Change, equity, Resilience

Forces of Nature

Well, I took a week off and went to my usual cabin in the woods. This annual tradition with my family involves 10 cabins with no plumbing or electricity, a beautiful lake for recreation and bathing, a gas powered pump to supply water for washing dishes, a gas/wood stove for cooking, and a mountain spring for drinking water. I can connect to the internet via phone, but I limit it to once a day to save the cellphone battery and protect my sanity. Turns out my annual retreat to “roughing it” was the lap of luxury. Hurricane Isaias had its say.

Hurricanes, tornados, COVID-19, and the now ho-hum heatwaves and/or snowstorms always remind me that no matter how hard I try, I cannot control everything. It is an important and necessary recurring lesson. It is also the opposite of how I am inclined to think.

Those of us in higher education leadership roles are tasked with trying to control outcomes. As provost, I try to control the interaction between our academic offerings and student success. Working with deans, department chairs, faculty, academic support staff, and, well everyone at some point, I struggle to develop good strategies to improve the educational experience of our students. Some of those strategies focus on pedagogy (most recently pedagogies that work well online and on ground), some on academic interventions for students who are struggling, some on curricular development, and some on faculty development as teachers and scholars. With data analysis, input from almost everyone in some form or another, governance review, and then questions about affordability, sustainability, and impact, I work to prioritize our efforts in the hopes of continuous improvement.

Despite all of these efforts, the reality is that only some of it seems to work. An experiment with a flipped classroom shows some interesting things, but yields no overall improvement in student outcomes. A cutting-edge revision to a major has not found a new audience. Efforts to improve our graduation rates appear to be working (yippee), but I am a little uncertain about which intervention worked. My hunch is clear pathways (four-year plans) and the FY course, but I am not sure. Efforts at improving retention have not yet shown results, but hope springs eternal and a new plan is underway. I am accountable for all of these things and so I strive to control them, but that control is mostly an illusion. There are too many variables; there will never be a single cure.

So, too, with the problems of systemic racism. As I grapple with the questions surrounding biases in curriculum, processes, and pathways to admission to WCSU or any higher education institution, I recognize the “too many variables” nature of the situation. Many institutions like WCSU have spent years focusing on the connection between K-12 and higher education. We have long supported Upward Bound, we offer Early College classes at local schools at minimal costs to those students and/or districts, and we have an Education Access Program that offers an alternate path to admission at WCSU. The urgency of those efforts easily draws my attention, but I suspect it is not where it should be focused.

It is not that I do not recognize the urgency of the K-12 situation. The variability in funding for districts is outrageous. The quality of educational opportunities given to wealthy vs. non-wealthy schools is short-sighted at best and morally bankrupt in any case. What happens in primary and secondary education has everything to do with the perpetuation of structures that enhance segregation and diminish opportunity for some groups while enhancing it for others. What happens in primary and secondary education has everything to do with the needs of the students that we serve at WCSU. Of course, I see this as urgent. However, these issues are more than can be managed in the day-to-day of running a university. The scale is too large and the variables beyond my control. I should keep my eyes on higher education.

So, I endeavor to prioritize efforts that directly impact learning at the university. I focus my attention on our data and our outcomes. This is an unsatisfying exercise because the outcomes of students at WCSU will not improve if K-12 is not improved. Our efforts will be about catching people up, not setting them up to succeed from the start. Decisions that narrow the scope of our efforts may be correct in terms of avoiding “mission creep” but I know that not addressing the years before higher education will make interventions at the university-level only partially successful. It is a conundrum.

What does this have to do with forces of nature? In as much as I should accept that there are things outside of my control, the comparison is clear. Trying to manage everything is a fool’s game and control is an illusion at best. I would do well to acknowledge the limits of my capabilities, narrow my focus, and ignore the variables beyond my official scope. But I find this comparison a cop out, because, when it comes to systemic racism, it is irresponsible and ineffective to take a limited view.

As I return to the world of electricity and connectivity (mostly), and a world still disrupted by facemasks and social distancing, and too many unknowns, I find the forces of nature daunting and humbling. However, I also find hope and resilience. Communities are clearing brush together and the masks seem to be working. Those simple steps give me the strength to think bigger and strive for more.

