Diversity on Higher Education Websites

Presented by Scott Olivieri. Session details. Presentation slides.

“This session will be uncomfortable, but we have to talk about it,” Scott Olivieri said as a preface to his HighEdWeb 2018 presentation. Titled “Diversity on Higher Education Websites,” Olivieri examined ways institutions try—and many times fail—to portray an authentic representation of campus diversity on their websites.

Olivieri is the Director of Web Services at Boston College and has 23 years of experience building websites. For his 2018 doctoral dissertation, he analyzed the website content of 28 Jesuit higher education institutions in the United States over the span of two years. Using Critical Race Theory, he focused on how institutions characterize diversity and the implications of those characterizations.

In his research, Olivieri relied on Critical Discourse Analysis, or how the dominant class uses words and images to reproduce social structures. “We have to denaturalize the language so we can reveal who’s in power,” he said.

The term “diversity” was initially popularized by the landmark case of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. This case allowed race to be a factor of consideration in college admissions. The Supreme Court accepted one of the four arguments offered by the University of California, voting in favor of affirmative action and recognizing the “significant and enduring impact” of the benefits of diversity on the college campus.

For Jesuit schools in particular, diversity is central to their educational mission. Using screenshots of institutional websites, Olivieri demonstrated the variety of ways Jesuit colleges and universities treat diversity-related content.

“Websites are the face of the university to the world,” Olivieri said. “Schools that portray themselves as an idyllic haven are doing themselves and their students a disservice.”

Data showed the institutions organized diversity content into four categories:

  • The Content Hierarchy
  • Organizational Structure
  • The Diversity Microsite
  • The Landing Page

Some institutions feature diversity content in the main navigation of their homepage, while other institutions don’t mention it at all. Content hierarchy implies whether or not diversity is a publicized institutional priority, and how schools foreground or background certain groups.

“Information architecture is how we organize content,” Oliveri explained, “but [we must recognize] it can be used as a tool of oppression.” What is the message being sent by the institution if its diversity-related content is hard to find, or not there at all?

The organizational structure of the diversity office within the institution arbitrarily assumes identity and group assignments for users seeking diversity-related content. Where is the diversity office in the institution’s organization chart? Is it separate from student affairs, and if so, why? Which groups of students appear to be prominently featured?

Some institutions create a dedicated diversity microsite that contains information about services and resources. The microsite directs away from the institution’s main page and is not part of the primary web structure, thus can be segregating to its audience.

The landing page is an integrative way to display diversity content. However, the design of the page may be troubling, particularly in the use of images.

Here are the common pitfalls:

  • Fungibility: The idea that a person is interchangeable with others. Institutions often utilize staged photos of students who are purposefully diverse and therefore reduced to their appearance.
  • Instrumentality: The person in the photo is being used solely for the purpose of objectification.
  • Silencing: A form of objectification when lack of content or voice causes a person or group to be excluded from full participation.
  • Denial of Subjectivity: When identity is defined by the objectifiers, and certain social norms are arbitrarily reinforced.

“Information architectural decisions can devalue an aspect of a person’s identity, thereby reinforce hegemonic structures,” Olivieri stated. “This is a form of oppression.”

To create a more inclusive and multicultural representation of campus that is also authentic, schools should clearly and succinctly address diversity-related content on their websites. Olivieri gives the following recommendations as a starting point:

  1. Location
    Diversity content should be integrated across the website, but create a page where all the information and resources are consolidated and easy to find.
  1. Status
    Elevate this content by placing it on the homepage and as a high-level navigation item. Confront current events by stating the institution’s position on those issues.
  1. Voice
    Find your institutional voice. Balance authentic and aspirational diversity content by thoroughly understanding your campus climate, history, and student population. Beware of appearing phony and acknowledge your institutional shortcomings. Avoid using the word “strive,” and don’t write things that aren’t true.
  1. Volume
    Create a small number of high quality pages, then expand. Craft a specific diversity page for each school with student profiles, testimonials, and relevant news stories.
  1. Specificity
    Tell real stories about real people, and provide value through details. Avoid using candid photography.

Olivieri cautioned against forming committees (“Committees are where things go to die”) and tackling the diversity page on your own. His suggested action plan:

  1. Plan
    – Know your campus environment & history
    – Analyze your content
    – Do Research
    – Get input
  2. Document
    – Write an executive summary.
  3. Do
    – Make one small change! Review. Repeat.
  4.  Repeat
    – Continuous improvement