equity, Regional Comprehensive

Supporting the Mission

On August 12, Secretary of Education, Dr. Miguel Cardona, announced a series of funding opportunities for minority-serving institutions. In launching this new grant program he noted: “It’s a cruel irony that institutions that serve the most students with the most to gain from a college degree have the fewest resources to invest in student success.”  Amen!

He goes on to say, “Too often our best-resourced schools are chasing rankings that mean very little on measures that truly count: college completion, economic mobility, narrowing gaps to opportunity for all Americans,” said Cardona. “Stop conflating selectivity with excellence. We must stop correlating prestige with privilege. We must embrace a new vision of college excellence.” (Inside Higher Ed, August 12, 2022). Amen, again!

So, what is this new vision? For the Secretary of Education, it appears to be about investing in the public colleges and universities that serve the majority of college-going students (73% according to educationdata.org) such that those colleges and universities have the funds necessary to adequately support their students. While he is focused on minority-serving institutions right now (and given their chronic underfunding, this is appropriate), the trajectory of this initiative should reach all campuses charged with teaching the students for whom education will be the most transformative: you know, public higher education. This is anti-racist policy-making at its best. It focuses on a structural problem that disproportionately impacts students of color, first-generation college students, and low income students from all backgrounds.

Having insufficient funds to support students impacts everything: retention, pace to graduation, and graduation. Insufficient funding undermines the transformative power of education, because that lack of investment generally translates into lack of completion. We know this at WCSU, and we work hard to invest what we can in supporting all of our students. But, despite the level of state support we receive (not an insignificant investment), sometimes the timing of funding and student needs are not aligned and we miss the opportunity to adapt quickly.

For example, there is ample evidence that wrap-around advising structures (a social work approach to advising) is very effective in getting students the support they need when they need it. Investing in wrap-around advising is expensive, and investing in it all at once is too big a financial challenge for most public universities. We can’t afford to make the big leap, so we tend to focus on smaller, more incremental approaches, which take longer to yield results.

Research suggests that emergency funds can make the difference between a student stopping out or completing a degree. These are generally small grants that make a big difference in students lives. At WCSU, we have done a good job of prioritizing these funds in recent years, but to really make this strategy work requires more funds for emergencies, and an advising program that helps us know when to step in.

We work with the tools that we have to solve our problems, tools that don’t require too much investment. We have the capacity to look at our own data to determine scheduling problems, pass rates in gateway courses, and the variables that predict student success, or lack thereof. Examining the data is helpful and points to next steps, but those next steps often require investment. Making those investments in a timely way is often impossible.

The need for robust student support services at a regional public is much more pronounced than it is at an elite university. We welcome students who have varied needs and we want to meet each one with the appropriate strategies for success. Yet the resources to respond to these needs are much higher at the elite university. This is an imbalance that must be addressed. I think this is part of Cardona’s point.

Cardona’s words made me feel optimistic. After years of thinking that universities like WCSU were all but invisible, someone has finally acknowledged the importance of what we do. I anticipate that we will see more such announcements as Cardona continues to look at the structural issues that are clear in the data. Things need to change and his early steps acknowledge that need.

Reflecting on the Cardona’s words have made me think about our mission.

Western Connecticut State University changes lives by providing all students with a high quality education that fosters their growth as individuals, scholars, professionals, and leaders in a global society.

That single sentence represents such powerful goals. We strive to change lives and we see evidence of our impact every day. We are the best path to social mobility because we are inclusive by design. We are the best path to self-advocacy because we recognize the role we play in helping our students learn to ask for the opportunities they deserve. We are the heart of a society that strives for equality because we are committed to creating opportunities for all students, not just the lucky few. We want to be that part of the higher education landscape that makes the most difference in the majority of students’ lives.

It is exhilarating to recognize the scope of our ambition. I am inspired to live up to those lofty goals because they are goals that matter. We are essential.

