Dialogue, Engagement, equity

An Invitation to Consider Difficult Things

About 15 years ago, I was teaching an undergraduate course focused on the ethics of communication. This was one of the core courses in a sprawling discipline that addresses all sorts of human interactions from our internal monologues to mass persuasion. In an effort to help our students understand the power and responsibilities of our communication practices, both personal and professional, our curriculum included this course to provide a framework for thinking through the ethical issues that are part of all communication. It was a challenging but rewarding course.

This morning, as I read that Boise State has suspended its mandatory course on diversity amid concerns the potential discomfort some students may feel, I remembered my experiences in Communication Ethics. The narrative about the course at Boise State is one we’ve heard countless times over the last several years, with assumptions about discomfort, blame, and even accusations of disloyalty. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not really buying the stories of classrooms that call out certain groups, asking particular students to absorb that blame. Reports of that kind of behavior usually end up being a misquote, or a selective piece of conversation that doesn’t fully represent the full discussion. These stories generally reflect a politicization of higher education that distorts the real work going on in classrooms all over the country. Nevertheless, there are moments when our conversations about diversity and equity do lead to tough realizations about our own biases, no matter what culture or group we feel we represent. At some point someone will feel uncomfortable.

As I think about the conversations that are really going on in many classes, not just a mandatory course on diversity, I am remembering the most profound experience I had when I was teaching that communication ethics course. We had lots of the usual debates around honesty, ends vs. means, situational ethics, and ideal vs. real world ethical challenges. They were fun, but they stayed a little abstract. There were no real risks in the classroom version of these decisions, so students participated but were not necessarily transformed. I hoped it was going ok, but I wasn’t thrilled. Then we came to the chapter about stereotypes, and the conversation shifted.

Stereotypes come up in communication classes all the time because they are ever-present and generally relevant to the topic at hand. You cannot consume media without noticing stereotypes. You cannot conduct research in communication without wrestling with decisions about categories of analysis, which leads to conversations about stereotypes. You cannot produce communication thoughtfully without considering stereotypical messages. All of this is true, but there was still a kind of detachment in our approach to this topic. You see, my students knew that “stereotyping is wrong” and so felt that they could just dismiss the conversation right there, with that morally absolute but practically impossible sentence. I needed to find a way to break through.

I had an idea, and I took the risk. Instead of starting the conversation about stereotypes with an introduction to the topic and the usual discussion of archetypes vs. stereotypes, I invited my students to participate in an exercise. I asked everyone in the room to write down five stereotypes that they felt had been applied to them. I suggested that no matter who we are, something applies, and it is likely that we had experienced a moment of discomfort because of this. Students began writing and so did I. Then, when everyone seemed done writing, I shifted the assignment. I asked everyone to look at the five they had listed and consider when they had used those stereotypes to categorize others. Eyes looked up, uncomfortable giggles ensued, and there was a hesitation to begin. I reassured everyone that I was not collecting those pieces of paper, nor would I ask them to report on what they wrote. I got busy addressing my own list.

This proved to be an incredibly powerful moment in this course. The simple “stereotyping is wrong” no longer worked as a dismissal. I did share some of mine to help mitigate the shame everyone was feeling. It became clear that stereotyping is what we are in the habit of doing and it needed to be examined. It also made everyone understand that we all have work to do. This was an invitation to engage, not an accusation and assignment of responsibility. What I hoped for was that the engagement would help us determine our responsibilities and, ideally, our next steps.

My little exercise is one of many that my colleagues have developed to help us have rich and informative conversations about power, oppression, and what a just society might look like. These conversations happen in biology and chemistry, history and art, or education and accounting (and everywhere else), because the truth is, we find assumptions that stem from stereotypes everywhere. In many ways, stereotypes are the easiest path to discovering structural problems around power and influence. These conversations frequently lead to moments when some of us realize we have held ideas (categories/stereotypes) that may be supporting a less than just society. These are hard moments, and they sometimes lead to discomfort. But these conversations aren’t about blame or about marginalizing anyone: They are about discovery and, in the best cases, finding a path forward.

It is easy to find a bad sentence in a textbook or a syllabus or a lecture. As far as I can tell, social media demands bad sentences on all topics, especially those that might divide us. Selective information dominates the headlines about equity on college campuses. This selectivity is easy fodder for outrage and a clear misrepresentation of what we actually do.

