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.

equity, Higher Education, Inclusion

Inclusivity Check-In

Over the last year, I have discussed inclusivity in our curriculum on several occasions. I have focused on hidden barriers to access to education (SATs or owning a computer, for example). I have talked about how some of our rules for how to be a student might be discouraging full participation from those who are new to higher education culture (no assignment extensions, ever!). I have questioned our reward structures, wondering if we are systematically excluding students who must support themselves while in college, because we are inclined to praise those who participate in everything. I have considered the potential gaps in our offerings and wondered if the stories our students encounter represent the truly diverse culture in which we all reside. I have made suggestions about course design that might help us improve learning experiences for all students, including those with specific cognitive challenges. Well, it is nice to discuss, suggest, and ponder but are we doing anything?

This, of course, is impossible for me to know in any real detail. The structure of higher education favors decentralization of most things and a necessary commitment to academic freedom. These are good things because they are meant to foster experimentation and creativity, and help us learn from the varied perspectives of our faculty. It is problematic, however, when striving for structural change. I have to rely on the anecdote and the occasional survey and trust that incremental change is taking place.

There is no doubt that the students we are serving are getting more diverse. This is a wonderful thing and reflects a positive trajectory for higher education and the nation. To meet the needs and expectations of students of all ages from a wide range of socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, we have to be more thoughtful about how we organize, well everything. We have been responding in sections of our organizations. From first year experiences, to intrusive (proactive) advising and tutoring, to guided pathways and alternative scheduling structures for adult learners, to honors programs that recruit from things other than SAT scores, we are evolving. Hooray. But is this evolution visible to our students? Probably not. I measure its impact in standard measures of retention and graduation and hope that they feel the benefits, even if they do not see them.

Then there is the question of inclusivity in the classroom. Over the summer, I suggested that our efforts to be diverse in our curriculum and inclusive in our teaching practices might not be visible to our students. Perhaps our course outlines reflect the diverse range of contributions to the field of study, but is it visible on the syllabus? Perhaps we say all students should contribute to class discussions, but do they all feel welcome to do so? Perhaps that group project you assigned seems like a perfect opportunity to support collaboration among diverse groups of students, but do all of the students feel respected in that group? In other words, are the efforts we are making to be inclusive in the classroom, reaching our students? Maybe we should ask them.

Today, I am encouraging every professor to conduct an informal inclusivity poll. This is an informational item for the professor only. No one else ever has to see it. I suggest some variation on the following questions:

  1. Does your initial review of the syllabus and course materials leave you with the impression that we will engage diverse perspectives as we explore the course topic? Please provide evidence or an example to support your answer.
  2. Is it clear from the syllabus and/or introductory sessions that all students are encouraged to participate in class discussions and activities, even (especially) when there are conflicting opinions and experiences?  Please provide evidence or an example to support your answer.
  3. When interacting with your peers in groups, do you feel free to offer your perspective or ideas? If not, how might I help you feel included or welcome to contribute?
  4. Are there any steps I could take that could help create a more inclusive classroom environment? 

Like all teaching, our strategies for inclusion will be iterative. Questions like these can help reveal what our students are seeing and help us make necessary adjustments. They might start some unanticipated conversations, but those are probably conversations worth having. Dare to take them on. Dare to be transparent in those conversations. Dare to deal with the myriad opinions and experiences in your classroom. Dare to learn from your students.

It may not always be necessary to make our inclusive pedagogies visible to our students. When we have a habit of this, it will probably just be a given. Then those standard outcomes measures might be sufficient. I long for that day. But for now, this is hard but necessary work. It will help us inch toward a more inclusive campus, one class at a time.

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.