I’m looking forward to next steps from Secretary Cardona, but for today, I feel seen.

Anti-racist policies, equity

Unintended Consequences

For the last two weeks I have been having conversations with students who are struggling. This is typical this time of year, when the realities of the midterm grades sink in and the time to final projects and exams grows short. As in prior years, a persistent theme emerged – work responsibilities and student responsibilities were in competition. Eating trumps homework (as does having a home) so work is winning. In every case the students had fallen behind in a number of classes and it was unclear whether they could catch up. In every case, I did not have a good list of solutions for them.

When this happens, I go the typical list of options. We talk about support services (tutoring and counseling). When students get to this point, it is usually counseling that they need. They are overwhelmed, not incapable of college-level work. We talk about the strategic use of withdrawing from courses, although I emphasize that this should be a last resort. Our students have until well after midterms to withdraw from any course. I always encourage them to wait until the last possible day to do so, just in case things turn around. We talk about worst case scenarios like university suspension for not meeting the minimum academic standard (a 2.0 GPA) and how to recover if that happens (our Fresh Start Policy). This is not fun for students or for me. I am striving for kindness and support, with a healthy dose of reality.

But in the most recent conversations two policies struck me as worthy of my attention. One is within the campus control, the other needs the focus of the Federal Government.

The first thing that strikes me as very problematic is that students are opting for the withdraw option too often. This is a natural decision when students see an F in their future. It shouldn’t be so natural for all of the other grades. Unless a student is in a major that requires a minimum grade in a course, it is better to take the D and keep the credit. But the related hit to the GPA often drives students to the W option. Unfortunately, this practice puts students behind in accumulated credits which can impact opportunities to register. The later registration date (dates are based on credits earned) makes it less likely that they will find the courses they need for the next semester, putting them out of sequence and farther behind. If Ws are opted for too often, then those same students might fail to meet the pace standard (number of credits accumulated per year), and this will impact financial aid.

So, how do we fix this? One place I think we might start is with our pass/fail policy. As it stands right now, students must declare pass/fail well before midterms. I see no good reason for this. Why not align it with the last day to withdraw? This gives students time to see if they can succeed, attempting to earn a strong grade from day one, but having an out if they cannot do so. Students who need a specific grade in a critical prerequisite course won’t be able to use the pass/fail option, but in the early years of college, when this is option can be most urgent, that only includes a few courses. Pass/fail doesn’t affect the GPA, so even if the student earns a D, the pass is a win.

That part is pretty uncontroversial (I think), but the next part is more contentious. The current policy states that only electives may be taken pass/fail. Why not allow two general education courses to qualify as well? General education, by its very design, asks students to take classes in topics that they are not necessarily attracted to or comfortable with. By definition it focuses on breadth and tasks students with grappling with ideas and processes that are not typical of their major discipline. I think this is a wonderful thing, but I know that those courses outside of a student’s comfort zone are not always places where they are able to earn their best grades. What would be the harm in letting a few of these be pass/fail?

I know some will say that students won’t try as hard if they have this option. I’m not sure that is true, but with the extended time until decision-making, maybe a few of those math-phobic or writing-phobic or creativity-phobic students will wait and see. Maybe they’ll find out they are better at a subject than they realized and save that pass/fail for something else. In the meantime, perhaps it will keep a few more students from (over)using the W option. Maybe, just maybe it will help our students.

The second thing, which really must be addressed in state and federal government regulations, is the way we have designed financial aid, bundled tuition, and privileged the students who can work less and go to school more. In my conversations with students who have been overwhelmed with work and school demands, it is clear to me that they would have done better if they had taken 3-4 courses instead of 5. But at three, they have a reduced financial aid package, so that won’t work. (They are working; they need funding). At four classes (12 credits), they get the financial aid package, but end up penalized for not keeping pace for a four-year degree. In addition, they are likely to have to pay for summer courses or an additional semester. This means that my neediest students will end up paying more for college. This seems like a policy in need of an anti-racist policy review.

