Diversity is More Than Pictures of People with Different Skin Colors

Is there anyone out there who works for a university that doesn’t have diversity as a core value? I didn’t think so.

Chances are, your university is full of councils and task forces devoted to diversity. Diversity is in your institution’s mission statement. Your leadership heralds diversity in nearly every speech and official document.

So there you are in the university’s marketing and communication department trying to do your best to show that diversity matters. You make sure your university sponsors community events that highlight diversity. Your publications are full of a racial mix of people. You highlight and showcase all of the events your campus does every February.

While all of that is important and worthwhile, it is a stereotypical approach to diversity. And no one is guiltier of this than university marketing and communication departments, including the one I oversee. While doing research for this blog post, I laughed out loud when I read about a student who was asked what he thought about college marketing materials. His reply was, “It looks like only minorities and hot chicks go to college.”

The problem is, I think in higher education, although we have the best of intentions, we get diversity wrong more than we get it right. In marketing and communication, it appears that we think diversity begins and ends with skin color. In higher ed, diversity is a period at the end of nearly every sentence. I don’t think we really back up the claim from a marketing and communication standpoint. In fact, I would argue that we generally avoid a serious and honest discussion of how we depict diversity in all promotional materials, thus, doing a disservice to the very core value we claim to own.

I recall a marketing firm that worked with us saying that, while diversity IS important (flash to Jerry Seinfeld saying, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!”), it is not something that should be part of brand messaging because audiences expect that to be part of a university. That statement has haunted me for a few years now. Really, it has disturbed me.

Quite frankly, we cannot assume that people expect us to embrace diversity. I don’t think people even know what that truly means, especially suburban, middle-to-upper income, straight, physically-able, Christian, caucasian people. Yes, I said it. Diversity seems to matter the most to people who find themselves categorized by society, while those who are in the majority do not see it as a priority. I’m generalizing, but let’s face it, diversity has been generalized and marginalized. And those of us who control images and messages reinforce that through the use of stock approaches to dealing with diversity. So assuming that “people know we care about diversity” in the way that we know people expect us to have lights on in buildings is irresponsible and damaging.

Here’s what’s troubling: A random Google search I did on marketing/communication diversity plans revealed that our collective idea of achieving diversity in our marketing/communication pieces is to make sure pictures for publications are diverse.

Well, duh.

But really, what are we as marketing/communication professionals really doing to address diversity in our materials beyond these staged photos of students with different skin colors laughing and talking on campus? Is there a university out there who has struck the right balance? I really want to know and learn from them.

Also, I think we are limited in our scope of truly embracing diversity as something beyond race and gender. How do we showcase true diversity in terms of socio-economic, gender, religious, generational, and sexual identity? Is anyone in their marketing meetings having these conversations? For instance, has anyone out there focused on marketing and promoting to the LGBT community in a meaningful way? Is your administration accepting of having overweight people in your brochures?  When was the last time someone with a disability was featured prominently in your advertising campaign? And how can a mere image really convey the differences that exists within all of us?

I am sure we all remember a time, being in meetings, going over drafts of brochures or rough cuts of commercials, when the appearance of the people was discussed. Someone looked too this or too that. As always, we are pleased with ourselves when we achieve the perfect racial mix in photos.  In the approval process, no one is happy until we can create the perfect watered-down, palatable-to-all-and-impressive-to-none marketing materials that seek to not offend.

Maybe it’s time to start offending. For instance, if we claim to stand for diversity and someone doesn’t want to come to our university because we decided to put individuals who do not fit the conventional perfect person cookie cutter image, does it matter if that person chooses another campus?  Are we willing to trade a realistic approach to diversity for tuition dollars? Does this sound cynical or true?

Please understand–I am not trying to be self-righteous. I think there is much we can do. I have had a bit of an epiphany on this topic, and I think it’s time to show the advertising world that we can embrace the notion of diversity in all its forms and truly celebrate it. Instead of assuming that everyone knows we care about diversity, what if it became a real centerpoint, something authentic that exposes students to the potential to know people completely different than themselves? Instead of whispering, let’s shout.

There is one campaign we did at UM-Flint back in 2004 that I think gets at the issue of showcasing diversity in an authentic way. We asked two students who were spoken word artists to write their own poetry describing their UM-Flint experiences for a television commercial. I am really proud of the commercials we produced with those two students, which I think showed some truth about who are students are, what they stand for, and the role the university played in their lives.

But, we haven’t done much since. I am vowing to change that.

I want to show all the people that make-up UM-Flint and say that this is who we are. This is what they bring to our campus community and why it matters. Diversity for us will be multi-faceted and complex. We will work harder at telling the backstory of all people to highlight what really makes us different, not just the stuff on the outside.

Until we put ourselves out there, we’re really no better than a vapid fashion magazine that focuses on the superficial. If someone is going to lead, it should be higher education. Instead of talking diversity, let’s do it.

Jen Hogan