Inclusive Excellence: What’s Missing

Matt Cabrera


Inclusive Excellence: What’s Missing

Matt Cabrera
California State University, Long Beach


Since my undergraduate years, I have seen and believed that the ideas of diversity and inclusion have been the foci of colleges and universities. More recently, as a student affairs professional, I have been pleased to see these ideas packaged into what is now called “Inclusive Excellence”, a concept that has come to be woven into the work of our many professional associations. It is refreshing to also see many campuses begin to re-envision their mission, purpose, and core values with more intentional efforts towards inclusive excellence.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) (Williams, Berger, & McClendon, 2005) defines inclusive excellence as a compilation of four primary foci: student intellectual and social development; development and implementation of resources to enhance student learning; attention to cultural differences students bring to campuses and that enhance the academic experience; development of a welcoming community engaging all diversity in the service of students and learning (p. vi). Williams et al. (2005) also state that inclusive excellence is “where educational excellence cannot be envisioned, discussed, or enacted without close attention paid to inclusion” (p. 29).

However, I see a hole in our work around inclusive excellence, a hole that has continued to be overlooked. This hole is the absence of discussions about the role of spirituality and religion into the rhetoric of inclusive excellence. In the discourse of inclusive excellence, the terms diversity, culture, and inclusion do not seem to include spirituality and religion. Mutakabbir and Nuriddin (2016) have noted that the term “diversity” is a higher education buzzword but “primarily conjures dialogue on race, gender, or LGBTQ issues” (p. xii). Additionally, the four primary elements in the definition of inclusive excellence, according to AACU (Williams et al., 2005), include a list of what to include in the broad category of cultural difference. More specifically, the term “cultural differences” includes “race/ethnicity (e.g. Latino, Caucasian, Asian/Pacific Islander, African American, American Indian), class, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, first language, physical and learning ability, and learning styles” (Williams et al., 2005, vi). However, the list does not include spirituality and religion. AACU (Williams et al., 2005) has stated that there will be a reworking of inclusive excellence “as campus leaders juxtapose the definition against institutional mission, policies, and practices” (p. vi). It seems that this juxtaposing and reworking of inclusive excellence is beginning to take place as AACU (2017) and other institutions are starting to include religion as part of their lists regarding inclusive excellence work. Still, when multicultural or diversity issues are discussed on campus, the focus is usually on race, gender, or sexual orientation. (Mutakabbir & Nuriddin, 2016).

The ethical considerations of our profession call us to serve all students and to address all student needs. Not addressing spirituality and religion in higher education flows against our roles as ethical practitioners/leaders and as educators focused on developing students for successful personal and professional lives, which includes developing their ability to be ethical leaders themselves. How are we being ethical practitioners if we neglect to address and meet the needs of students coming from various religious/spiritual lenses and expose students to the worldviews of religion and spirituality? Also, as educators, we strive to prepare and develop students to become successful in their personal and professional lives. Our students are and will face ethical dilemmas in their lives. It is our hope as educators to prepare and develop our students to become ethical leaders. Providing opportunities for students to explore spirituality and religion will assist in their self-understanding (Astin, Astin, & Lindholm, 2011). Astin, Astin, and Lindolm (2011) pose a relevant question: “If students lack self-understanding – the capacity to see themselves clearly and honestly and to understand why they feel and act as they do – then how can we expect them to become responsible parents, professionals, and citizens?” (p. 2). Exploration of religion and spirituality can facilitate such self-understanding.

In the following sections, I will provide some ideas on the importance of including spirituality and religion in the discourse of inclusive excellence and suggestions on how to address spirituality and religion on your institutions.

Terms and Definitions  

I would like to take a moment to provide some definitions on relevant terms that have historically been used interchangeably and sometimes difficult to define. I focus this article on the ideas of religion and spirituality. But what do these terms mean and how are they different from one another?

Religion is probably the easiest to explain and is simply the beliefs and practices of an organized established denominational institution (Frame, 2003; Stamm, 2006). Spirituality, on the other hand, can be difficult to find agreement among various authors and researchers. However, for the purposes of this article, we will use the definition used in Astin, Astin, and Lindholm’s (2011) seven-year longitudinal study on spirituality in higher education. Spirituality, as they define it, is a multifaceted concept that encompasses and involves our inner lives, affective experiences, the values that we hold important to our lives, our sense of who we are, where we come from, our beliefs of why we exist, our life meaning, our life purpose, our sense of connectedness to others and to the world. Astin et al. (2011) also note that spiritual persons manifest personal qualities such as love, compassion, and equanimity.

