Story Diversity

Excellence in (Supporting) Diversity

Alisia Ruble

Four CSUs received national recognition for demonstrating an outstanding commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.


INSIGHT into Diversity, the oldest and largest diversity-focused publication in higher education, awarded its 2023 Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award to four California State Universities: Fresno State, Cal State LA, San Diego State and CSU San Marcos. These awards recognize universities that not only enroll large numbers of students from historically underrepresented backgrounds, but that also demonstrate an outstanding commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

A CSU education acts as an engine of social mobility, propelling students and their families into higher economic strata following graduation. With the most ethnically, economically and academically diverse student body in the nation, the CSU strives to create a welcoming and inclusive environment for all members of its campus communities.

We talked to chief diversity and equity officers at the four universities to find out what makes them excel in supporting diversity.

Fresno State

Known by many as the “flagship of the Central Valley," Fresno State has earned the HEED Award for 10 consecutive years. While the recognition is a testament to the myriad programs that support the diversity of students and faculty, the university continues to further weave equity and inclusivity into every aspect of the institution.

Fresno State this year hired its first university diversity officer, Dr. Rashanda Booker, and established the Division of Equity and Engagement to be housed in the President's Office. This coincided with the adoption of a new strategic plan, one prong of which is “embody full inclusivity and belongingness."

“The reality is diversity is just a number and, often, it is out of our control. Diversity is much more than ethnicity, it's more than socioeconomic status—it is in thoughts and intersecting identities," Booker says. “We're moving beyond diversity to ask ourselves; how can we ensure that individuals feel connected, feel included? And how can we allow them to be their most authentic selves? Inclusivity is true diversity, and it requires intentional and sustained action."

The university launched its new strategic plan as Booker was stepping into the inaugural role, which enabled Booker to align her strategies for strengthening equity and inclusivity with the institution's overarching goals.

One of the ways in which Fresno State is creating a more inclusive and equitable environment is by ensuring everyone has a voice. In addition to the existing councils representing BIPOC students and employee resource groups, Booker established a community council, a student advisory council and a faculty/staff council. Applications for the councils will open in spring 2024, and the groups will start meeting in fall 2024.

“The goal is for all constituents to have a voice in what changes need to happen," Booker says. “I'm inviting these groups to meet regularly with me and, instead of choosing people, I've created a process where interested individuals can complete an application or an interest form, so we will be able to hear from a very diverse group of people."

The university also launched “Bulldogs Belong," a digital campaign that invites Fresno State students, faculty and staff to share their experiences with equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging in an effort to spark critical conversations that ignite a collective commitment toward full inclusivity and belongingness.

Booker says reaching DEI goals is critical to the university's efforts to transform Fresno County communities and families. In this vein, Fresno State's Student Affairs team this year launched Bulldog Bound, a guaranteed admission program for Fresno County high school students that instills in them a sense of belonging at the university. The program provides students with a clear plan to transition to college and even establishes a Fresno State student ID and email address.

“Bulldog Bound isn't just about recruiting; it's about creating access, and that's a part of [advancing] social justice because we know we lose so many students between grades 9 and 12," Booker says. “We're telling them, 'There's a place saved for you here.'"

Learn more about equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging efforts on the Fresno State Division of Equity and Engagement website.

Cal State LA

Not only did Cal State LA receive a 2023 HEED Award, but it also received a 2023 Health Professions HEED Award for its success in fostering diversity and inclusion in the university's Patricia A. Chin School of Nursing.

Andre Ellis, Ph.D., associate vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion and a professor of geosciences at Cal State LA, says it's not enough to simply be a diverse campus, but they must ensure DEI efforts are truly making students, faculty and staff feel like they belong there. In fact, the university is taking steps to officially add the word “belonging" into its DEI initiatives.

“As we increase diversity, meeting that diversity where people are at gets more challenging," Ellis says. “And we can run programs and embed all the support we want, but if people don't use them, if they don't feel like they belong, then we're not doing enough. So, it's ongoing work."

With an eye toward promoting equity in the classroom, Cal State LA recently began offering professional development programs, like the Career-Engaged Departments Program and First Year Connections, that equip faculty with tools to connect students with their future careers early and create a deeper sense of belonging.

The university also assigned a “belongingness" coordinator to each of the required courses for both the math and English sequences, who work with faculty to embed equity-minded practices into the curriculum and classroom culture. The university also provides faculty samples and guidance for creating a DEIB statement for their syllabuses​​.

Ellis says recruiting and retaining diverse faculty and staff is a key pillar of Cal State LA's strategic DEI goals. He spends one hour with every hiring committee before recruitment and interviews start to educate them on the importance of hiring a diverse candidate that shares the university's values. He says it is equally important to support new hires, and just this fall Cal State LA started a faculty early career program that includes workshops and luncheons.

“If a new faculty member leaves, then it's a zero-sum game," Ellis says. “We want them to be able to get to know each other in a cohort because, once you start, you get so busy in your own department, in your own college, you don't necessarily mix with others on campus as much, and we want to try to build those relationships early."

Cal State LA also established a Staff Working Group for Belonging, Community and Diversity that develops and facilitates programming, events and resources to foster a collaborative and inclusive working environment for staff and administration. 

In its November/December issue, INSIGHT Into Diversity highlighted an undergraduate degree program partnership between Cal State LA's nursing school and 13 local community colleges that predominately educate underrepresented, lower-income and often first-generation students. The community college students join Cal State LA during the summer between the first and second years of their associate degree program and, upon graduation, they return to the university for one year to obtain their bachelor's degrees.

