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.

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.

Affordability, equity, Inclusion, Quality, Regional Comprehensive, Return on Investment

COVID-19 & the Neighborhood University

Like all campuses grappling with re-opening in the fall, WCSU will triage the questions of lab sciences, clinical placements, online learning vs. hybrid learning, and the biggest question of all – do we reopen our dorms.  As usual, the press is obsessed with a model of higher education that looks like the movies – a beautiful location on a hillside, usually pictured in brightly colored autumnal hues, with all residential students.  In reality, that model serves a small percentage of undergraduates. Campuses like mine, with predominantly local student populations, are built to serve the majority, rather than the lucky few, and we have designed our curriculum and services accordingly.  In this crisis the strength of the accessible, affordable, local university comes into full view.

Let’s start with the obvious – for students and families stretching resources to attend college, not paying for living on campus is a substantial savings.  In the case of public universities, that decision will reduce the cost of education by about half. That means less debt and/or the ability to support more than one child in college.  For those with the greatest need, it means Pell might come close to covering expenses (not quite, but close).  For those who are more solidly middle class, it means the family can get a return on their tax investment in public higher education and allow their students to graduate with little to no debt. As we discover the true economic impact of this crisis, the affordable option is the best bet. We will be here for our traditional students. We will also be here for the folks who suddenly need to retool for a new career.

Then there is the value of the education itself.  Like most public comprehensive universities, WCSU offers a wide range of majors, enrichment opportunities, an honors program and educational access programs, and our resources have been invested in our educational facilities, not lazy rivers. Most of our graduates earn degrees and stay in Connecticut, working in various fields and frequently sending their children to us as well. Some of them come in with a need for academic support, so we provide it.  Others hit the ground running and go on for advanced degrees at prestigious universities (frequently with full-funding) and we have Fulbright Scholarship winners every few years. Sometimes the same ones who started out struggling end up in graduate programs. Our students have access to faculty producing research that is connected to our community and research that addresses large scale societal questions in all fields. Last year we had a Goldwater winner.  She’s heading off to John’s Hopkins next fall for a Ph.D., in no small part because of the research opportunities she had at WCSU.

These achievements occur because we are focused on supporting the needs of all of our students, not just the most talented. Whether an honors student or a student who needs academic support, education at WCSU is not organized to weed out the weaker students, but to support every student. We have to do this, not just because we think it is right, but because our neighbors are watching, and they talk.  To put it plainly, when a student flunks out of Yale, the public blames the student.  When a student flunks out of WCSU, the public blames us. We must always focus on the long-term relationship with our community and the success of the students they send to us.  If we do not, we will not survive.

All of this has always been true, of course, but what about the current moment makes it so important? Uncertainty about the fall and even spring next year makes it very likely that there will be some disruptions in the operations of traditional campuses.  As we track the spread of COVID-19, we are preparing to deliver our curriculum in online, hybrid, and on ground formats. We want to be sure that whatever happens, students will have a good educational experience.  This strategy will allow us to focus on the most important face-to-face experiences, and we will do our best to make those things happen in the fall.   But if the state and public health concerns determine that we cannot be here in person, education will continue online, and students will have faculty who will get to know them well.

At WCSU, we do not see online learning as a place to skimp on our student-centeredness or as something to contract out to other faculty.  We leveled up our online academic supports right away this spring and we will extend those throughout the next academic year.  That happened quickly because being student focused is the only way we can succeed as a university.  Most of our online classes are small, so faculty can give real feedback.  This is because we have always understood that our students have varied needs that require attention, so large classes are not a good strategy. We are now figuring out how to continue our research opportunities with limited face-to-face contact, and we are imagining ways to create enriched experiences for those most unlikely of online disciplines – performing arts. Why, because we have always experimented with new pedagogies as the expectations of students have changed over time. We are rising to the COVID-19 challenge with the most important thing in view–great educational experiences for all students.