Why anti-racist? Well, students with high financial need are not necessarily students of color but they are disproportionately so. Looking at how these policies replicate structural inequities is important to understanding their severity. When we look at the ways in which our bundling and pacing rules disadvantage students with fewer resources, we see a structural problem that replicates biases in higher education overall. Students with less money, and who therefore must work a lot, are conscious of the bargain of the bundle (12-18 credits are one price) and don’t want to miss out on that perk. But the workload is too much, and some end up failing, withdrawing, and sometimes academically dismissed. Then they have to re-take courses to get back on track. Ironically, they end up paying more for college than if they had just taken fewer courses in the first place. If they do, they know they will pay more for college, and it feels like an unfair bargain. The cycle continues.

The bundling and financial aid problems are wrapped up in so many interwoven regulations that it is very hard to untangle. I am looking to Secretary of Education, Dr. Miguel Cardona to help us with this one. We can do a little at the state level, but the bigger picture is federal, and this is urgent.

We often build policies with unanticipated consequences. Our pass-fail policy wasn’t meant to encourage students to withdraw from courses, but I think it inadvertently does. Certainly, we wanted financial-aid to help the neediest students, not encourage them to do more and succeed less. The existing policies were developed to help, not harm. Nevertheless, now that we see the consequences that we had not anticipated, perhaps we can take steps to improve them. I think we can.

equity, Inclusion

Good Intentions Derailed

In the summer of 2020, students at WCSU, like students all over the country, planned a demonstration in response to the murder of George Floyd. I stood with them as they held the moments of silence representing the time that Floyd was held down, the stunning amount of time for the police officer to stop what he was doing and not take a life. The tears were flowing.

We then participated in a brief march around the campus and ended at the podium where some students and faculty took a moment to air their concerns, not just about the treatment of African-Americans in the criminal justice system, but the state of diversity, equity, and inclusion at our university. While many of the things said represented a moment of pain beyond my ability to respond, one concern that was raised was about our curriculum. This is my bailiwick, so I called the student leaders in for a meeting and tried to get at what they were worried about. From this conversation, I attempted to take action.

The concerns expressed by the students were two-fold. 1. There was a sense that our curriculum did not fully represent the histories and contributions of the diversity of peoples that make up our campus community. 2. There was a sense, demonstrated through various examples, that students of color are marginalized in the classroom. Not being aware of the range of literature about inclusive teaching practices, the students struggled to express their concerns. Nevertheless, I thought I had an idea of what they were experiencing.

As provost, my default next move is to reach out to the faculty and ask for help in addressing these concerns. In the fall after that demonstration, I visited our University Senate and asked for volunteers to form an ad hoc committee and charged them with the narrowly defined task of identifying some tools for looking at our curriculum from an equity and inclusion lens. I thought that this group would review the many tools that have been developed by other campuses to look at curriculum and recommend one for adoption. This tool would then be used by faculty within their departments to consider opportunities to be more inclusive. Oh foolish me.

I should have known better. You see the trouble is that there is too much equity work to be done on our campus, and the areas of inquiry just kept expanding. There were questions about our campus climate (good questions) that got bundled into the report. There were concerns about our recruiting practices and the persistent results of our searches that still skew toward historic representations along race and gender lines. There were concerns about trying to address diversity and equity in every class, potentially distracting from the overall goals of the course. There was no concern whatsoever about our own achievement gaps and how our pedagogies might be contributing to that, but I assume that would have emerged eventually. It was not a happy conversation.

Well, we are moving on to another committee whose charge will be to address these many questions, broadening the scope of the analysis, which is probably appropriate. But this will likely take another year, which doesn’t seem right to me. I must admit, I am disheartened.