What is much harder to do (and absolutely rejected by news and social media), is to take the time to see words and ideas in context and navigate the challenges to our world views that they might represent. This is the challenge and the luxury we have in the classroom. We are not speaking in tweets or 10-, 15-, or even 60-minute increments; we are using a semester and even a full four years to think about these things.

I am sorry to hear that the course at Boise State was suspended because I cannot believe that stopping the conversation is an appropriate answer. We need to have lots of these conversations, not to oppress but to enlighten. These conversations take time and continued exploration. They are the very opposite of headlines, and must remain so. These conversations are education.

equity, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Cultivating Equity

As I awoke to the many tributes to Martin Luther King, Jr. this morning, I happened upon an editorial by Martin Luther King III, in the New York Times. He draws our attention to MLK Jr.’s efforts to address poverty. With stark images from the Poor People’s Campaign, King III points to his father’s commitment to advocating for policies that lift people out of poverty. He concludes his piece with a call for the creation of a Cabinet position focused on fighting poverty and the urgency of passing a universal basic income. Amen.

Supporting access to education will never offer relief from systemic racism if people remain hungry. It is clear at every level, from pre-K to higher education, that people who struggle with food and housing and healthcare also struggle in school. Our claims of the benefits of education, in terms of social mobility, are limited by this essential barrier. While thousands of students do manage to earn high school diplomas and even college degrees while hungry and homeless they are tasked with having to work twice as hard as their better funded peers, usually carry greater debt, and frequently hover near academic suspension because they cannot keep up with it all. Succeeding under these conditions is nothing short of miraculous. It sure as hell isn’t equal or equitable. No, without an end to poverty there will be no equity in anything.

But we have been fighting, at all levels of education, for that equity for many years. Indeed, the Head Start program (started in 1965) is one such effort. Giving under-served preschoolers access to reasonable pre-kindergarten programs is a great idea. Indeed, it is so important, one wonders why we do not yet have universal pre-k programs.

We have free lunch in the K-12 system as well, and the importance of this was never so clear as in this pandemic. Many districts scrambled to get breakfast and lunch to families in need while schools were closed. It was an excellent effort. Still, I wonder why we ask schools to solve the hunger problem, when other family members may also be hungry. It is a burden schools take on, but it doesn’t feel like good policy.

We have Pell Grants to allow some of the neediest students to attend college at no cost. Well, sort of, because when we factor in the cost of food and housing, these funds are in no way sufficient. It seems like this program, though well intentioned, just masks the funding problem. If we had free higher education (instead of these last dollar “free” programs, that just play shell games with costs and loans), perhaps we could focus on addressing the real costs of college attendance.

I know, I have said variations of these things lots of times. Today, though, there is one tiny but significant thing I would like to point out in King III’s essay. He calls for the establishment of a Cabinet position to fight poverty. I agree, but I would like to suggest that we abandon the word “fight.” I want a Cabinet position to cultivate equity instead.

We have already had a War on Poverty, a War on Drugs, and a War on Terrorism and not one of them has been a success. Each one may have led to winning a small battle or two, but they never ended poverty, they never stopped the use of drugs, and fighting terrorism just seems like an impossible and endless task. No, we need a new metaphor that abandons the battle stance.

Lakoff and Johnson’s classic work, Metaphors We Live By, lays out the ways in which our metaphors shape our understandings of the world around us and the tasks at hand. Battle/war/fighting metaphors may be useful for short term struggles. They help build energy and bonding against the “other” at hand. But for long term thinking, well battles are too draining. We lose soldiers over time and without some clear wins, the esprit de corps wanes while the hatred remains. Ending poverty and supporting equity are ongoing and long-term. Wars and fighting will never suffice.

So, I am asking for a Cabinet position that draws on a growth metaphor. Let us cultivate the relationships and commitments necessary to build a poverty free world. Let us understand that poverty is a (the) root cause of inequity and examine all of the branches of our society that are contributing to sustaining poverty. Let us understand our policies as the life supports of an ecosystem that needs constant attention and nurturing, and plan for continuous review so that system never gets so out of balance again. And most of all, let us understand the fundamental need for collaboration, because nothing grows in isolation.

