Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Glossary of Terms



To Include is To Excel is a four year curriculum and teaching initiative funded by the Andrew W. Mellon foundation from 2017-2021. This primer was designed as an evolving resource to provide the St. Olaf community with shared understanding of key terms and ideas in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work. The original document represents a shared effort by faculty and staff; we owe particular thanks to Marc David, Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology. It represents the emergent consensus of practitioners in the higher education and nonprofit sectors, and is informed by broad currents of research in the social sciences and related disciplines.

The main premise of such efforts is that institutions need reform to become more diverse, inclusive, and equitable.

It is assumed that these are desirable goals — none of the key terms presents a justification for greater diversity, for example — and that, given the current status quo, most (if not all) institutions must strive to realize more of these qualities. Other assumptions in play here include:


That treating individuals equitably — in addition to treating them equally— is among the most valued ideals that an institution of higher learning should pursue.


That processes of social stratification inexorably distribute resources, skills, and opportunities unequally, a skewed distribution with a profound impact on educational access and achievement.


That an institution’s practices and policies are culturally embedded: While much about them is readily recognized, much is also implicit and sedimented in taken-for-granted routines and rationales. Dynamics that inhibit inclusion and equity often lie imbricated in this unacknowledged “common sense.” Thus, addressing them requires collective work that is reflective and transformative.


This glossary begins to provide a shared language for students, staff, and faculty as we pursue the inclusive mission of the College more ambitiously. In particular, the implications of the principal key terms — diversity, equity, and inclusion — for institutional practice are already the subject of reflection in many segments of the campus. In defining them substantively, these iterations are intended to stimulate further thought and debate. Likewise, in light of To Include Is to Excel’s focus on pedagogy and curriculum, the definition of inclusive excellence is proposed as a lofty yet crucial goal to guide our efforts. This list is provisional and partial — it does not attempt to be comprehensive — and will likely grow with time.

What does DEI stand for?

DEI is the acronym for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, used by practitioners to evoke the broad range of practical reforms necessary to dismantle ingrained discriminatory patterns and achieve equitable relationships. Significantly, most recognize that there exists a hierarchy of engagement and impact in DEI efforts, with “Diversity” naming the least assiduous level of effort and “Equity” the most.

From this perspective, cultural, social, and economic barriers may hamper high levels of attainment by students from historically underrepresented groups (HUGS); accordingly, the goal is to provide them with the resources they need to overcome those obstacles. Thus, reforms focused on improving educational equity seek to identify disparities in educational performance, and then introduce modifications intended to address or compensate for those inequities — e.g., by increasing funding levels, redesigning school programs, teaching students in different ways, or providing comparatively more educational services and academic support to students with greater needs.
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Inclusive excellence is also an expanding focus of academic research. In a study commissioned by the AAC&U, Bauman et al (2005) propose that, with respect to its ultimate aim:

“Inclusive excellence” is achieved when . . . historically underrepresented students exhibit traditional academic characteristics of high achievers, such as high-grade point averages, honors, high-class rankings, and so on. We emphasize traditional measures of academic excellence because for too long, institutions of higher education have approached the college participation of historically underrepresented students as a matter of producing “survivors” — students who persist and graduate — largely disregarding the institution’s responsibility and effectiveness in producing “leaders.” Most institutions evaluate their effectiveness in serving historically underrepresented students in terms of access, to a lesser extent in terms of persistence and completion, and rarely ever in terms of high achievement among specific groups.

Thus, an institution pursuing inclusive excellence embraces “the responsibility for producing equitable educational outcomes for students from historically underrepresented groups,” by creating “practices that monitor the development of high achievement among [such] students.” At the same time, research bears out that pursuing inclusive excellence supports all students. For example, teaching methods that more effectively include underserved students are often approaches that enable all students’ learning.
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