DEI in Naturopathic Schools: A Primer

 In Education, Pediatrics


David J. Schleich, PhD 

Those of us who are a bit longer in the tooth have seen language used to process conflict or complex ideas shift more than once over the years. Because of our experience, we are wary of fads in such circumstances. Into our lexicon of terminology, as cases in point, have come phrases such as “differently abled,” “non-traditional learners,” and “people of color” – all terms which are more respectful than their precursors, even though it may have taken a bit of time to make them the new normal. At the same time, we worry about the pernicious nature of lurking groupthink, which arises when dissent, debate, and discussion are discouraged or socially unsafe. 

We also worry about inadvertently creating an ambience in our schools where, to cite Lewis Carroll, things become “curiouser and curiouser” and people get hurt because we do not coherently and consistently undertake that discussing and debating, holding all views up to the same rigor of analysis. Like Alice, we can even forget how to speak good English along the way, settling instead for language in our operational discourse which risks glancing off issues that lie buried in how we do things, and even in what we do. And, also like Alice, within our institutions we may give ourselves very good advice but may be prone to not follow it. 

May I reframe yet another Carroll statement, to direct our attention specifically on matters of racism, discrimination, and bias in our educational milieux. Invariably, our naturopathic programs operate in post-secondary and post-graduate institutions where social shifts are sharply present. Discriminatory, exclusionary, and non-inclusive behaviors are offending and frequently hurting many in our communities, inside and outside the classroom. We would likely all agree, like the creator of Through the Looking Glass, that when we drink from bottles marked poison, sooner or later they disagree with us.

Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) are more top of mind today than historically was the case in post-secondary and post-graduate educational institutions. DEI issues are puzzling, painful, and confusing.

There are many reasons for their having become a strong focus of policy and institutional action plans in recent years. For one thing, social shifts are fueling an urgency around getting behind DEI initiatives – shifts such as the marriage equality movement, Black Lives Matter, climate change awareness, and addressing mass incarceration, to name only a few. The widely discussed “achievement gap” in US education is one; embracing concern about structural racism and the sociopolitical and moral-debt-building in America is another. (Ladson-Billings, 2006) There are no quick fixes to behaviors that have fermented in our culture for centuries. Carroll, one last time: “the hurrier” we go in trying to resolve these complexities, “the behinder” we get. First, let’s do the definitions.

DEI Definitions

The 3 nouns – diversity, equity, and inclusion – are often muddled out there in the higher-education landscape. The literature explains that diversity and inclusion are outcomes. Equity, on the other hand, is a process, and diversity efforts require equitable practices and intentional inclusion. All 3 of these terms are often grouped in quick, politically correct ways, as we can see in the broadly used acronym, DEI, itself. Even so, diligence in understanding what these forces are, and addressing imbalances among them, can help us to avoid diluting the important distinctions among them. That same diligence can help us get it right in our naturopathic classrooms around North America where our values are all about non-discrimination, equity, and inclusiveness. The key is not to resort to “all the running one can do” to resolve imbalance and unfair practices, only to end up “keeping in the same place.” Carroll cautioned us a long time ago that we will have to “run at least twice as fast as that” [to get somewhere else]. 

Diversity, essentially, is about differences within a given setting or context. Diversity applies to identities – specifically, gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexual identity, physical ability, language, marital status, religion, nationality, socioeconomic and educational attainment status, and veteran status. Problems inevitably arise when there exists systematic discriminatory treatment that brews advantages, disadvantages, barriers, and bottlenecks for people as they try to access opportunity and resources in their roles as students, teachers, researchers, clinicians, administrators, or support professionals.

Etymologically, “diversity” doesn’t show up in individual applications; rather, it’s a word which implies, and probably requires, a group or a collective body to make any sense. Individuals are not diverse. They are unique. Individuals in groups generate a diverse overlay within that group. Thus, in higher education, when we set out to find “diverse students” or “diverse faculty” or “diverse academic managers,” we risk missing the mark unless our notion of diversity is cumulative and collective at the same time. We choose students whose credentials (personal, academic) unlock the entrance turnstile; however, we need to quit using the term “diversity” euphemistically when we go looking for those students. Rather, experts contend that our language works when we declare, “Let’s get and keep more men and women of color; let’s make our learning spaces safe and positive for the LGBTQ+ community; let’s make creative, routine spaces for individuals of a different race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion in addition to the traditional Caucasian student of our historical populations.” We need to become comfortable and skilled with language that can help us avoid the usual clichés and politically correct lingo of diversity. That’s just part of the DEI story, though. 

There are also the matters of equity and inclusiveness. Verna Myers puts it this way with regard to inclusion: “Diversity is being asked to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” (2011) Inclusion does not automatically follow a commitment to diversity. It does not emerge all by itself, for example, from recruitment efforts focused on diversity. Marginalized populations (individuals) are not going to feel seamlessly comfortable, nor are they going to experience feeling “welcome” or have unencumbered access to career development opportunities as a matter of course. The “inclusivity” of our naturopathic medical programs is all about creating and sustaining an environment which pays attention to ferreting out barriers, about recognizing and doing something about implicit bias, and about working assiduously on nurturing a culture of belonging for all individuals of a diverse population. 

Equity is not the same as inclusiveness. Rather, it is about ensuring that everyone (in diverse, inclusive populations) can benefit from the same opportunities and resources. This requires us to drill down into the continuum of experience of a student, patient, teacher, or administrator with enough care to figure out if imbalances exist. Individuals have unequal starting places. Whatever the biases are that create these inequalities of location in the learning or working continuum, it is our job in naturopathic education to work tirelessly at stopping not only those unequal starting places, but also the disparate outcomes along the way.

