ONSF’s mission statement says that we’re committed to “inclusive excellence.” What does this term mean in the context of our scholarship advising and selection processes? Well, it means at least three key things.

Let’s address a potential tension from the start. “Inclusivity” implies the widest possible engagement, ensuring that all participants have the opportunity to participate in and benefit from a process. Excellence, at least in the context of competitive scholarships, is typically identified through a set of criteria that are used to narrow a pool of participants, ultimately selecting a few recipients who stand out from the rest. Does this mean that inclusivity and excellence are necessarily in tension with one another? That as we raise the standards for excellence we narrow the field for inclusivity? And, correlatively, that in order to increase inclusivity we must lower standards of excellence? Note that we might hold these presumptions even if we highly value inclusivity, indeed if we believe that inclusivity is more important than standards of excellence - especially if we believe that the latter serve to reinforce and justify existing social inequalities. Fortunately, I do not believe that this pessimistic conclusion is a necessary one. Allow me to explain.

The first way that ONSF seeks to integrate inclusivity and excellence is by using rubrics that articulate the selection criteria for the awards we support. The problem with unarticulated notions of excellence is that they invite implicit biases – biases which often serve to replicate pre-existing inequalities in society, excluding those who have already been marginalized. Several recent books have pointed out flaws in our traditional assumptions about merit and meritocracies – including the categorization of scholarships as “need-based” or “merit-based.” In practice is it difficult to distinguish merit from privilege, which we might define as unmerited benefit. Unequal access to opportunities, preparation, and acculturation are usually reflected in traditional markers of merit such as standardized test scores and GPA. When left unarticulated, awards based on traditional assessments of merit serve to whitewash and ratify privilege. By articulating the qualities that we are seeking to recognize with an award, we take the first steps towards acknowledging and rectifying these problems. 

Inclusive rubrics try to “unpack” loaded terms such as “academic excellence” and “leadership potential” in the form of descriptive statements. What do we mean by “leadership”? What are the character qualities and interpersonal skills that will allow individuals to successfully lead teams in various endeavors? What, beyond a high GPA, do we mean by “academic excellence”? In our selection processes, we pay attention not only to levels of achievement as traditionally measured, but also to the distance candidates have traveled from their starting point, and the character-traits they have developed and displayed in this journey. We also pay close attention to the evidence for achievement, often giving more weight to qualitative sources such as essays and letters of recommendation than to convenient, but imprecise proxies, such as GPA.

Second, whenever possible we seek to promote selection criteria for excellence that can be fulfilled in a wide variety of interests, pursuits, career fields, etc. For example, the LSA Honors Program’s Otto Graf and Jack Meiland Scholarships celebrate students whose U-M education exemplifies the engaged liberal arts pedagogical philosophy of the College of LSA. We articulate this as students who demonstrate (a) depth of intellectual engagement and understanding, (b) breadth of intellectual curiosity, and (c) engagement with co-curricular activities, especially those that demonstrate leadership potential and commitment to improving the lives of others. Our rubric breaks these down into more descriptive sentences - but ones that can be fulfilled by students majoring in any field within the College or who are engaged in a wide variety of pursuits. The inclusivity of these criteria invite the widest possible participation in this award competition. In ONSF, some of the national awards that we work with have very specific missions. This may mean that a particular award is looking for a specific type of excellence that does not easily lend itself to broad interpretation. In these cases, we look to the overall portfolio of awards within ONSF as a whole to provide a broader recognition that excellence can come in many forms. Some ONSF awards will place a greater emphasis on academic achievement as measured in course performance, research, and letters of recommendation. Others will emphasize demonstrated leadership skills or commitment to public service in co-curricular activities. While it is neither possible nor desirable that there be an award for everyone and everything, an appropriately diversified portfolio of awards celebrating different types of excellence allows us to offer the benefits of ONSF advising to a more diverse and inclusive set of students.

A third interpretation of inclusive excellence seeks cases where the diversity of identities, backgrounds, and perspectives contribute to excellence. When advising potential applicants, we help candidates articulate how the diverse perspectives they bring to their leadership and creative problem-solving will enhance excellence in their field. The work of U-M professor Scott Page is useful here. He has demonstrated that in complex problem-solving tasks, a team with a greater diversity of cognitive skills will outperform a more homogenous team, even when the individual members of the homogenous team rate higher on a single independent measure of excellence such as GPA. Team members from diverse backgrounds will recognize different factors as salient and will have a greater conceptual repertoire from which to draw creative solutions. To realize these “diversity bonuses,” as Page calls them, teams must operate within organizational cultures that value diverse perspectives and empower all members to contribute. Candidates who come from identities and backgrounds underrepresented in their fields can contribute to the cognitive diversity and thus excellence of these teams. They will also have the ability to recruit and mentor more diverse team members in the future, improving the inclusive culture of their future organizations. Finally, candidates who have overcome significant obstacles in their academic careers can draw upon these experiences to explain their mission-orientation, or as evidence of grit and perseverance that will help them to achieve greater accomplishments in the future. By focusing our scholarship advising on the articulation of these contributions, ONSF invites applicants from diverse backgrounds to help us expand the very concept of excellence in a field. In response to our opening worry that inclusivity and excellence may be in tension with one another, we say that we should not lower the standards of excellence to include more diverse applicants. Rather, we should ask more from our standards of excellence.

In this blog I’ve discussed inclusive excellence in award competitions. What are some other meanings of “inclusive excellence” that we haven’t considered here? We’re eager for your feedback. Please write to us with your ideas at onsf.info@umich.edu.