Learn more about these efforts on Cal State LA's Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging website. ​

CSU San Marcos

INSIGHT Into Diversity recognized CSU San Marcos with a HEED Award for the 10th consecutive year based on the institution's exemplary DEI initiatives, as well as its ability to support a broad definition of diversity on campus, including gender, race, ethnicity, veterans, people with disabilities, members of the LGBTQIA community and all others.  

Aswad Allen, Ph.D., says he has seen the university accomplish a lot related to DEI since he joined CSUSM as chief diversity officer nearly three years ago. The position was moved to the executive cabinet when CSUSM President Ellen Neufeldt assumed leadership of the university in 2019, and she has supported the hiring of a deputy chief diversity officer, an assistant director for strategic initiatives and support staff.

Allen and his team have positioned themselves not as “the diversity police," but as a critical resource for students, faculty and staff to understand the benefits of incorporating DEI into every component of the university experience. He works with colleagues across CSUSM to respond to classroom issues, pedagogical matters and faculty concerns, provide professional development opportunities, help advance culturally relevant curriculum development and examine hiring practices, among other efforts.

“Our goal [at CSU San Marcos] is to enhance our culture to have a laser focus on student success and social mobility," Allen says. “We are identifying best practices that we can invest in and leverage to improve our outcomes, and that's in academic affairs and student affairs alike. It's about finding those synergistic points where the two divisions can partner to produce improved outcomes."

To accelerate CSUSM's efforts to achieve inclusive excellence, Allen partnered with the Center for Strategic Diversity Leadership and Social Innovation to conduct a “Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Inventory" in summer and fall 2022. Recommendations from the inventory continue to inform DEI efforts.

Allen also recognizes the need to recruit and retain talented faculty and staff and has used cluster hiring, a recruitment practice known to increase diversity and promote interdisciplinary collaboration.

“Our students look towards our educators as an inspiration, a North Star, and when that North Star changes, shifts or disappears, our students can feel lost in the wilderness," Allen says. “Cluster hiring is designed to bring forward-thinking researchers, teachers and educational leaders into the space, and build a supportive community to help retain them."

CSUSM is also looking to integrate inclusive excellence principles into its strategic plan so that every department will integrate goals, objectives, metrics, accountability partners and anticipated outcomes into their strategic planning.

Allen is hopeful that some of what CSUSM is doing can be leveraged across the rest of the CSU's 23 universities, which enroll more than 450,000 students and employ more than 56,000 faculty and staff.

“The CSU has an amazing opportunity, and a responsibility, to be a national model of inclusive excellence, and it is important that we​ pursue this opportunity strategically and sincerely," he says. “I hope the work that we're doing here at CSUSM reveals how we can really impact our nation of learners."

Learn more about diversity, equity and inclusion efforts on the CSU San Marcos Inclusive Excellence website.​

San Diego State

This is the seventh year in a row that San Diego State​ received a HEED Award, and the second year in a row it received the “Diversity Champion" distinction, which goes to colleges and universities that show “an unyielding commitment to diversity and inclusion throughout their campus communities, across academic programs and at the highest administrative levels."

Christy Samarkos, interim vice president for Student Affairs and Campus Diversity, says SDSU approaches student success holistically, focusing on the whole student, including mental and emotional wellness in addition to academic outcomes and career readiness. For example, each of SDSU's 10 community centers provides spaces for historically underserved students to receive academic and personal support and build community. 

Additionally, the SDSU Connects team does proactive outreach to support students through a variety of university processes and issues, including registration, finances and health concerns. The SDSU CARES (Campus Assistance, Response, Evaluation and Support) Team reviews, assesses and responds to student issues that may present barriers to their personal and academic success, such as food and housing insecurity, emotional distress, health concerns or other personal challenges.

The university continues to introduce initiatives that further build a community of support aimed at improving every student's overall persistence and graduation rates. Key strategic priorities have included the expansion of academic and psycho/social support for underrepresented student groups, experiences promoting student involvement and efforts to close the equity gap among student groups.

“Much of our strategic priorities are aligned with the CSU's Graduation Initiative 2025, and SDSU's own priorities in offering the type of student experience that not only attracts a broadly diverse student body, but that also contributes to our alumni having meaningful and impact-driven lives well beyond their time at SDSU," Samarkos says.

Samarkos says SDSU's diversity, equity and inclusion priorities were purposefully integrated across the entire university strategic plan, which positions the university to continue developing as a global leader in advancing diversity, equity and inclusion in research, teaching and community engagement.

“At SDSU, the mark of our global leadership is an innovative institutional infrastructure that promotes and supports diversity, equity and inclusion not in a single pocket or office, but in everything we do: research, teaching, professional development, career preparation, providing robust student experiences both in and outside the classroom, and also in our community relationships and impact," she says.

One way that SDSU stands out from other institutions, according to Samarkos, is the focus on establishing infrastructure such as policies, processes and on-going personnel roles that embed equity and inclusion in the systemic fabric of the institution.

“At SDSU, we care about implementing change for the benefit of people today and in the future, so that our efforts are designed to have systemic impact and are not easily abandoned if and when leadership changes," she says. “There is a focus on continuous improvement, learning from and building on what we have already accomplished."

Finally, Samarkos says SDSU has invested in the professional development needed to build everyone's capacity to create and sustain a more equitable and inclusive campus.

Learn more about diversity, equity and inclusion efforts on the SDSU Student Affairs and Campus Diversity website.


Read more about the CSU's efforts to create a welcoming and inclusive environment for all students, faculty and staff on the university's diversity website.

Underrepresented Communities