Alternate Conversations for Creating Whole-System Change around Diversity and Inclusion

The New York Times recently published a report on diversity recruitment efforts in higher education. The report concluded that despite decades of proactive efforts aimed at recruiting individuals from marginalized backgrounds, “black and Hispanic students are more underrepresented at the nation’s top colleges and universities than they were 35 years ago” (Ashkenas, Park, and Pearce 2017). In fact, the report states that the percentage of first-year students at top US institutions who are African American remains “virtually unchanged since 1980,” and the growth over the same period in the proportion of first-year students at these institutions who are Hispanic has not kept pace with US population trends.

Yet while campus diversity change may be hard to come by, campus diversity activity is as busy as ever. Over the last several years, there has been increased attention to issues of diversity, inclusion, and multicultural competence in higher education, driven by public outrage over instances of racial injustice and simmering tensions related to the US political climate. Campus walkouts, protests, and sit-ins have become common, and such topics as microaggressions, intersectionality, and nonbinary identities have started to dominate diversity and inclusion conversations.

Although this attention may appear both new and newsworthy, the debate about how to achieve diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education has been raging for quite some time, the latest iteration—complete with hashtags, Snapchat videos, and online petitions—notwithstanding. In fact, if history is any indicator, our current moment will likely continue for a bit longer before it gives way to another cycle of crisis and frustration. This is not to minimize the significance of the largely student-driven movement to bring equity and inclusion to higher education. Many of the demonstrations are authentic, important attempts at producing change, led by students who have been severely marginalized and who have been asking faculty, staff, and administrators to have a deeper understanding of their multiple intersecting identities and to use that understanding to improve campus climate. To that end, the protests and demonstrations have a necessary place in the movement to diversify our campuses and institutions. That is not in doubt, nor is it the problem.

The problem, as I have both written (Golom, forthcoming) and spoken about at various conferences (e.g., Golom 2016) over the last year, is that such protests are insufficient to produce organizational transformation, giving off the appearance of working mightily while not creating much appreciable change. When diversity and inclusion advocates ask, “How many protests will it take to finally diversify our campuses?” (Harvey 2016), the answer should be obvious. It will take all of them, and it will take none of them, because the answer does not lie in a specific programmatic initiative. Instead, the answer lies in creating an environment capable of producing and sustaining change, and doing that requires a very different set of conversations and strategies than the ones that typically dominate diversity and inclusion efforts in higher education.

Individual Interventions Do Not Produce Systems Change

Although data from the Times report may be disheartening, they are consistent with decades of empirical and theoretical work in the social sciences about the conditions under which organizational systems actually effect change. Approximately two-thirds of organizational transformation efforts fail (Burke 2017), and while there is little research breaking out this failure rate by type of change, there is reason to suspect that the rate of failure for diversity change efforts could be even higher, particularly given the entrenched nature of both privileging and oppressive systems and policies in many organizational contexts (Davidson 1999).

Conceptually, there are two reasons for this failure. First, many change initiatives do not target the entire system (Burke 2017; Senge 1990), opting to concentrate on specific incidents rather than on the deeply ingrained patterns and norms that allow such events to occur. Second, organizational diversity and inclusion interventions often focus on the individual level, with employee resource groups and affinity groups for women, people of color, and people with sexual or gender minority identities, and bias or awareness training for everybody else (Block and Noumair 2017).

The literature on organizational change is fairly clear that most individual-level diversity interventions have limited effectiveness, especially training (Dobbin and Kalev 2016), which ironically is a frequent demand of many student and faculty groups for addressing diversity and equity concerns. For example, I recently consulted with a department where all faculty members were required to attend diversity training after several incidents among colleagues. These incidents were brought to the attention of the chair and dean but were never openly discussed. Unaware of the precipitating events, most full-time faculty members gave only perfunctory attention to the training, viewing it as checking off a required box. The climate in this department remained relatively unchanged after the training, and it will likely stay in this quasi-stationary equilibrium until another “crisis” prompts another training.

Most organizations focus on incidents and individuals in isolation, rather than on the patterns and structures that link and cause them (Burke 2017; Senge 1990). Unfortunately, when institutions emphasize individual-level events instead of examining what those events reveal about the campus culture, they often implement interventions aimed at improving symptoms without addressing their underlying cause (Golom, forthcoming). As long as most diversity and inclusion practitioners follow this approach, it will be nearly impossible to create organizational environments capable of producing and sustaining equitable transformation.

Getting in the Balcony

Framing diversity and inclusion as a change initiative requires leaders to “get in the balcony,” a common leadership development phrase (Heifitz and Laurie 2001). In this context, “getting in the balcony” means holding at bay one’s reactions to specific events, and instead examining and engaging in conversations about the patterns, interrelationships, and feedback mechanisms across the organizational system that might be contributing to those events. In short, “getting in the balcony” means seeing the system rather than the individual.