This accessible, affordable, public university has always been focused on student success, precisely because we are accessible and local. We live and die by what our community thinks of us and we want them to trust us with their students. When I finally get to go out and see my neighbors, I do not want to hear that students are at home teaching themselves.  I want to hear about the excellent support their student received in this brand new learning environment or the cool things their faculty tried out in their online course. That is how things work when you are the local option and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

 

 

 

Agency, Inclusion, Innovative Pedagogies

Here Comes the Sun

This morning I noticed the shift in the light.  It happens to me at this time every year.  I see the sun’s rays creeping over the tops of the trees as I drink my morning coffee and I take heart.  Yes, it is only mid-winter but the days are growing longer.  And even though I very much enjoy the hunkering down that the dark days of winter require (I embrace the couch by the fireplace); I confess that a little more daylight lightens my step. Just a hint of the sunny days ahead brings out my optimistic nature. It is with this sense of optimism that I am thinking about higher education this week.

Here in the Northeastern United States, we are in what some have called a “demographic winter.” Simply stated, there is a forecast for a long-term drop in high school graduates.  Lower birthrates and new migration patterns have left us a little stunned by the declining number of students available to recruit to our colleges and universities.  Elite colleges are fine.  So are the well-known colleges in destination cities (Boston, New York), but the rest of us are left to figure out what to do next.  After decades of growth, and budget practices based on ever-increasing enrollments, we are facing new realities.

This is hard.  We are making cuts in our budgets and new programs are facing heightened scrutiny about their viability.  Where we once might have assessed the value of a new major based on the ideas it would explore, we are now thinking about how it will serve our recruiting efforts.  Reflecting on the quality of ideas has not disappeared, of course.  Our nature and our review processes always focus on quality. Nevertheless, in our efforts to be financially sustainable, potential enrollments have become a critical part of how we evaluate the feasibility of a new degree.  This shift, which seems obvious to the for-profit world, has shaken public higher education to its core.

Nevertheless, I see light ahead and here is why: When we discuss finding new audiences for our university, we do not focus on marketing– we focus on student engagement. Where we were once satisfied with the notion that emerging questions in a discipline were sufficient justification for launching a new degree, we now consider barriers to student engagement with those questions.  Our curricular design processes are keeping those barriers in mind.

For example, we know that there are many great careers related to “big data.”  We also know that our students avoid math like the plague. Instead of launching a big data degree, we are weaving data analytics into some of our not so obviously math-related majors.  This helps us avoid the hazards of the stand-alone data analytics degree, which would likely have low enrollment numbers at our university.  By building the data analysis tools into existing degrees, and thinking about how to support students in learning how to use those tools in the context of their major, we are avoiding the typical breakdown of math and non-math students.  We are also increasing the value of the degrees we offer by responding to current trends in multiple disciplines. We hope that the value we have added to multiple majors will become part of our recruiting strategy.

Retention, rather than new degrees, is also an important strategy for a financially sustainable university.  Higher retention is better for students, reputation, and the bottom line.  At WCSU, we know that building community is critical to student retention.  Yet, as a majority commuter campus, we have struggled with strategies for doing just that.  There were hints, however, in several of our programs. Music majors have a weekly Convocation that brings them all together.  Nursing students develop robust study groups to support each other. Theatre students must all contribute to staging productions.  These activities are typical for these kinds of degrees. What can the rest of our degrees learn from them? Lots.

For example, who says convocation is just for music? My Biology Department decided to use their First Year Navigation course as a community building strategy as well.  They opted to bring all of their first year students together in a large group each week (rather than the more typical 25 student classes). In this structure, students meet the biology faculty, hear about the opportunities of the discipline, relevant clubs and projects, and are encouraged to attend events important to their department.  They also stage a faculty talent show, which is lots of fun.  This community-building focus makes us better at meeting the needs of commuter and non-commuter students alike.

Faculty members are also experimenting with pedagogies. In history and social sciences, several faculty have been using a reacting to the past model as a first year course.  Students take on roles of people in a particular era, learning to research characters and debate critical political issues.  This is fun, in itself, but the best part is the collaboration is leading to a new course that focuses on a locally important historical event, which may be even more engaging for our students. It has certainly been engaging for the faculty involved. Others have been trying out flipped classrooms, exploring virtual reality, employing good practices associated with mindset research, and trying out universal design.  It is exciting to see so many people really thinking about how to reach the students we are serving. This climate of innovation and passion creates an attractive teaching and learning environment–perhaps one that more students will want to experience.