Yes, Mr. King, III, I agree with the need for this important Cabinet position. And I agree wholeheartedly, with your father’s statement that “It is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.” But let us avoid the fighting and start cultivating instead. We have been fighting long enough. It is time to nurture that poverty-free and equitable world together.

Affordability, equity, Higher Education

Simplify FAFSA? How about no FAFSA.

This morning’s higher education news is filled with comments about the finances. Secretary of Education DeVos has extended the pause in student loan repayments for another month. This is in response to COVID-19 and the number of people in financial distress right now. Good. I just wish it would be for longer than a month because we all know it will take longer than a month for folks to get back on track with careers, rent, and general economic security.

Universities are considering various downsizing options in the face of strained finances or as a new strategic plan, but implementation of these plans is in question. Faltering enrollments are causing administrators to consider streamlining major offerings. Others appear to be reconsidering tenure track faculty, although the comments were later deemed “flippant” and insensitive.

Then, there is the drumbeat of inequity in access to higher education. This morning’s big contributions were a discussion of family debt on the College Scorecard. Some of the biggest family debt (parent plus loans), happens at HBCUs. Then there is the story on how our first generation students and students from historically underrepresented groups do not get enough information to know they can appeal financial aid decisions. And of course, Senator Lamar Alexander is still trying to simplify the FAFSA. Yes, please. It would be grand to get this done.

But here’s the thing, if you look over months of articles and data, it is clear that our access to education problem for families of lesser means, and yes that skews families of color, is persistent and pervasive. As a culture we get ourselves trapped in circular arguments. We believe in merit and equal opportunity, but we recognize that there are structural elements that are barriers to those opportunities. Then we try to right those wrongs with subsidized student loans, access programs, and admissions practices that attempt to improve the diversity of our student bodies. Then we get mad because those steps start to look like something other than merit, which makes us angry and we start to scale it back. That anger may be misplaced, of course, but that is the cycle of the arguments. The same people end up losing every time.

So simplifying the FAFSA is a noble goal, but it will not get us out of this cycle. As far as I can tell, those subsidized student loans are mostly helping the haves, not the have nots. They bridge the gap to elite colleges, perhaps, and would be nowhere near enough money for those colleges if the families did not have funds to contribute or the university did not supply lots of additional scholarships for those families who can’t contribute. Parent Plus loans make me shudder because those who need them tend not to be able to afford them. No, this system is not doing what we want it to do for access to education.

So, let’s really simplify. Make public higher education tuition and fees free. No FAFSA required, just free. Set a reasonable cost per student rate, that takes regional cost of living into account, and provide that funding to the state colleges and universities. Then fix the state and federal tax codes to make sure that all of us are paying our fair share to support that public higher education state by state. A progressive tax system will be based on earnings, so that takes care of the problem of people with degrees who work in lower paying careers (social work, education, and many other civic focused jobs come to mind). We don’t need different pay-back rates or loan forgiveness. Just tax appropriately. Graduates who move into higher paying careers will pay more, of course. Students who fail to graduate (an unfortunate scenario, but it will happen even when education is free), will not be saddled with debt they can’t repay and bad credit that keeps them from surviving. They will just limit their access to careers that pay higher wages (perhaps). Progressive tax structures still work for this.

Now some will jump to accountability questions and I do believe in those. The quality of education can still be evaluated, so can degree completion rates and how universities monitor this. Students can still be asked to leave college – free doesn’t mean forever. We can think through how we address graduate education, perhaps. None of these questions should be barriers to free education, because the equation is still simple. Education tends to lead to higher wages, higher wages should lead to higher tax contributions that should be directed back to education. The system should support itself. I understand the political complications, but the rest makes sense.

As for FAFSA, save that simplified form for the cost of housing, I suppose. That might be useful.

equity, Hope, Inclusion

Desegregating Education

This morning I spent some time reading Eric Kelderman’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “The College Degree is Dividing America.” In his essay he recounts the powerful narrative launched in 2016, by then candidate Trump, that pitted the educated voter (ostensibly democrats) against the uneducated voter (ostensibly republicans). Kelderman does a good job of digging into the nuances of this slant, acknowledging that it really does not reflect the complexity of the relationship between education and politics. The rhetorical strategy was powerful in the moment, but it does not reflect the reality that educational opportunity is important to people from all parties, and that is likely to continue to be true.