The Importance of Spirituality and Religion

Why should we even include spirituality and religion into the discourse of inclusive excellence? According to Williams (2006), real inclusive excellence needs to be measured by how well the campus as a whole meets the “needs of all students, regardless of socioeconomic, racial, gender, or other characteristics” (p. 17). Religion and spirituality are identities or characteristics that are part of the student body that institutions serve. The Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS) indicates that of the 20,436 first-term students in a 2015 cohort from 122 participating institutions (a mixture of public and private institutions), 41% identify as “both religious and spiritual,” 26% identify as “spiritual, but not religious,” 22% identify as “neither religious nor spiritual,” and 11% identify as “religious but not spiritual” (Mayhew, Rockenbach, Correia, Crandall, & Lo, 2016). Thus, there are a sizeable percentage of students on our campuses for whom religion and/or spirituality play an important role in their identity and their college experience.

Student development, intercultural competencies, and global citizenship have also been desired outcomes of inclusive excellence (Whitehead, 2015; Williams et al., 2005). Various researchers have indicated the attainment of many of the same desired outcomes when spirituality is addressed during a student’s collegiate years. More specifically, improved self-esteem, civic responsibility, empathy, cultural awareness, life satisfaction, commitment, community service, and self-knowledge are positively affected when spirituality is addressed (Astin et al., 2011; Geroy, 2005; Sikula & Sikula, 2005; Hoppe, 2005; Capeheart-Meningall, 2005).

Additionally, there is a link between spirituality and mental health. Astin et al. (2011) reveal the negative correlation between a student’s psychological well-being and the increased demands of college/academic work paired with the stress of finding life balance. Also, the American College Health Association (2017) cited depression and anxiety as among the top obstacles to academic performance. Astin et al. (2011), however, indicate that psychological well-being is positively affected through a student’s spiritual growth. I hope that through this short discussion, we can start to see the importance of including spirituality and religion into the conversion of inclusive excellence. How then might institutions and higher education professionals include spirituality and religion into their focus of inclusive excellence?

Approaches on How to Address and Support Spirituality and Religion

Step 1: Know Your Students

In 2015, AACU published a document entitled “Committing to Equity and Inclusive Excellence: A Campus Guide for Self-Study and Planning.” Part One of this document provides a list of guiding questions for higher education leaders to ask as part of their foundational work towards inclusive excellence at their campuses. The first question in Part One of this document is to know who your students are and will be. This is a critical step in also addressing spirituality and religion into a campus’ commitment towards Inclusive Excellence. Aside from the age, ethnicity, gender, and other typical data points that are collected about students through departments of institutional research, what other data points are missing to truly know who students are at our institutions? As already stated, a majority of students nationally are already identifying with specific religious and/or spiritual traditions. Are questions asked about their religious/spirituality background and/or viewpoints? Are questions asked about their dietary needs, which may be part of their religious/spirituality adherence?

In addition to the students who affiliate with traditional forms of religion and spirituality (i.e. Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, etc.), it is also important to acknowledge that there may be another group of students on your campus that are part of an unaffiliated group known as the “nones” or the “unaffiliated millennials.” The “nones” or “unaffiliated millenials” refer to persons who identify as atheist, agnostic, those who state that their “religion is nothing in particular” (Lipka, 2015, p.1), or those who “are less able to articulate their sense of spirituality” (Thurston & ter Kuile, 2016, p. 4). It is important to be aware of this other group of students to avoid marginalizing them when addressing spirituality and religion for the common groupings of students who specifically affiliate with a religious and/or spiritual tradition. Knowing and understanding your campus community is an important first step.

Step 2: Do Additional Research and Develop a Framework

The next step is to develop a framework based on the theory and research to better serve your students and the campus community. In my own research focused on addressing spirituality in public higher education, I used the five measures of spirituality developed by Astin et al. (2011) as my theoretical framework. Through their seven-year longitudinal study, Astin et al. (2011) identified the following five measures of spirituality as five aspects of students’ spirituality – Spiritual Quest, Equanimity, Ethic of Care, Charitable Involvement, and Ecumenical Worldview. For the purposes of this conversation on inclusive excellence, I focus on the measures of Ecumenical Worldview and Spiritual Quest.

Ecumenical Worldview focuses on understanding other countries, cultures, and different religions, developing a strong connection to others, belief in the goodness of others, acceptance of others for who they are, and an understanding that life is interconnected (Astin et al., 2011). Spiritual Quest focuses on the processes of searching for meaning and purpose, attaining inner harmony, and developing a meaningful philosophy of life (Astin et al., 2011).