Drawing Strength from Diversity

In natural medicine and health sciences we want to believe that we draw our strength from diversity among students, staff, faculty, alumni/ae, and the patients we serve. We declare our commitment to understanding, developing, and sustaining a race equity culture in the university and college communities where our programs exist. We try very hard to stimulate learning environments where individuals can flourish and excel professionally. We envision a collective professional culture which thrives upon open, respectful engagement and appreciation of the ideas and opinions of one and all. We envision campus cultures characterized by a critical mass of diverse groups who work over time and overtime to establish a vibrant climate of inclusiveness and equity.

As places of higher learning, our programs exist not only to support students in pursuing their academic studies, but also equally to help prepare them as responsible citizens, taking their place in the global community. There, they make active and sustained contributions to a better world. We envision this to be our culture and our example to the world as a progressive, altruistic profession. This important work enhances high-impact educational practices and authentic assessment which translate the capacities, learning, skills, and creativity of our graduates and employees into action that addresses complex socioeconomic health determinants and related real-world challenges.

Moving Forward

A Diversity-Equity-Inclusion (DEI) Standing Committee of the board of each college or university is a good idea as well as a strong statement about how to move forward. This governance tool contemplates the diversity deficit in higher education and health services in America. Directors can establish the DEI within its governing mandate, focused on identifying policies and goals that increase the number of people of different race backgrounds among its student population, patient population, employees, and related agency partnerships. These same policies and goals will assure incremental growth in inclusion and internal change in behaviors, policies, and practices. The work of the committee will describe and support the integration of a race equity lens into all aspects of NUNM’s operations and facilities. This involves sustained, humble, assiduous work on understanding our implicit, unconscious biases and doing something about how these manifest in our day-to-day operations and experiences.

There are powerful reasons for doing this work. In naturopathic medicine, there is a moral or social justice perspective which is entirely consistent with naturopathic principles, namely that everyone can contribute to civil society and that the profession wants to help overcome social barriers and historical factors that breed unfairness, especially for marginalized groups for whom access to healthcare and wellness practices are too frequently compromised. There is even a market perspective in these considerations. The profession can serve patients in America better by reflecting the diversity in each doctor’s market base. Table 1 outlines a model for such a governance framework for action in our naturopathic colleges and programs.

Table 1. Mandate Model for a DEI Standing Committee

1.     To work closely with naturopathic educators to respond to bias, harassment, and discrimination

2.     To support each program’s goal-related metrics and policies in reflecting equal opportunity for all persons, and to not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, disability, religion, height, weight, or veteran status

3.     To achieve – through policy, prudent budgeting, and well-thought-out strategic objectives – an appropriate ratio of diversity in our student populations, staffing, and patient bases

4.     To support the convening of conversations among stakeholders to overcome challenges to an equity agenda, to encourage the nurturing of equity-mindedness in our various schools’ policies and practices, and to inform each program’s key messaging about DEI

5.     To support the naturopathic academic leadership in the development or broad buy-in for plans and policies that assure that the DEI is consistently part of each institution’s results-oriented planning 

6.     To align the committee’s functions with the bylaws in compliance with 501(c)(3) status and obligations

7.     To identify partners and friends of the institutions in which our programs exist who will support DEI efforts on campus, as well as strengthen efforts in disseminating research findings, theory, and promising practices that can guide our schools in the pursuit of inclusive excellence

8.     To periodically review the mission and vision statements of our institutions, as well as division operating principles; to refine, amend, or otherwise improve consistency across documents and activities such that they reflect and enhance consistency and transparency of the institution’s guidelines for diversity, equity, and inclusion

9.     To periodically review the governing documents of our schools to ensure that they are consistent with applicable federal, state, and local laws regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion

10.  To promote board member awareness of key post-secondary and post-graduate agencies, such as AASECT, ACPA, ALGBTIC, AACU, AHEAD, Affirmation LGBTQ, AMSA, NMSA, GLMA, NODA []

Once we have a model to work from, that is, a “governance frame” that says we have embedded this work in our mission and purpose, we can more effectively get down to business. We listen to our students who want to abolish racism and increase DEI on naturopathic campuses. We want to participate in DEI practices, learning everything we can about DEI best practices. In this regard, there are tools available, such as the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education (NCORE), the White Privilege Conference (WPC), and the National Coalition Building Institute’s Leadership for Diversity Institutes (NCBI), to name only a few. As well, we can learn 24/7 from electronic publications such as Diverse: Issues in Higher Education; INSIGHT into Diversity; and the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education.

Networking, joining, and collaborating with organizations such as HERC, the Consortium for Faculty Diversity, and the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE) can richly complement on-campus DEI committees championed by our governing boards.

And, once we have traction by having named and understood the nuances of the direct issues of DEI, institutional planning and resource allocation will routinely follow. We can commit to being accountable for taking and assessing action. In an era when the biomedicine industry is increasingly interested in what we do, let us demonstrate how the naturopathic educational enterprise in America has taken the advancement of diversity, equity, and inclusion very seriously indeed. Doing this work is not only the right thing to do; it is a smart thing to do.


Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools. Educational Researcher, 35 (7), 3-12.
Myers, V. A. (2011). Moving Diversity Forward: How to Go From Well-Meaning to Well-Doing. Center for Diversity and Inclusion. Chicago, IL: American Bar Association.

David J. Schleich, PhD, is president and CEO of the National University of Natural Medicine (NUNM), former president of Truestar Health, and former CEO and president of CCNM, where he served from 1996 to 2003. Previous posts have included appointments as vice president academic of Niagara College, and administrative and teaching positions at St. Lawrence College, Swinburne University (Australia) and the University of Alberta. His academic credentials have been earned from the University of Western Ontario (BA), the University of Alberta (MA), Queen’s University (BEd), and the University of Toronto (PhD).

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