So, as I prepare to begin this odd fall semester, I will focus on making education better for everyone. There will be lots of input on those efforts, but as an academic leader, I will take responsibility for them. Each step forward will likely be matched by missteps and miscalculations, because issues of racism and inequity are as forceful and destructive as hurricanes, with timelines that dwarf the scale of even the most powerful seasonal storm. Working toward great education for everyone is an impossible task with too many variables. But, it is the only responsible action I can take.

equity, Higher Education, Inclusion

Asking Questions and Listening

With fall plans in place (at least for today), I can finally return to thinking about the future. A month ago, I started a conversation about equity on my campus. I have heard from faculty about some exciting courses planned for the fall and thereafter. The Chief Diversity Officer has developed a long list of materials to be shared with our community, materials that address curriculum, mental health, and workshops related to equity. I also had the pleasure of hearing from a small group of students about their experiences on my campus. This week I will focus on them.

Meeting with students is always informative. As an administrator, I generally only get to have conversations when students are excelling (need support for an award) or struggling (in danger of leaving school). Try as I might, getting routine meetings about topics like equity are hard to fit into my students’ lives and they often go missing. So, I am particularly grateful that they were able to meet with me during these summer months. We spent about an hour talking about some of the experiences they have had that have given them cause for concern. They were polite, trying to move their ideas forward without offending me. I tried to make room for what they reported, encouraging them to be specific. I will not reveal what was said, because they deserve privacy, but what I can say is that a lot of the feelings expressed suggested that they simply do not feel heard.

We are fond of rules in higher education. We have lots of good reasons for what we do, and we truly believe that we apply those reasons equally. For every troubling interaction the students described, I could hear our standard explanations. “We do this with all students.” “Grades are something you earn, not something we give.” “You missed the deadline.” “You neglected a step in the process.” “You did not see a tutor.” And so on. These standard answers may be true, but they do not fully consider the individual experiences of our students. Taken together, these responses communicate disinterest at best and disdain at worst.

I know we don’t mean that. I know that we are trying to be consistent in our actions and policies. I know that we are sometimes insulted by the demands for explanations for grades, or the excessive absences, or routine lateness, or what we think is a lack of follow through on the part of the students. I know that students do miss deadlines, show up late, do not follow directions, and otherwise undermine themselves. Nevertheless, when we give these standard answers, we have a way of marginalizing the already marginalized.

I think we forget that it takes a great deal of courage for students to go ahead and ask a question of a faculty member, or chair, or dean, or provost. We can be intimidating to students from all backgrounds. For first generation students and students from under-represented groups there is the added feeling that asking questions or explaining their situations will give the impression that they do not belong. When they finally do ask, our standard, policy-based responses may re-enforce that impression. After all, it was in the catalog so they should have known.

Perhaps, we should ask follow-up questions instead. For example: When students miss deadlines, we rightly say things like – “my syllabus says no late assignments.” That is fine and there are lots of good reasons for that policy. But it might also be fruitful to ask the student why they are having trouble meeting the deadlines. That simple question could communicate the kind of caring necessary to help a student be on time in the future. When a student is repeatedly late for class, we might just pull them aside and ask why? The act of asking could reveal a schedule or childcare disaster that they are trying to manage. When students do not understand their grades, we can respond with the part of our syllabus that explains our grading criteria. That’s fair. But we might also ask ourselves if we have fully explained the reason for those criteria. This extra step can sometimes help students commit to assignments that they might have thought of as lower priority in the list of things they are juggling.

Now, listen, I know that some students really do just ignore instructions and put in minimal efforts. I also know that I have faculty who regularly do this kind of outreach, going that extra-mile to try to help students succeed. I have no illusions that asking follow-up questions will clear up all of the confusion or misplaced effort among our students. I do not think it will cure all of the feelings of inequity that my students have revealed to me. Asking questions is just a minor step in the long march toward equity, that we should all be embarking on.

What I am saying, however, is that asking questions might further the conversation with our students. What they tell us might reveal some gaps in our explanations, or some non-standard paths to support, or it might just help us get to know the people in the room with us and all that they are carrying with them. Most of all, asking questions might communicate to students that their experiences matter, and that might just make a difference in our students’ path through their education.

Asking questions necessarily communicates that we are listening. Even if our final answer does not change, that simple act might help our students feel heard.

Change, equity

Antiracist Policy 1: Remedial Education

Like so many others, the recent demonstrations in response to the murder of George Floyd have led me to reflect upon my own behavior. I am reviewing my personal and professional actions with a greater focus on equity. I am looking for ways that I can move my attitudes to actions that will make the world a more equitable place.

I want to thank Ibram X. Kendi for making it simple for me. I have been lost in the twisted logics of equality rather than equity. In my efforts to include all voices, I have neglected the steps necessary to create opportunities for all voices to be heard. I have also been willing to let things evolve. There is no more time for that. From now on, I am committing to action. I will let Kendi’s elegant definitions be my guide:

  • Racist: One who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.
  • Antiracist: One who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea. *

In the year ahead (and thereafter), I will be reviewing all of the policies at my university through this lens, but right now I am focusing on a policy at the intersection of high school and college. Given the persistent “achievement gap” in CT, I would like to see the State of Connecticut adopt this policy: Any student who earns a high school diploma from public school in the state of Connecticut, and then places into remedial education, will be awarded one year of free tuition at a state college or university.

