 

Approximately 10 times, the concept of “access” was associated with financial affordability of higher education, and organizations listed financial aid, scholarships, lowered tuition, tuition freezes, Open Educational Resources (OER), and reducing the cost of textbooks, as ways to increase access. More than five times, organizations referred to “access” as increasing technology and hybrid and online modes of delivery.

word cloud of several words from post:
First time in college
Low income

Institutions focused on increasing access for specific student populations, using a wide variety of language to describe these target populations, such as:

  • Underserved.
  • Under-represented.
  • Minority.
  • Female.
  • First time in college.
  • Low income.

In addition to setting access goals as a means of improving diversity, equity and inclusion, some institutions also focused on attainment goals. 25 institutions in this sample (nearly 70%) had explicit “attainment/completion/graduation” goals; however, only 17 of these had published measurable targets. Part of the challenge here is that institutions are measuring student success in vastly different ways. In general, institutions focused on course completion, degree attainment, transfer rates, and employment rates.

After a summer spent with some of your strategic planning documents, we observed a spectrum of approaches to diversity, equity, and inclusion within the WCET membership:

  • Some institutions made no reference to diversity, equity, and/or inclusion in their strategic plans while others embedded these concepts into their institutional values, mission, and vision.
  • Institutions often paired these concepts together and wrote about diversity and equity or equity and inclusion in their plans.
  • Many institutions created a stand-alone diversity strategic goal/initiative rather than integrating it throughout the strategic plan.
  • Institutions operationalized DEI planning work in a number of ways, including creating DEI committees, councils, task forces, action plans, and leadership structures.
  • Institutional training is an important way that schools are approaching DEI.
  • DEI audits and action plans, policies, and procedures were often cited in strategic plans.
  • DEI efforts sometimes included specific plans for improving recruitment, hiring, retention, and promotion for faculty and staff.
  • Some institutions had DEI efforts geared specifically for students including efforts around student recruitment and onboarding and other student success and completion initiatives.
  • Some, but not many, institutions had measurable DEI outcomes.
  • One institution integrated DEI throughout all goals and initiatives.
  • One institution developed a DEI agenda through the concept of “Inclusive Excellence.”

A study of the intentional language used in higher education strategic planning documents, as well as the lack of consistent language or the absence of DEI language across sector types and locations, may illustrate early stages of awareness and change in the industry. One thing is clear – planning to plan is a critical part of centering DEI work in the strategic planning process.

Best practices

Strategic plans can be powerful documents in an institution’s efforts to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). When developing or executing a strategic plan, institutions should consider the following:

  1. Given this unprecedented confluence of internal and external factors affecting the higher education industry, especially calls for improved social justice in higher education during 2019-present, it is the ideal time to plan for the institution’s future success and to document institutional strategic resource allocation – both of which are critical when addressing DEI in strategic planning. 
  2. Define the terms associated with DEI work at your institution. This is a process of making meaning within the context of each institution’s culture. One institution published a DEI framework to increase a shared understanding. 
  3. Define what student success looks like and how it is measured. Monitor student success rates by demographic groups to ensure that you are staying focused on removing systematic barriers to success for all student groups.


image of quote "culture eats strategy for breakfast."

At the conclusion of this project, I reviewed my institution’s strategic plan through this renewed lens.

Our strategic plan and culture statements (mission, vision, values, and practices) make it explicitly clear that diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging are top priorities for Rio Salado College and the driving force behind all the work we do. We also define success by an individual student’s goal attainment. These concepts are difficult to measure, yet we work hard to understand them at our institution.

There is deep, internal culture work that must occur before anyone can expect the results of this strategic work to impact equitable outcomes. Peter Drucker warned us that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” so it is encouraging to see so many institutions of higher education focus on fostering cultures that promote DEI. Through this strategic work, governance, policies, practices, curriculum, and outcomes can be improved.

Elias brings her lens as a first-generation student, with decades of higher education online education experience, and a keen understanding of how to leverage data to innovate student-centric solutions. Elias holds expertise in institutional effectiveness, change leadership, and systems development.

Janelle Elias

Vice President, Strategy & Advancement | Interim Vice President, Academic Affairs, Rio Salado College

LinkedIn Profile

3 replies on “Leveraging the Strategic Planning Process for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Work”

Janelle – A fascinating look. Thank you for sharing. I am disappointed, perhaps not surprised, that words like faculty development, teaching, and pedagogy for equity and inclusion were not mentioned in this analysis. Do you see examples of including support/focus on the classroom to meet those various student success goals?

Thanks for your feedback, Karen! The professional development was certainly not limited to faculty in this context. To respond to your question, I saw examples of Dev Ed redesign, guided pathways, early alert systems, supplemental instruction, high impact practices, accessible and inclusive teaching and learning environments, investment in Centers for Teaching and Learning, investment in ed tech, improvement in SLO assessment, mandatory orientation, student success courses, and readiness initiatives. Few institutions mentioned curriculum and none?! mentioned pedagogy in this sample. Curious.

Thank you for clarifying and expanding. Those are some really impactful and important investments. It’s all in the execution – which this research would likely not see.

Comments are closed.


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