From the range of questions and comments that emerged, it is clear that our community cares deeply about diversity, equity, and inclusion on our campus. Nothing that was said suggests that there isn’t concern about how to best serve our students from this perspective. Unfortunately, I think we are so aware of just how complicated these questions are that we are paralyzed. It reminds me of how I used to feel in the library stacks when I was getting my PhD; I just couldn’t figure out where the end of the question might be. This knowledge of the layers of complexity makes it difficult to take action.

The trouble is, I think those students deserve some action, sooner rather than later. So, at the risk of over-simplifying things, I’d like to suggest a few first steps for our community. These are baby steps, available to us right now, while we wait for the more complex DEI plan to be fully developed.

  1. Each faculty member should take a look at their syllabi and simply ask if there are any opportunities to include a wider range of voices in the readings assigned. This does not mean that math classes need to teach subjects that are more appropriate to anthropology classes. It simply means looking at the many people who have contributed to the field of mathematics and consider whether or not their voices or discoveries are reflected in the materials.
  2. Each department might come together to look at the whole of what they are offering and consider whether or not, taken together, the curriculum includes opportunities to encounter a diversity of scholars who have contributed to the field. That work together could reveal a few insights about the dominant narratives being presented and whether or not there are opportunities to grow the range of voices encountered by our students. This holistic approach to the major can help address any gaps in perspectives while at the same time avoiding trying to make all courses do the same thing.
  3. Our curriculum committees might take a moment to scan our catalogs (graduate and undergraduate) to see if there are ample opportunities for students to pursue some of the particular histories, fields, and narratives of interest to them. Can we find more than one course focused on women, or African-American, Asian-American, Latin-American, or LGBTQ+ communities? Can we pursue a line of inquiry about the role of religion or culture or social structures in social justice movements? Is it possible to complete a degree at our university without ever hearing about a culture or community that is different from our own?
  4. For all of the above, can we include our students in the conversation? They might not see things the same way that we do. Perhaps we should try to learn what they are seeing.

And when we’re all done with the process above, it might be a good idea to a) communicate about it in some way and b) make a plan to do this work every few years.

There is a lot more to do. We really do need to look at the literature about inclusive teaching practices and get serious about finding out why some of our students are feeling marginalized. We need to get serious about looking at the ways in which that lack of attention to inclusive teaching practices is impacting our students in terms of successful course/degree completion. We really do need a climate survey to help us gauge how widespread the feelings of exclusion might be. Then we need to act on the results of that survey. We really do need to examine our hiring practices to try to get a better understanding of why we keep replicating the status quo. All of this is important, and I hope that the next committee will do a great job on this.

But for right now, the simple steps above could help us move forward. They allow the content experts to do the work. They do not involve any external reviews of anything, and so might encourage departments to have honest and thoughtful conversations. They do not suggest that every course needs to become a course about diversity or culture. Instead, they just ask all of us to be mindful of our decisions and look for reasonable opportunities to be more inclusive. That doesn’t have to take another year.

Dialogue, Engagement, equity

Continuous Engagement

As provost, I am constantly reading research on good teaching practices, scouring our outcomes measures, and thinking about how we might do better. WCSU is a public regional comprehensive university serving many students who are the first in their families to go to college. We are increasingly diverse and must be attentive to the different experiences and assumptions about education that our students bring with them to our campus. We also need to attend to any differential outcomes that might reflect structural biases within our curriculum and our organization. Most of all, we need to be prepared to continuously examine the information we have about how we are doing and act on that information. It is a lot.

It is important to keep up with the emerging research on teaching, learning, and systemic biases and use that knowledge to develop strategies to improve the experiences of our students. As usual I find myself trying to simplify the pile of things that are keeping me up at night by identifying some relatively simple and direct action. In this post-midterm moment, I am thinking about some steps we can take right now to impact this fall and the spring semester ahead. While I am necessarily obsessed with the kind of continuous improvement that centers around course and degree learning outcomes, this time, I’m focusing on continuous engagement with our students.