Here are the reasons that I see this as a necessary policy.

I have long known that the students who attend Danbury Public Schools (where many of my undergraduates attended high school) have much less support than those who attend Sherman School, where I serve on the Board of Education. This is true in terms of per pupil spending: Danbury $14,041; Sherman $20,034 (Connecticut Public School Spending Report). It is even more true when one considers the needs of the students in Danbury High School (61.2% Free Lunch Eligible, 17% English Language Learners) vs. Sherman School (3.3% Free Lunch Eligible, 0% English Language Learners). Unsurprisingly, most students in Sherman are White: not so in Danbury. (Connecticut Report Cards). I think you can see that funding is an important source of Connecticut’s persistent educational inequities.

This imbalance in support became nearly catastrophic when we all closed for COVID-19. Sherman teachers struggled to find good methods of supporting students in this distance learning environment. Families adjusted to the need to juggle working at home while supporting their children’s education and the general chaos of separation from friends and activities that make up the lucky lives of the people of Sherman. Danbury schools struggled with all of that plus providing food for families. They also had many families without multiple (or any) computers or wi-fi access. They had families who struggled with childcare because the parents were essential personnel. They had students who had no real support for learning because their parents do not yet speak English.

All of the things I just listed need a host of policy reforms to correct them. But today I am focusing on college readiness. You see, it is clear that Danbury Schools cannot achieve the outcomes of the Sherman Schools under these conditions. The fact that a fair number of Danbury graduates do manage to thrive is exceptional. It should not be considered a bar that everyone can meet if they just try. Getting to the graduation stage is a remarkable achievement for students whose lives are characterized by hunger, poverty, home insecurity, and no resources for education beyond what their under-funded school district provides.

Even so, many Danbury High School graduates still pursue a college education. Thank goodness we have not managed to dissuade them from this opportunity. While some of them go on to Yale and Harvard, or qualify for our honors program, etc., the fact is that students from these under-funded school districts are over-represented in our remedial math and writing courses. This reality adds about a year’s worth of additional cost to higher education.

Here is how it works. We admit students with a wide range of K-12 educational experiences. If they opted out of the SAT, or if their scores on the SAT are below the “cut scores,” they take placement tests. Some of these students end up with scores below our general education levels. They are placed in our “P” courses. P courses allow students to take a college level writing or math course with embedded remediation. This is a good effort on our part to try to get students on track, without costing them college credit and time. But there are issues.

Issue one: P courses require a lot of time and effort to complete. We reflect this in credit hours, but it is not sufficient. Students are better off taking a reduced load while in these courses, but the reduction has financial consequences. They have to stay in school longer or catch up in the summer (pay additional tuition).

Issue two: Students who place into P courses, are effectively blocked from starting majors in STEM, Education, and Nursing (all very popular among our first generation college students). This means staying in school longer (paying additional tuition).

Issue three: For the neediest students in Connecticut, Pell Grants cover tuition and fees at state schools (more or less). They do not cover the cost of living. Students who need P courses are frequently in that neediest category and are likely to need to work a lot while in college. Therefore, they will not have sufficient time to do well in the P courses and frequently withdraw and try again. This means staying in school longer (paying additional tuition).

So, my proposal is simple: Students who graduate from any public school in CT and need remediation in college, will be given their first year of education at a public college or university for free. This will allow students to save their Pell or student loan money for the other four years. It will allow them to take a reduced load if they need to work. It will stop charging the neediest students extra to attend college.

One more thing: CT has recently adopted the “last dollar” free tuition model for our community college system. Good, but notice that it is last dollar. This still asks these same students to use their grants for remedial education. It also keeps them from having a university option, which is problematic at best. It is not sufficient to achieve equity. My proposal stands.

*Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist, 2019.

Black Lives Matter, equity, Higher Education, Inclusion

The Disconnect

On Friday I attended a demonstration organized by WCSU students in response to the murder of George Floyd.  Beginning in silence as our leaders let 8 minutes and 46 seconds pass, I had ample time to understand everything. Already reeling from the video, already horrified by the unequal application of the law to communities of color, already committed to decriminalization of non-violent crime, I still missed the most important message of all: there was plenty of time to change course, but it did not happen. I wept.