Nevertheless, the power of the “liberal bias” trope about education should not be underestimated. It sways opinions all the time. It rings true to many, even as we work to cultivate the diversity of opinions on our campuses. It is an easy summary that helps people feel justified in their distrust of others. But as I think back on that moment when candidate Trump said, “I love the poorly educated” I see a much more important divide to be addressed: segregation.

Harboring hostilities toward groups different from ourselves is deeply supported by the segregation that is the routine practice of our nation. We may have banned outright racial segregation, but economic segregation is clearly encoded in our zoning laws, affordable housing deficits, and income disparities. Unsurprisingly, income segregation also tracks to racial segregation because of the systemic biases that keep some groups in poverty. We also organize ourselves in ways that keep young and old from mingling, religious groups from mingling, and yes, educated and less educated people from mingling. What a perfect way to keep each group comfortable in its assumptions about the other groups.

Education can exacerbate this situation. This happens first in access to pre-K. Those of us lucky enough to have had pre-K opportunities for our children know that this was an important step toward developing the habits necessary for success in Kindergarten. Whether learning to hold a crayon (important for muscle development), pass a crayon (important for social development), or identify the color of the crayon (important for vocabulary development), even the simplest of pre-K experiences have advantages with long lasting effects. One of those effects is to have the less fortunate labeled as “behind” on the first day of kindergarten.

Then it happens in K-12 education as students in districts with lesser means struggle with hunger, supplies, and adequate support for an education that leads to opportunity. Far too many students in under-funded districts cannot go on to college. For those who do, we sort them again in higher education. Those of us in colleges and universities focused on accessible, affordable education know our students are working more than they should, which tends to strain their ability to succeed. Unsurprisingly, fewer of our students make it to the finish line than those attending more elite schools, because there are too many things thrown in their way. Not finishing keeps them from advancing to better economic opportunities and so it begins again with their children.

The thing is these educational differences usually track to neighborhoods and those neighborhoods tend to be segregated by race, politics, and income. In each of our neighborhoods we get comfortable in our assumptions about those who live in other neighborhoods, and the spiral that re-enforces our biases winds unrelentingly into the future. This spiral makes it easy for us to tap into and cultivate distrust between the educated and the less so. I feel despondent just thinking about how deep these divides are, but then I reach for the hope that education can provide.

What I am about to propose is not new. We’ve tried it over and over again, and then people find ways around it, but nevertheless we should try again, because each time we do, we get a little closer to where we should be. So here goes–let’s actually desegregate our schools. This cannot be incremental; we are failing with that approach. No, we need to make one simple rule that applies to everyone. Let’s make it illegal for a school district to serve only high need or low need students. If we start with that simple guideline, so many things fall into place. With an economically integrated school comes better funding, better advocacy, and better opportunities for everyone.

Here’s the thing, education is not the cure for our biased perspectives, it is the mingling of people with different ideas and experiences of the world that makes us more open minded. It is harder to convince people that whole groups are against them if they regularly interact with each other. We will never agree on everything, but regular contact with people who are lawyers, carpenters, teachers, and wait staff can go a long way toward reducing our negative assumptions about each other. At the very least, we will have the opportunity to learn about new perspectives on the issues we hold dear.

It is not fair to ask education to take on the burden of desegregating our society, but I see no other reasonable option. The pervasiveness of public education has made it the best vehicle for building a better, more inclusive world that we have. So, on this election eve, I suggest that we make desegregating education our next national priority (again). Doing so offers a path to a more equitable society. It also provides us with an opportunity to move away from the divisiveness that makes hateful slogans so effective.

equity, Higher Education, Inclusion

A Million Little Things

Fall is settling in and the project of running campuses during a pandemic is well underway. As we get used to the constant stress of monitoring the health of our community, many of us have started to think about the other urgent things – budgets, enrollments, and most of all equity. These other urgent things may look like separate items, but they are really all of a piece. Addressing equity is addressing enrollment, which is addressing budgets. In higher education, the questions of equity must focus on four big issues: access to education, degree progress and completion, diversity in the curriculum, and diversity in the university community. This requires attention to a million little things.

Access to Education

Obviously, access to education starts with the cost of attendance. We have all heard the nightmare reports about excessive student loan debt for an undergraduate degree. Well, most of those large numbers, $100,000+ in debt, have to do with private universities. Most people (75%) attend public universities, and they should never have $100,000 in student loan debt, when public university tuition and fees range from $9,000-$14,000 per year.