I know, you’re all thinking that I’ve forgotten what it is like to be in the classroom. Isn’t that continuous engagement by default? Yes, of course it is. But that engagement is shaped by all sorts of decisions faculty make about their approach to teaching and it is often constrained by the few hours shared in the room or online with our students. In this case, I am thinking about just a few other steps to encourage our students to be active participants in their learning experience and ultimately their own success. Here are some possible actions.

  1. Consider taking a moment in the next week to ask your students to re-read your syllabus. Ask them to provide feedback on the pacing of the material, the topics they are most interested in, and any topics that they think might be missing. Be sure to give them the opportunity to evaluate the expectations conveyed and whether or not they are clear. In particular, at this midpoint, they are probably able to comment on what they wish they had known earlier in the semester. I suggest that you dedicate some real time to this process. Start with individual written responses, then move to small group conversations to help students solidify their comments. Then ask the groups to report out. It may take 30 minutes from your course content, but it will give you the opportunity to see where there might be confusion, where there are ideas to consider and most of all, it will engage your students with their learning process. Be prepared to make minor adjustments as a result of this conversation. Big adjustments should probably wait until the next semester, but not always.
  2. Although your students may have done this organically earlier in the semester, now is a good time to establish some official study groups. At mid-semester there are students who are thriving and those who are struggling. Putting together some study groups with a few review tasks assigned by you could help your students establish relationships with their peers that are productive going forward. With all of our new online communication options, students can meet remotely to go over some of the tricky concepts that might need another look. If you provide an assignment or two and organize the groups with a balance of known talents (so far) in each, you are connecting your students with each other and engaging them with the material. If you are willing to give an opportunity to improve their midterm grades with this activity (re-doing an exam question or quiz after their group meeting, for example), they might be encouraged to continue to work together after your initial prompting. Best of all, they might ask you to clarify topics and ideas, which is a big win for teaching and learning.
  3. Finally, now is a great moment to look at the campus events calendar and pick one or two for you and your students to attend together. I say one or two just to allow for the conflicts that will inevitably occur as you try to add this activity at this late date. It doesn’t matter what you choose, so long as you can link it back to your course in some way. This shared experience is an opportunity for faculty to be seen less as an authority and more as a peer, learning with their students. Let’s face it, right after midterms is a good time to plant this idea in your students’ minds. This is an extra that may seem like a lot in the assigning but can yield a shared bond that might just inspire new conversations about the central issues of your course. By the way, there is no downside to awarding bonus points for these activities. For those who are excelling, it is just a nice thing. For those who are struggling, it is one more chance to succeed.

Each of the activities above are meant to focus on engagement, not specific content or learning outcomes. The syllabus assignment asks students to look at the structure around their learning and actively contribute to improving that structure. Study groups can encourage students to support each other on a path to success, while also providing a path to improving their own progress in the course. Attending campus activities with faculty invites students to see their professors as co-learners, engaging ideas together. Cultivating this kind of engagement could also provide a context for learning about the harder things, like systemic bias, because all of these assignments are invitations for students to talk and opportunities for us to listen. I’m pretty sure that dialogue is the answer to most of the hard questions we are asking about the student experience in higher education right now, so fostering it could do us all some good.

P.S. I left out the buzzwords, but I am guessing you could put them in if you’re reading anything about higher ed these days.

Change, equity, Inclusion

Demonstrating the Gains Inclusion Can Bring

I read with great interest A 30% Author Experiment in last week’s Inside Higher Education. This article highlighted the results of a research study in political science that explored the relationship between graduate students’ self-efficacy (belief that they will succeed in their field of study) and the proportion of women scholars represented on the syllabus (from the typical 10% to 30%!). What they found was that increasing the representation of women to 30% did not significantly increase women PhD students’ self-efficacy, but it did lower the self-efficacy of the men. Oh dear.