Through my research, I found at least three viable options that addressed these aspects of spirituality and could be utilized in both public and private institutions – a reflection room, an interfaith center, and student organizations. The reflection room that I studied was a room within the university’s student union, which was open to all persons for the purposes of reflection, meditation, prayer, and/or silence. The interfaith center was a non-proselytizing space that was managed by volunteers from local religious institutions, including Hillel (Jewish community), African Methodist Episcopalian, and the Cooperative Protestant Campus Ministry (CPCM), which represents Presbyterian Church USA, United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and Church of the Brethren. The interfaith center was open to all students from different faith, religious, and spiritual traditions. With regard to student organizations, the university I studied had over 200 student organizations. Of the 200, approximate 30 student organizations had a focus on a specific religion, faith, or spiritual tradition.

Step 3: Figure Out Options

The next step is to identify options to address spirituality at your campus. The following sections provide detail from my research as to how a reflection room, interfaith center, and student organizations can be vehicles for campuses to address spirituality and religion.

Reflection Room.

The reflection room examined in my study was a resource advocated for by students from various backgrounds and supported by the board of trustees of the student union that it occupied. As stated on the sign outside the reflection room, the room was designed as a space for individuals looking for a quiet space for their individual purposes. My interviewees all benefited in many ways from their use of this reflection room. With regard to developing an Ecumenical Worldview, one participant (a Muslim) stated that she had met a number of other students through the reflection room: “I’ve met a lot of people in [the reflection room]. It’s interesting. Not just Muslims, too, non-Muslims. Christians and others come to pray.”

As a vehicle for Spiritual Quest, the reflection room became a place for this student and others to develop a connection with other Muslim students and the desire to become a better person. Specifically she stated: “[Praying] helps me. Just reminding me, you know, being with [other Muslims]. It makes me want to become better and the reflection room helps me go and pray.” Another student summarized the importance of the reflection room as “a place to reflect. It’s a place to grow, it’s a space to, you know, practice whatever it is, you know, you’re practicing. So yeah it’s important.”

Interfaith Center.

Interfaith Centers vary from institution to institution. For some, the Interfaith Center or interfaith programs are integrated and funded through the institution; such an approach is more likely at private institutions. Other institutions house Interfaith Centers through off-campus entities that pay rent for the use of university space. The Interfaith Center in my study reflected the latter approach, housed clergy from various traditions, and was a space for various religious student organizations to utilize. Agreements of Interfaith Center users and signage at the Interfaith Center clearly stated that the space was a non-proselytizing space for the purposes of spiritual exploration.

One student explained that her participation in the Interfaith Center helped to open the bubble that she was in. Reflecting on her experiences before using the Interfaith Center, she stated, “I was…in this bubble of being Catholic, and I wasn’t experiencing or encountering people who were of different faiths.” An Interfaith Center staff member explained the variety of students served through the center: “Some are strong in faith, some are searching, some are non-believers, some are seeking a family atmosphere.” This staff member hoped that the Interfaith Center would help each student “grow spiritually, grow in understanding of those who are different from themselves, encounter and build trust in those who offer caring interests.”

Student Organizations.

Student organizations can be seen as one of the most impactful ways students can find community and support from their peers in addition to self-development. All campuses house a long list of student organizations with eclectic varieties, including political, academic, career, social, and cultural. In my research, participants benefited greatly from the religious student organizations of which they were a part. One student explained that through his religious student organization he learned: “how to talk to people. Knowing how to be sensitive to their situation. Understanding, knowing how to take care of a person, and …. just even practical human skills like you know.”

Talking about her Muslim student organization, another participant stated:  “You don’t have to be a Muslim. We don’t just like preach the religion. We do fun things.” One specific activity that this Muslim student organization organized is the annual Islam Awareness Week, which is a week of events that was focused on increasing the visibility and understanding of the Muslim community. From this activity, the Muslim student organization members worked together to provide the campus community opportunities to learn more about the Muslim faith. This came about through students tabling on campus and answering questions about Islam and also hosting special presentations, such as a lecture on the history of Muslims in the U.S.

I hope that the three examples provided new ideas for addressing spirituality and religion at your campuses. There are many innovative options that other campuses are beginning to implement. Also, your campus might already be offering opportunities that just need to be expanded and/or institutionalized.


