Beyond the Diversity Status Quo

Stephen Secules
University of Georgia
Stephen Secules, University of Georgia
Author Profile
published Nov 2, 2017 11:22am

The arc of history is long but it bends towards freedom. - Martin Luther King Jr.

Most of us who work in equity and inclusion have an orientation towards wanting to make progress towards systemic change. There is a shared acknowledgement of past injustice, present struggle, and persistent hope. Consistent with the ASCN, those who work in equity and inclusion in higher education are often seeking long term, sustainable transformations of their institutions.

And yet, higher education institutions also prize stability and can be remarkably slow to change. Equity and inclusion concerns get framed as issues for committees and task forces, which eventually become standing entities rather than forces empowered to make radical change. Diversity work feels at risk to budget cuts and to voicing unpopular truths. Overworked and underfunded, the point people for equity and inclusion in an institution can take up somewhat conservative goals: retaining individuals who are underrepresented in a discipline can turn into a standing effort to at least not lose the little bit of diversity left in the department. Although its proponents are often oriented towards transformation, it can seem like higher educational diversity work is far removed from the work of systemic change.

In my dissertation I made calls for going "Beyond Diversity as Usual" in undergraduate engineering work, using new research approaches and new ways of conceptualizing institutional practice (Secules, 2017a). Here are a few directions from my work and others' that may help move towards systemic change in the institutional diversity landscape:

1. Listen To and Empower Students

Faculty and administrators in higher education may not pursue change for many reasons. Promotion and tenure processes can make individuals afraid of voicing strong opinions or creating reforms that would be deemed controversial by other colleagues. Funding structures can also have conservative goals, aimed at profit and sustainability of higher education enterprises rather than social justice or equality. Those who have relative privilege due to a dominant demographic identity or status in a system, even if they are concerned with social justice in theory, may feel less urgency to change a system that does not impact them as greatly.

In contrast, I've found college students generally aren't as conservative as the various "adults" in the room. In my work, many of the topics which seemed controversial to administrators were easier and more comfortable to talk about for college students. This is particularly true for students in marginalized communities. In general race may be a 3rd rail topic for predominantly white institutions uncomfortable with the implications of a racial analysis. But I've found race, engaging in conversation on and acknowledging racial identity, is not particularly controversial for students of color. Furthermore, students experiencing marginalization have a wealth of firsthand knowledge and are highly engaged in seeking change.

There have been several approaches to listening to students experiencing marginalization, and empowering them to shift circumstances. A range of qualitative work in STEM Education has helped uncover student experiences, for example (Danielak, Gupta, & Elby, 2014; Foor, Walden, & Trytten, 2007). Narrative-based work also has students narrate their own lives, and tell the story of equity and inclusion in STEM (Martin, 2007; Pawley & Slaton, 2015). Prominent examples of student-led auto-ethnography help students lead even more of a research effort, including their own interpretation of events (Brewer, Sochacka, & Walther, 2015). Finally, work which takes a liberatory praxis frame emphasizes students engaging in a response to oppression. In my own study (Secules, Gupta, & Elby, 2015, and forthcoming in Journal of Engineering Education, 2018), I suggest that engaging marginalized students in critical theorizing of their own experiences of oppression in STEM is an important source of agency. By listening to marginalized students and empowering them to understand and respond to their own circumstances, we can enlist them as important allies in the work of systemic change for equity and inclusion in higher education.

2. Look Inside Classrooms

In STEM higher education, we often frame diversity work as a specialty interest, and distinct from the central work of the discipline. In practical terms, diversity work is housed in programs and support services outside of the STEM classroom, rather than attempting to influence the STEM classroom for equity and inclusion. Although important, it is clear that much of the need for co-curricular support for underrepresented groups stems from the fact that educational experiences can marginalize students with non-dominant identities and with different background preparation from the norm. If diversity work sought to tackle the heart of the problem, we would often find ourselves going back into the classroom.

But looking inside classrooms can be complex and difficult. We are sensitive about our own teaching, and particularly about topics related to equity and inclusion. Even a constructive criticism about teaching regarding equity and inclusion, could be interpreted as an accusation of personal moral failing and prejudice.

