Due to broader access to higher education and the diversification of society, public and private universities in Germany have faced increasing challenges from the diversity of their members (students, academic staff, administration and management, professors and teaching staff; Auferkorte-Michaelis & Linde, 2016; Bargel 2014) since the educational reforms in the late 1960s. Consequently, more and more universities are using diversity management (Auferkorte-Michaelis & Linde, 2022) to guarantee quality and efficiency in teaching and research through participation and equality, to strengthen their competitiveness, and to advance their profile development (Auferkorte-Michaelis & Linde, 2016). Excellent private universities in the Anglo-Saxon-speaking world have been able to distinguish themselves as academically sophisticated but diversity-sensitive institutions, although socioeconomic status is a barrier at these universities (Rosinger et al., 2019). As a result of the lower density of regulations with regard to budget, organizational development, workplace and course design, private universities in Germany also have the potential to take on a pioneering role in dealing with diversity in the German higher education system. The German Association of Private Higher Education Institutions (Verband der privaten Hochschulen e. V.) emphasizes that private HEIs stand for equality of opportunity and diversity in the German education system by expanding study programs offered by public HEIs, providing study programs that are compatible with diverse life situations, and enabling specific entry requirements (Hekking, 2018). Due to a deficit of scientifically robust knowledge on diversity management at private universities, however, this potential is neither substantiated nor fully explored through applied research.
Research has shown that diversity at universities is reflected in demographic characteristics (e.g., migration background, age), cognitive aspects (knowledge structures, values), professional differences, functionality (competencies, organization cultures, communication), and institutional affiliation (Higher Education Awareness for Diversity, HEAD model; Gaisch & Aichinger, 2016). In this context, those dimensions of diversity are relevant that are of importance to the actors involved in an organization (van Dick & Stegmann, 2016), or that are associated with challenges. The current research primarily focuses on demographic diversity (Auferkorte-Michaelis & Linde, 2016). In particular, people who differ from prototypical perceptions on the dimensions of ethnic/cultural background, age, and gender (e.g., male, white, older professors) experience direct and indirect forms of discrimination and are considered as vulnerable groups. Similarly, students with disabilities and people from non-academic families face higher barriers than others in order to study or achieve good grades. In addition to the higher barriers that people from vulnerable groups must overcome, they also often have fewer resources to respond to change, such as the Corona pandemic (Lörz et al., 2016; Zimmer et al., 2021). These disadvantages result in, for example, more pronounced dropout intentions among people from non-academic families in the pandemic (Becker & Lörz, 2020) and higher dropout rates among people with migration backgrounds, despite on average more pronounced academic ambitions (aspiration-achievement paradox, Miyamoto, 2018). These challenges are complicated through intersectionality, when individuals are disadvantaged based on multiple characteristics.
In summary, it is known from current research that members of higher education tend to be less able to realize their individual potential for achievement due to disadvantage in accessing the higher education system, teaching, social interaction on campus, academic and research achievement, and career entry. Due to the increasingly competitive nature of the higher education sector, diversity management thus represents a key criterion for the efficiency and quality of teaching and research as well as for the profile development of higher education institutions. Furthermore, for private universities, it means that they will not be able to meet their claim of providing study for all (Hekking, 2018) without diversity management (Hearn & Rosinger, 2014).