As my students began to speak, they told me important things. They told me that our African-American student clubs are treated unfairly. They told me that our “conversations” about social issues are not enough.  They called out the lack of courses in African-American, Latin-American, and Native-American histories and cultures.  They reminded me that faculty and staff do not reflect the diversity of our student population. And, yes, they wondered why it took a nation-wide protest for us to heed the calls to change our mascot.  I listened.

I have no defense for any of it.  I have observed some of these same things over the years.  I have seen that our “conversations” are never followed up with action.  I have noticed the imbalance in our staffing and have not found a good path to change it.  I have seen the disparities in the catalog and on the schedule, without effectively balancing it.  I have allowed policies to stand that disproportionately impact students who come from under-resourced K-12 school districts, and yes, that means disproportionately students of color. And, though I have always flinched at our mascot, I did not see the mascot as something I should take the lead on.  I am sorry.

It might be nice to offer myself an out.  I have, in fact, worked to right some of these wrongs over the years.  I could list those efforts, but I will not because the simple truth is, they have not worked. I have not managed to communicate the urgency of the situation.  I have only made marginal reforms. I have been deferential to the labyrinth of university processes that frequently end in tiny adjustments, rather than systemic change. It has taken me too long, but I get it now. It is time to change course.

Where to begin? The list is long, but I will start with two places where there is a disconnect between my (our) intentions and what my (our) students see.

Disconnect 1: Curriculum

While we may feel that our curriculum is inclusive, some of our students see it differently. As I looked through our catalog last week, I noted that gap.  Let me be clear, we do have courses that address African-American, Latin-American, Native-American, and Women’s histories and literatures but the number is very small compared to the whole of our catalog. We do weave in a diversity of perspectives and readings within some of our courses, but our students cannot see that when they choose to enroll because our course descriptions do not reveal a commitment to well-rounded narratives. We do have lovely courses that help us see our systems and cultures through the lens of non-US cultures, but our path to those courses (our introductions to disciplines) are failing to engage and excite our students, so those courses frequently struggle for enrollments. Then I have to cancel them because low-enrolled courses are not financially sustainable.

There are lots of steps to take to fix this disconnect between our intentions and what actually happens.  We can start with revising course descriptions to draw attention to our concern for equity. We can revise our reading lists to achieve a broader representation of voices and expertise in every discipline.  We can re-consider the point of an undergraduate degree and prioritize our requirements to address issues of equity.  We can re-imagine those first level courses, not as standard introductions to disciplines, but places to develop the basic tools of inquiry necessary for students to truly engage equity and diversity as they progress through their education.

These might be good places to start, but right now I think I will start by listening to what our students see, because talking among ourselves is getting is nowhere.

Disconnect 2: Prioritizing Student Success

We like to think of our campus as student-centered.  In many ways we are. Lots of faculty and staff take the time to reach out to students who are struggling, provide opportunities for students to excel, and go above and beyond to help students get to the finish line.  I know this to be true.  I have seen wonderful things happen time and time again.

Nevertheless, we are slow to act on information that tells us how we might do better. Consider retention, for example. For several years I have known that the students we are most likely to lose in the first year are students who had below a B average (84% or lower) in high school.  This was a big aha for me. I had been sorting our data by lots of demographic factors, but nothing was as predictive as this one variable. Great. Now what?

Well, I have tried to address it for two years, but I am getting nowhere.  I have initiated processes that have stalled, allowing these students to continue to arrive at the university and receive less than adequate support. The structure of our organization has made it next to impossible for me to achieve the focused intervention necessary for student success.

This can no longer stand.  I will act on the data and invest in the supports that have the best chance of improving the outcomes for those who did not thrive in high school.  Ignoring this leaves more students with a bill for an education they were unable to fully access. I have the time to change course, and I will not wait to do so.

There is much more to do, but I am guessing that as I move this conversation forward, including the voices that must be included, I will find the list to be longer than I have imagined.  I also anticipate that better ideas for solutions will come from those conversations, so I will continue to listen.

But I will not continue to wait for things to evolve over time. Higher education has time to change course, but that time is not infinite; that time is now.

Change, equity, Higher Education

Catalog as Equity Indicator

Well, it was a tough week last week.  As Americans took to the streets to express their fully justified rage at the persistent biases in policing that are visited upon communities of color, Western Connecticut State University struggled to respond.  We had a few missteps, but the near term result is that we have agreed to change our mascot and there will be a demonstration, organized by our students, this week.  But what about the long-term?

Last week, in response to students who wrote to me, I asked my faculty to reconsider the fall schedule.  Already struggling to figure out what we will look like in response to COVID-19, I added representation to the mix.  As students were grappling with the murder of George Floyd, they asked me why there were not more courses that represented the diversity of their backgrounds and experiences in our curriculum. Good question.