Consider the following example. Several faculty members express concerns about the lack of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and other queer-identified people on the faculty and in senior academic administrative positions. These faculty members call meetings of the queer faculty and staff affinity group, and a subcommittee meets with administrators. The provost’s office promises to devote additional resources to recruiting queer faculty during the next round of hiring, to increase support for queer students and faculty, and to consider “diversity factors” when promoting individuals to administrative leadership positions. Although not all queer-identified faculty members find this response adequate, administrators have made some identifiable commitments and may achieve some progress, at least by a small measure.

Why then is this response insufficient to produce lasting change? The recruitment and hiring of more queer individuals is not a negligible marker of change, but it is not an indicator of systemic transformation either. According to the social science literature, recruitment is an individual-level, transactional intervention (Burke 2017). That is, recruiting individuals is likely to produce evolutionary or incremental change in the organization, but unlikely to create revolutionary or systemic changes in the organization’s norms and culture. Without such changes, true transformation cannot occur. A different subcommittee will likely make a similar request around another queer-identified issue years later.

Below, I detail alternate conversations—on context, levels, and systems—that can reframe this individual-level focus and make organization-wide whole-system change possible. These conversations are part of a systems framework for thinking about equity, diversity, and inclusion on campus (Golom, forthcoming; 2015).

The Context Conversation

Considering the context of organizational behavior, or how people act in organizational settings, is as important as, if not more important than, focusing on individual factors. When examining any workplace phenomenon, we should always analyze the interaction of the individual and the environment. Context—including an institution’s history, culture, demographic composition, and type—can be as significant an influence on behavior as personality (Chatman 1989). Thus, to keep diversity and inclusion conversations at the level of the individual, including suggesting who “gets it” and who does not “get it” with respect to campus equity issues, is to miss critical contextual data points about the culture of the institution and how it might be contributing to a lack of progress. Individuals or specific incidents occur in a context, or a soil, if you will. Focusing on each one separately is like pulling up weeds one by one; a much better strategy would be to ensure that the institution’s context is not fertile ground for undesirable behavior in the first place.

Along with requesting more funds for recruiting queer faculty, the subcommittee in the above example might look at whether the campus climate is favorable for queer-identified people and whether scholarship on queer issues is viewed positively in the tenure and promotion process. A deeper exploration of contextual factors might expose some additional reasons for the lack of queer faculty, expanding the conversation beyond recruitment to other aspects of campus life that might need to change for queer faculty not only to be retained but also to thrive.

The Levels Conversation

A frequent consequence of focusing diversity conversations on individual events and actors is that the levers for change also become focused at the individual level. As I have noted (Golom, forthcoming), an individual frame begets common individual interventions, including recruitment, retention, replacement, displacement, training, and coaching, but there is not much evidence that changing individuals results in a changed organizational system (Burke 2017). In fact, research suggests that some common individual-level interventions are not effective and often generate backlash, particularly when they are not part of some larger diversity-oriented change strategy (Dobbin and Kalev 2016; Kalev, Dobbin, and Kelly 2006). One significant limitation of these individual-level interventions is that they ignore the multiple levels that exist in and around any organization. Higher-order forces at the group, department, university, industry, and national levels influence students, faculty, and staff long after a new person has been hired or a diversity training has ended.

Increasing resources for queer faculty recruitment in the above example does not necessarily take into account how including queer faculty in certain departments might affect group cohesion, communication, conflict, and trust. Research in organizational psychology indicates that the effects of diversity at the group and organizational levels, especially on group functioning or performance, are not always as positive as some diversity advocates would like to suggest (Eagly 2016). It’s critically important for campus diversity advocates to consider group process implications and acknowledge that an intervention that might be positive for an individual may not always translate into a net positive for the group or the organization, unless there are additional interventions that address and alter group norms and processes so that an inclusive climate can be created (Nishii 2013).

The Systems Conversation

Ultimately, attending to context and levels means attending to the entire organizational system. Simply put, diversity advocates must target the overall culture of the organization for change, even when an issue seems entirely about one or two “problem” people. Renowned organizational psychologist Edgar H. Schein defines culture as “beliefs, values, and behavioral norms that come to be taken for granted as basic assumptions and eventually drop out of awareness,” even as they are implicitly “taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, feel, and behave in relation to . . . problems” (2016, 6). Culture ought to be a paramount concern in diversity and inclusion work. It is stable, unconscious, and pervasive, and it subtly integrates disparate individuals, events, and activities (Schein 2016). In addition, fundamentally altered behavior often cannot take root in an organizational system unless the overall culture of the institution changes to support it. Ultimately, a lack of focus on organizational culture explains why diversity interventions in the workplace do not always add up to the sum of their promised individual effects, and why decades of recruitment initiatives still have not resulted in a more diverse undergraduate student body that reflects US population trends.

