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.