Except….

Well, if you include room and board the cost of undergraduate tuition at a public university becomes $22,000-$25,000 per year. Four years equals about $100,000. Oh dear. Now, I must acknowledge that there are grants for the neediest students, which may cover a lot of the tuition and fees part, but it still leaves them with $11,000-$12,000 per year for room and board. This is still a debt of around $45,000, which is not an insignificant monthly payment after graduation. For students who can live at home and commute, there may be significant savings. But for many of those students there is an expectation of a contribution to the household income, which they struggle to provide. Yes, cost is an issue, even at public universities. State appropriations keep the cost well below private colleges and universities, but the incomes of many who attend public universities make those subsidies insufficient. We must shore up the funding for public higher education if we want to achieve equity in access.

Degree Progress and Completion

The second question about access must focus on a student’s ability to succeed in college. Was their experience of education in K-12 adequate preparation for a university education? Well, when we look at the statistics for K-12 as they relate to income and other demographic variables, the story is not a good one. Insufficiently funded K-12 districts absolutely correlate to gaps in preparation for college. It is not that students in these districts cannot succeed, they do all the time, but they sure aren’t set up to do so.

As a university committed to supporting students from all backgrounds, it is imperative that we invest in support systems for students who have not had the full benefit of a strong K-12 education. It does not matter why they did not, just that we must help them succeed. To do so requires investment in support programs, review of the funding we make available to needy students, and a review of barriers to receiving those funds. The details in our data and the investment in student success deserve attention.

It should be noted that the cost of attendance and the K-12 educational experience are directly linked to our students’ abilities to successfully progress through their four year degree program. If a student needs to build foundational skills in their first semester, they are likely to be out of step with their four-year plan. This often translates into an extra year (or two) of attendance (more tuition). It can also mean that they are systematically excluded from the majors that are designed for students who performed well in high school or on the SAT. No, we have not yet set things up so that all students have the opportunity to succeed.

Diversity in the Curriculum

When we talk about welcoming students who are the first in their families to attend college, we are frequently talking about an increasingly diverse student body. This is a wonderful thing, as it reflects our national commitment to social mobility and, well, equity. However, our policies and practices are often mystifying to these same students. Let’s face it, education as a whole is really good at establishing rules that are less than straightforward. Many universities have focused on first year programs to address the demystification of it all. This is a good first step. But what we have not consistently addressed is the fact that this diverse student body is not well represented in our curriculum.

The national conversation about higher education has focused on a perceived liberal bias in the curriculum. While I am sure that there are liberal and conservative faculty on most campuses, and that their opinions may make it into the classroom at times, the notion that there is an overall liberal bias certainly is not reflected in our offerings. Indeed, our offerings reflect the traditions of each discipline, conserving the past. Most of this is to the good, as we connect our students to the history of ideas. But there are always gaps in those histories, and we are slow to imagine whose stories and contributions we might be missing. Our wonderfully diverse student body has noticed these gaps. There is work to do to broaden those stories and better reflect the breadth of the contributions to who we are today.

Diversity in the University Community

Then there is the complex issue of creating an environment that welcomes and supports faculty, staff, and students from all backgrounds. I was struck by a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, that reviewed the impact (or lack of impact) of diversity training. These efforts have mixed and/or weak results. One of the likely reasons for this is that we do not do the rest of the work necessary to support that training. We raise awareness through special months or talks or events, but we do not dig into the routine practices that are keeping our biases in place.

It is not enough to discuss inclusion. We must systematically investigate and address the habits and assumptions that are re-enforcing exclusion. It is time to ask those hard questions like: Why are some departments dominated by female or male faculty? Why do some majors draw students from diverse backgrounds while others do not? Why are we unsuccessful at recruiting faculty and staff that reflect the diversity of our students? We mean well, but there is more work to do.

This is the start of a to-do list about equity. Under each heading there are at least twenty substantive questions that require research, planning, and investment. Taken together, it is not quite a million little things, but it sure is a lot of important things. It can be overwhelming, and that feeling can keep us on the usual path out of sheer exhaustion. But we must not yield to that exhaustion because all of this needs our attention now. These million little things really matter, both morally and for the health of our universities.