In the above example, additional money for recruiting and hiring queer individuals may be a net negative in terms of queering university faculty, particularly if institutional heterosexism remains a pervasive part of the university culture. Heterosexism might manifest in human resources practices and procedures that operate largely out of the awareness of many people on campus. These practices may include failing to cover sexual orientation and/or gender identity in employment nondiscrimination policies, or discontinuing domestic partner benefits and requiring same-sex couples to marry to receive health coverage. In fact, recruitment efforts are unlikely to succeed unless they are part of a sustained, strategic diversity and inclusion plan that is (1) aimed at changing the entire organizational system, and (2) guided by a strong vision, clear data, and carefully coordinated initiatives at multiple levels across campus (Dowd and Bensimon 2015; Golom 2015). The most effective diversity interventions are those that embed structures of responsibility and accountability throughout the organization, such as diversity task forces or diversity committees (Kalev, Dobbin, and Kelly 2006). Isolated or even targeted interventions, on the other hand, do not create environments capable of producing and sustaining whole-system change (Burke 2017; Thomas 2004).

Thinking and Acting Systemically

Although several systems change models can help guide the work of diversifying academia (Burke 2017; Dowd and Bensimon 2015; Golom 2015), my consulting experiences have indicated that they are no substitute for the hard work of training ourselves to think and act in systems. Many change practitioners are familiar with John P. Kotter’s eight steps for creating change (1998), for example, yet a list of steps is likely to be ineffective at encouraging people to think about the norms, patterns, interrelationships, and contingencies that can lock any organization into decades-old dynamics of exclusionary behavior. As Donella H. Meadows writes in Thinking in Systems: A Primer (2008), helping individuals shift their mindsets toward thinking systemically is a better leverage point for changing a system than any one specific intervention or a list of boilerplate steps. Like many organizations, institutions of higher education tend to be too reactive in their responses to specific events and changes in the external environment to be able to get out ahead of these events and changes strategically and dynamically.

The end result is activity without productivity. Yet if we think systemically and internalize the idea that systems produce their own behavior, and do not do so by accident, we might be forced to confront how our own behavior colludes with the larger organizational system to prevent change. Far too many diversity and inclusion practitioners in higher education and elsewhere are still primarily championing diversity training, grievance policies, and strategies for controlling individual bias in selection and promotion decisions, despite being aware that many of these interventions have limited effectiveness, can often lead to backlash, and ought to be part and parcel of a broader systemic approach to change (Dobbin and Kalev 2016).

Diversifying institutions that were never designed to be accessible to everyone is hard work. So, too, is thinking and acting systemically. Many of the norms and practices people encounter in day-to-day organizational life are raced and gendered and heteronormative in ways that are beyond individuals’ awareness. The systems containing these norms can and often do dynamically outmaneuver even the most carefully planned attempts at change (Coleman et al. 2017). We should not enable this lack of progress by continuing to propose individual-level solutions with little empirical or conceptual support. As leaders, our task is to step back from the events-based and reactive approaches that often dominate diversity and inclusion work to recognize how contexts, levels, and systems influence behavior in both visible and not-so-easily-seen ways, and to aim our interventions strategically, dynamically, and accordingly at multiple leverage points in the system. The conversations described here are one possible attempt at translating systems thinking into practice.

For a more detailed discussion of the alternate conversations reviewed in this article, including specific systems frameworks for producing and sustaining change, see Golom (forthcoming).


Ashkenas, Jeremy, Haeyoun Park, and Adam Pearce. 2017. “Even with Affirmative Action, Blacks and Hispanics Are More Underrepresented at Top Colleges than 35 Years Ago.” New York Times, August 24.

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Golom, Frank D. 2015. “Creating Systemic Change around Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Issues: A Case Analysis and Recommendations.” In Expanding the Circle: Creating an Inclusive Environment in Higher Education for LGBTQ Students and Studies, edited by John C. Hawley, 107–26. Albany, NY: State University of New York (SUNY) Press.

———. 2016. Engaging LGBTQ Students, Faculty, and Studies: Building Democratic Capacity and Academic Success. Invited culminating plenary address delivered at the Association of American Colleges and Universities conference on Diversity, Learning, and Student Success, Philadelphia, March 19.

———. Forthcoming. “Reframing the Dominant Diversity Discourse: Alternate Conversations for Creating Whole System Change.” Metropolitan Universities 29 (1).

Harvey, William B. 2016. “How Many Protests Will It Take to Finally Diversify Our Campuses?” Chronicle of Higher Education, February 26.

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Kalev, Alexandra, Frank Dobbin, and Erin Kelly. 2006. “Best Practices or Best Guesses? Assessing the Efficacy of Corporate Affirmative Action and Diversity Policies.” American Sociological Review 71 (4): 589–617.

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Meadows, Donella H. 2008. Thinking in Systems: A Primer. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green.

Nishii, Lisa H. 2013. “The Benefits of Climate for Inclusion for Gender-Diverse Groups.” Academy of Management Journal 56 (6): 1754–74. 

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Senge, Peter M. 1990. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday.

Thomas, David A. 2004. “Diversity as Strategy.” Harvard Business Review, September.

Frank D. Golom is Assistant Professor of Applied Psychology at Loyola University Maryland.

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