Of course, there is not a simple answer. When I reached out to faculty, and some of the departments that I thought had the most to contribute, two responses emerged.

Response 1: We address issues of race, gender, and equity in many of our classes.  It is woven in.

I wish that were true.  I took a few hours to read through our catalog and a few of the associated course outlines.  Except for Social Work majors, where these issues are truly  woven throughout the curriculum, discussions about equity (and therefore, race and gender) are not in the course descriptions. Here is a sample of what I found:

  • Justice and Law Administration mentions race in one course description, has a gender focused class (women, of course), and one course about civil rights.
  • The business degrees limit this conversation to the Marketing courses, with an emphasis on persuasion, and equal employment rules in management.
  • Sociology has a Social Problems class, which gets at some of what we need to be talking about, and then a few on race and equity, and the issues facing Latin-Americans in particular.
  • Anthropology always focuses on concepts that help us have good discussions about the constructs of race and culture, but their contexts are other countries, thus obscuring the relevance to our students’ lives.
  • The health professions acknowledge that culture and community play a role in health care, so I guess that’s a win.
  • There are a smattering of courses (Women’s Studies, Non-Western Cultures), with titles that tell the tale, but they are a small part of our offerings.
  • The histories of music, literature, and art are mostly Euro-centric with a few exceptions sprinkled in, and most (not all) of our American History courses focus on slavery when they address diversity and equity at all.

Nope, we do not substantively address race, gender, and equity in our curriculum. If we do, it is communicated at such an abstraction that our students cannot find it.  We need to rethink this woven-in strategy.

Response 2: When we choose to focus on particular groups – Women’s History, African-American History, LatinX History, and so on – we run the risk of reinforcing a marginalized status. 

Yes, I agree. I hate the way we have to name these groups to make them visible. I wish that we were at a point in our curriculum development that it would be absurd to do this. In a world where our teachings fully represented the contributions and experiences of all groups in the arts, sciences, politics, and the rest, we would not feel the need to create these courses. Unfortunately, we are not there yet.

When students ask where the courses about their histories and experiences are, they are telling us that they do not see that representation.  They are hungering for acknowledgement of their value.  If their stories are not part of everything, and they are not, then they need the focused courses.  Before we push away their request with the marginalization response, let us consider the balance of our offerings. Here are some examples of what I mean.

English has thirteen courses that are focused on literatures that skew white and European and four that obviously do not. I am being generous in this. I suspect the genre courses also skew white and European, but I do not know for sure. Throwing in one book by an author from an under-represented group does not count.

History has approximately twenty-five courses focused on histories that are distinctly white, European, and male.  There are a cluster of Non-Western Culture courses, and a few courses that focus on civil rights and women’s histories, but proportionately they are small compared to the overwhelming number of traditional approaches to history.

In the rest of the arts and humanities disciplines, where these topics should flourish, the proportions do not improve. What we are doing is marginalizing the histories, literatures, arts, and philosophies of women, African-Americans, Muslim-Americans, LatinX Americans, LGBTQIA, and so on, by limiting them to the precious few courses.  In other words, if there were not so few of them, they would not be marginal. If we want equity in our curriculum, we should have many more classes that focus on particular histories and experiences. Then they would not be the exception, but instead, they would be the basis of a strong liberal arts education.

The most egregious example of the absence of serious diversity in our curriculum is the case of African-American Studies.  This is a topic that you can find in our catalog. It contains exactly one dedicated course, The Black Experience in America. The rest of the courses are anthropology courses about Africa. There is a course in African-American Literature in the English department, but it is not listed here. Wow. Worse yet, The Black Experience in America has no home. It is scheduled by the History Department, but they claim no ownership of the material. It is taught by a long-time adjunct faculty member. Nope, no buy-in here at all. I am ashamed.

Now, I know some readers will find flaws in my logic here.  If we weave it in, do we need the special courses? Yes. Am I contradicting myself? Probably, but sometimes contradictory things can both be true. We need to weave equity into all that we do. We also need to be interested in the many histories and experiences that make up our communities.

We have a lot of work to do, and now that we are through the first level of our defense mechanisms, I would like to get on with it.  I do not want to get mired in identifying problems associated with transitioning to curriculum that better reflects the diversity of human experiences. I want proposals that dig into every discipline (yes, STEM, you too) and make the changes we need to build an anti-racist university*.

*More on this topic next week. For now, I highly recommend Ibram X. Kendi’s, How to be an Anti-Racist.