I had lots of questions, and so should you, so here’s the link to the full study: “Having Female Role Models Correlates with PhD Students’ Attitudes to their Own Academic Success” by Shauna N. Gilooly, Heidi Hardt, and Amy Eric Smith. They get into many important variables, not just the sex of the respondents and the authors. Most tellingly, the respondents’ pre-existing attitudes toward diversity overall had a predictive value.

As the authors delved into the details of their results, they posited some explanations for the negative impact of a more inclusive syllabus. One explanation was backlash. Drawing on research by Wilkins, Wellman, Babbitt, Toosi, and Schad (2015) they observed that “male students may have equated rising women’s representation in syllabi with their own group losing status and control, and responded with backlash.” For me the key word here is loss.

Anyone who has tried to champion change knows that one of the biggest factors in slowing or derailing such efforts is the sense of loss. Sometimes it is a seemingly small loss of routine that can follow reorganizing physical spaces (small, but annoying, no doubt as we change our routes and habits to fit the new layout). Sometimes it is the obviously large loss that comes with reorganizing power structures, social rules, and privilege. Even if we are rooting for the progress that the changes may imply, we cannot help but feel the losses that go with them.

The losses are real, even if they are just. As a woman in higher education, I am anxious to see syllabi and research investments that reflect women’s interests and contributions to my field. It is important to build our repertoire of readings and potential mentors in higher education in a way that is truly representative of many perspectives and experiences. In practical terms, this means more women and more people of color on my reading lists because they were underrepresented in my years as a doctoral student and in the textbooks and journals I have frequently consulted. Without reducing everything to a zero-sum game, I must admit that this change will necessarily mean my reading lists will include fewer men. I can’t just add; I can’t keep up. So, yes, the loss is real.

As we attend to the voices of more diverse scholars, we also subtly undermine presumptions of authority. This does not happen overnight; it probably takes a generation. Still, little by little, the assumption that doctors and scientists and serious scholars of all kinds are male will fade and with it that little (or not so little) leg up that these assumptions give will wane. Although some may claim that “privilege” isn’t real, the sense of loss of privilege is palpable. It is that feeling of loss that seems to be clearly expressed in this research study.

Among the important nuances of this study is the attention to the intervening variable of the respondents’ predisposition towards diversity. Those who saw increased diversity as a positive did not suffer the lowering of self-efficacy that the students who were less enthusiastic about embracing a diverse society. This is not at all surprising, but it is very important. It leads to what may be the most important question facing us in higher education right now – how are we contributing to the understanding of the value of diversity?

Well, some things are obvious. Our students come to us with attitudes that have been formed by family, school, and media of all kinds. Observing this we have rightfully argued for increased attention to reading and viewing lists from a very young age. But, I think higher education can contribute more to this conversation. We’ve done a lot of good work showing how negative exclusion is, but not nearly enough time has been dedicated to identifying the tangible benefits of inclusion. Moral arguments are great, and I fully embrace them, but in this case we need a clear research program into the value of including diverse perspectives.

Yes, I’ve just added more to our collective to-do lists and I’m sorry, but this is really important. We can’t just attend to the range of voices on our syllabi; we must attend to the impact of those voices on the research in medicine, science, diplomacy, social institutions, and cultural practices. We must be honest about how complex that inclusive stance can be and how the actions that follow from a new perspective may change our priorities in ways that may be uncomfortable for the few in the short term, but benefit the whole in the long term. And if we argue for the long view, we must be able to provide evidence for that benefit for the whole. This is a hard but necessary next step in our pursuit of equity.

It is time to focus our research on the tangible gains that inclusion can bring. There are already countless stories in medicine that can top the list. There are similar moments in history, literature, art, and psychology. Let’s start talking about how diverse perspectives have reshaped the questions we ask and even how we live. Let’s not talk in the abstract, but focus on concrete results. Maybe we can inspire increased curiosity instead of decreased self-efficacy. Now that would be a real win for everyone.