These examples of the work we are doing at WCSU tell me that we are going to be okay.  We are not waiting for something to happen; we are getting better. Here is the thing about this numbers conundrum: there are fewer high school students in total number, but there is also a heightened need for college education.  As I do the math, this means we need to set the stage for a higher proportion of those high school graduates to attend college.  To do so is to focus on engagement so we can better serve those graduating seniors, many of whom may require us to examine our assumptions about good learning environments. That is exactly what we have been doing.

We are still going to be working with less.  We are going to have to rethink how we develop our budgets for the enrollments we have, and not count on growth. That will present a challenge, and there will be hard decisions to make. But if we keep leaning into innovation and engagement, I feel confident that we will figure it out. It’s not all sunshine yet, but I can see the rays peeking in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

equity, Inclusion, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Equity in the Co-Curricular

It is Martin Luther King Day, so of course I’m thinking about equity in higher education.  In the many years since King’s March on Washington, and the continuing efforts to achieve equity–Sheff v. O’Neill,  Title IX, the American with Disabilities Act, and Affirmative Action, to name a few–all areas of employment and education have improved. We have not reached equity yet, but we are moving in the right direction. These efforts, though, focus on the body (race, gender, ability).  Today, I’m thinking about the equally important role of socio-economic status in college success.

In recent years, higher education has turned its focus to the experiences of first-generation college students. These students have pushed us to consider the hidden rules that make moving from start to finish in a college environment somewhat mysterious.  Like many others, my university has added courses that are essentially extended orientations (FY) to help level the playing field for students of all backgrounds.  From the simple things (like the extremely baffling R means Thursday on one’s schedule), to how to find an academic advisor and what to expect when meeting with them, to making four year plans, reading transcripts, and getting academic or financial support, this course is meant to demystify the secret codes of the college environment. It is our acknowledgement that universities are complicated and if you have no prior experience of them, assistance is required.

The FY effort is important, to be sure, and we are seeing a positive impact on our graduation rates since implementing this course.  But there’s something else we are missing, and it is very hard to manage.  Simply put, our awards and recognitions (beyond those generated by GPA) are built on the premise that students have time to participate in all sorts of activities beyond the classroom. That time is a cost that many students cannot bear.

Consider honor societies, for example.  Almost all of them start with GPA as a minimum criterion for admission, but then they expect something else. That something else generally requires uncompensated hours to complete.  The same is true for most student government awards.  Awards for great clubs generally mean someone had to have time to organize activities for that club.  And of course, there is research.  Students who conduct research with faculty may or may not receive any compensation.  Those who do receive compensation, are unlikely to receive enough to cover the lost wages of a part-time job.

All co-curricular activities require a lot of time.  Time is a precious commodity for all of us, but even more so for students who are working to support themselves while in college. Time for participation is time away from work.  Factor in the time necessary to study for classes, and these hard working students are likely to opt out of clubs, honor societies, and research opportunities. This means they’ve opted out of a lot of opportunities to be recognized for excellence.  There goes that line on the resume.

For students who live on campus, it may be easier to engage in the many clubs and activities, while holding a part-time job.  They are likely to be around at the hours that events may occur or be able to dash into a lab for a research project, between classes. In the best scenario, they may even have an on-campus job to support them. This is great and I applaud their participation.  But for those students who commute, the cost of the time commitment is magnified by travel time and the cost of transportation.  Add to that the odd hours at which many clubs meet, and these students will frequently just give up on participating. Unfortunately, our focus on participation does not factor in these barriers, and some students may feel discouraged or devalued as a result.

Now, sometimes those are just the breaks.  We figure out how to juggle our workloads and resources and some of us are luckier than others in terms of our college finances. Barring big changes in how we fund public higher education, this is just the way things are. Students who cannot participate in the co-curricular still win by completing a degree and advancing their opportunities post-graduation. If we focus on funding for their tuition, and not on potential prizes, we’ll have done something to assist them and their futures will benefit from their education. But this something is not equity.

It nags at me that we have structured things in a way that rewards students who are already at an advantage.  Like admissions criteria that are stacked in favor of the lucky few, perhaps we should reimagine the other rewards and opportunities, that are systematically unavailable to the less fortunate.  Is it time to re-imagine how time and opportunities are structured at the university so more people can be included in the things outside of the classroom?  Is it time to figure out a way to recognize the efforts of students who are holding down jobs, caring for family members, and figuring out how to succeed in college with little to no family support? Is it time for yet another look at how we inadvertently build barriers to equity? Yes, yes, it is.