I think the key is not to avoid talking about equity issues in classrooms, but to do so with sensitivity, humility, and acknowledging participants' good intentions and opportunities for growth. I wrote in my dissertation about issues of equity pertaining to cultural norms in an undergraduate programming course for electrical engineers (Secules, Gupta, & Elby, 2016, and forthcoming in Journal of Engineering Education, 2018). One element I observed was how certain students (primarily White men) with prior programming experience asked persistent questions far beyond the scope of the day's lecture or the course curriculum, and the professor, excited by the curiosity, would end up answering the questions at length. I noted how this was an adverse pattern in two ways: 1) it took away already limited class time from the ordinary content of the day's lesson, and 2) it signaled to students who did not understand the discussion how far behind they were from the other students. In receiving this feedback and recognizing the pattern, the instructor made a new policy, a '2 strikes' rule: each student would get to ask two curiosity questions per term (so that the instructor did not have to shut down curiosity preemptively), but if it started to turn into a pattern, rather than answer the question he'd say "that's a great question but see me in office hours." This reversed a norm where class time was for advanced questions and office hours were for more basic questions.

It was a subtle but important shift: research suggests that these minor classroom features add up to major experiences of failure and not belonging for students with less academic preparation, who are also more often from underrepresented groups. By looking into the classroom and working with practitioners to re-envision classroom spaces we open up the possibility of finding the ways that small shifts in pedagogy can add up to systemic change.

3. Shift Focus Towards Dominant Culture

We usually frame diversity work by focusing on the underrepresented groups within a discipline. We think about the cultural background and experiences of a marginalized group and this is a useful starting point towards addressing issues of equity and inclusion.

We less often look at dominant, privileged, and overrepresented groups within a discipline, and what actions they may be taking which are impacting the patterns and culture of the discipline. Critical masculinity and critical whiteness lenses may help us examine the dominant norms which create marginalization and underrepresentation. In what ways is the culture of a dominant majority demographic in STEM intertwined with STEM Educational culture? The history of engineering reveals how White men created a social position for themselves, and then structural and cultural boundaries preserved this demographic for decades (Secules, 2017b). In my next work, I'm asking: how do the intertwined demographics and cultural norms of STEM Education continue to pervade higher education settings today?

* * *

Those engaged in diversity research and practice don't need to be convinced to care about transformation towards equity and inclusion, but our ordinary frameworks, habits, and institutional contexts can be inadvertent forces to maintain the status quo. We could all use a few new ideas and strategies. These new ways of approaching diversity work can be catalysts to move more towards projects of transformation and liberation.

About the Author:

Stephen Secules is an Assistant Research Scientist at the University of Georgia working in the Engineering Education Transformation Institute. He is faculty co-advisor to the UGA chapters of National Society of Black Engineers and Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, and is outgoing chair of the Student Division of the American Society of Engineering Education.

Suggested Citation:

Secules, S. (2017, November 2). Beyond the Diversity Status Quo. Retrieved from


Brewer, M., Sochacka, N., & Walther, J. (2015). Into the Pipeline: A freshman student's experiences of stories told about engineering. In American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference. Seattle, WA.

Danielak, B. A., Gupta, A., & Elby, A. (2014). Marginalized Identities of Sense-Makers : Reframing Engineering Student Retention.Journal of Engineering Education , 103(1), 8–44.

Foor, C. E., Walden, S. E., & Trytten, D. a. (2007). "I wish that I belonged more in this whole engineering group:" Achieving individual diversity. Journal of Engineering Education, 96(2), 103–115.

Martin, D. B. (2007). Mathematics Learning and Participation in the African American Context: The Co-construction of Identity in Two Intersecting Realms of Experience. InImproving Access to Mathematics (pp. 146–158).

Pawley, A. L., & Slaton, A. E. (2015). The Power and Politics of STEM Research Design: Saving the "Small N." In American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference . Seattle, WA.

Secules, S. (2017a). Beyond Diversity as Usual: Expanding Critical Cultural Approaches to Marginalization in Engineering Education. University of Maryland.

Secules, S. (2017b). Putting Diversity in Perspective: A Critical Cultural Historical Context for Representation in Engineering. In American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference. Columbus, OH.

Secules, S., Gupta, A., & Elby, A. (2015). Theorizing can contribute to marginalized students' agency in engineering persistence. American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference.

Secules, S., Gupta, A., & Elby, A. (2016). "Turning away" from the Struggling Individual Student: An Account of the Cultural Construction of Engineering Ability in an Undergraduate Programming Class. In American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference. New Orleans, LA.

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