Addressing spirituality and religion with students during their collegiate years provides many positive benefits to the development of a student’s life, including community building, intercultural competencies, ethics, care for others, and mental health (American College Health Association, 2017; Astin et al., 2011; Capeheart-Meningall, 2005; Hoppe, 2005; Geroy, 2005; Sikula & Sikula, 2005). With regard to ethical considerations, addressing spirituality and religion helps to fulfill our roles as educators who serve all students and all their needs. Additionally, addressing and exposing students to spirituality and religion affects their personal and professional development that influences their own ethical viewpoints. Take for example three of the spiritual measures proposed by Astin et al. (2011): Ethic of Care, Ecumenical Worldview, and Charitable Involvement which are not only positively correlated with each other but also stress a sense of caring about and for others and discovering a sense of connectedness with others. Addressing spirituality and religion in our campuses (public or private) need not be complicated. This work might already be happening on your campuses – subtly or explicitly. Focusing on options that address spirituality and religion adds to the engaging and developing movement of inclusive excellence. How well is your campus meeting the holistic needs of all your students, which includes all the intersections of identities that they bring with and that which they are seeking to develop?

Reflection Questions

  1. As educators, what are our ethical obligations to support and engage students coming from all backgrounds (including religious, spiritual, secular, atheist, agnostic, etc.) and to expose students to all worldviews (including religious, spiritual, secular, atheist, agnostic, etc.)?
  2. How well do those on your campus know students’ spiritual and religious characteristics and needs?
  3. What already exists at your institutions related to spirituality and religion for students, and how could you make it more transparent and connected to inclusive excellence?
  4. What does not exist at your institutions related to spirituality and religion for students?
  5. Who on campus do you need to connect with to make spirituality and religion a part of your institution’s focus on inclusive excellence?
  6. Are there students, faculty, staff, and/or other colleagues already engaging in the research of spirituality and religion? What advice or help can they provide?


American College Health Association (2017). American College Health Association-National college health assessment II: Reference group executive summary Fall 2016. Hanover, MD: American College Health Association.

Association of American Colleges & Universities (2015). Committing to equity and inclusive excellence: A campus guide for self-study and planning. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Association of American Colleges & Universities (2017). Making excellence inclusive. Retrieved from:

Astin, A.W., Astin, H.S., & Lindholm, J.A. (2011). Cultivating the spirit: How college can enhance students’ inner lives. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Capeheart-Meningall, J. (2005). Role of spirituality and spiritual development instudent life outside the classroom. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 104, 31 – 36.

Frame, M. W. (2003). Integrating religion and spirituality into counseling: A comprehensive approach. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole – Thomson Learning.

Geroy, G. D. (2005). Preparing students for spirituality in the workplace. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 104, 67-74.

Hoppe, S. L. (2005). Spirituality and leadership. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 104, 83 – 92.

Lipka, M. (May 13, 2015). A closer look at America’s rapidly growing religious ‘nones.’
Retrieved from:

Mayhew, M. J., Rockenbach, A. N., Correia, B. P., Crandall, R. E., Lo, M. A., & Associates. (2016). Emerging interfaith trends: What college students are saying about religion in 2016. Chicago, IL: Interfaith Youth Core.

Mutakabbir, Y. T., & Nuriddin, T. A. (2016). Religious minority students in higher education. New York, NY: Routledge.

Sikula, A. & Sikula, A. (2005). Spirituality and service learning. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 104, 31 – 36.

Stamm, L. (2006). The dynamics of spirituality and the religious experience. In A. W. Chickering, J. C. Dalton, & L. Stamm (Eds.), Encouraging authenticity and spirituality in higher education (pp. 37 – 65). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, Inc.

Thurston, A. & ter Kuile, C. (2016). How we gather. Retrieved from:

Whitehead, D. M. (2015). Global learning: Key to making excellence inclusive. Liberal Education101(3), n3.

Williams, D. A. (2006). Inclusive excellence: UConn builds capacity for diversity and  change. Connection: The Journal of the New England Board of Higher Education21(1), 17-19.

Williams, D. A., Berger, J. B., & McLendon, S. A. (2005). Toward a model of inclusive excellence and change in postsecondary institutions. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

About the Author

Dr. Matt Cabrera is an assistant director for the Office of Student Life and Development and coordinates the Leadership Academy program at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB). Dr. Cabrera is also serving as a post-doc fellow for the Educational Leadership Department at CSULB. He has co-taught Organizational Management for the M.S. Student Development in Higher Education program and has taught Ethnic Studies for the CSULB/LBUSD joint program for high school students.

Please e-mail inquiries to Matt Cabrera.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *