I’ve been asked for years why I start many of my higher education talks with equity. Today, the word is trending, even among those who advised me against using it. While that is progress, we have to be careful not to confuse talk with change.
Historically, we in higher education have been really good at producing reports on inequality and explaining these inequalities away, but really bad at making equity a priority. And we haven’t made changes in the classroom that are necessary to really make a difference.
The fact that unequal outcomes are such an enduring characteristic of higher education -- especially for Latino, black, Native American and underserved Asian-American students -- is evidence of our poor record of both talking about andproducing equity.
In California, for example, we tend to view numbers that show fewer black and Latino students admitted to public flagship universities like the University of California campuses in Los Angeles and Berkeley, and fewer blacks and Latinos earning a degree, as unfortunate but inevitable. Between 2007 and 2015, the higher education attainment gap between whites and Latinos actually grew by 2.2 percentage points, from a 22.1 percentage point gap to a 24.3 percentage point gap. The gap for blacks grew by 0.3 percentage points.
Closing that gap is not going to be easy. Most of these students are poor and the first in their families to attend college. They were deprived of opportunities to be ready for college. But when they don’t do well, they are blamed for being underprepared, for not seeking help and for not taking advantage of faculty office hours. Despite having been failed by segregated and underresourced schools, such students are seen as the authors of their unequal outcomes.
Some states seem to get the scope of the challenge and are beginning to show the nation how to move from talking about equity to making it a priority. For instance, California’s last three state budgets have included significant financial support for community colleges to help diminish the equity gaps in student success. Those funds are part of a plan to close equity gaps in five indicators of student success: access, basic skills, course completion, degree attainment and transfer. The budget for this equity work has increased from $70 million in 2014-15 to $155 million this year -- and the same funding level has been proposed for 2016-17. Community colleges are using these funds in a variety of ways that increase support to students of color. For example, East Los Angeles Community College is using a portion of the money to create the Latina Completion and Transfer Academy Program. San Diego Mesa College is sponsoring professional development for all faculty members on training and teaching college men of color.
Colorado’s higher education master plan offers another example. Goal No. 3 of the plan is “Enhance access to, and through, postsecondary education to ensure that the system reflects the changing demographics of the state while reducing attainment gaps among students from underserved communities.”
But here’s the truth: just as plants in an untended garden will fail to take root and then wither and die, so, too, will these policies.
I don’t say this to be cynical. Nor do I think higher education leaders and practitioners are willfully ineffective or don’t want to do the right thing. But these polices will fail unless we engage faculty members and administrators in changing themselves and their own institutions. They must ask why their practices or teaching methods work better for white students than for students of color.
To me, this is the untold story of “first-generation equity practitioners” teaching in higher education. For example, I view the 62 percent of California community college faculty who are white as first-generation equity practitioners who need to learn how to be equity minded. Nationally, 79 percent of full-time faculty members are white, while 6 percent are black, 5 percent are Hispanic and 10 percent are Asian/Pacific Islanders.
Higher education faculty members everywhere must recognize and concede that their practices are failing to create success for too many students. They need to see that their implicit biases about race and ethnicity often prevent them from viewing students who are not like themselves as college material.
And it can be done. With the right training and support, faculty members engaged in this work take actions to identify and reverse patterns of failure -- their students’ and their own. We are seeing progress firsthand in our own work, which focuses on remediating colleges so they are able to educate Latinos and blacks as well as they educate white and more economically privileged students.
James Gray, the chair of the math department at the Community College of Aurora in Colorado, for instance, changed practices after looking at math data by course and instructor, disaggregated by race and ethnicity. It was clear that some faculty members were successful and others were not. With guided support to help him observe instructor-student interaction, he saw how faculty members talked to and greeted students, whom they paid attention to and whom they ignored, and whether feedback to students was supportive or alienating.
Through peer-to-peer conversations, math instructors became collectively conscious that their behaviors, particularly toward students of color, conveyed indifference, lack of caring and even fear. On seeing the contradictions between their behaviors and their professional values as educators, all but one faculty member made changes to be more responsive to students of color. Instead of being color-blind they became more color conscious; rather than waiting for students of color to seek help they developed help-giving practices.
Those small changes helped faculty members forge validating relationships with students of color. For example, using our Equity Scorecard’s Syllabus Review protocol, faculty members became aware that their syllabi, rather than supporting students’ success, taxed their self-worth by screaming rules and telling them all the ways in which they could fail the class. The review of syllabi was a catalyst for deeper discussions about teaching and reflection on how instructors’ language and everyday behaviors influence classroom racial climates.
Gray, in his role as department chair, now looks at mathematics course-level data, disaggregated by race and ethnicity, and by instructor, discussing results with faculty individually to come up with strategies to resolve disparities of up to 35 percentage points. Instructors have adopted equity goals and they know how many more students by race and ethnicity need to succeed to close the gaps. After the implementation of the Equity Scorecard that we at the Center for Urban Education use to track progress, the college algebra pass rates for blacks improved from 66 percent in 2014 to 77 percent in 2015 and from 66 percent to 83 percent among Hispanics.
He also realized that in 10 years as department chair, he had never hired an African-American to teach a college-level math course. He even realized his recruiting strategies put candidates of color at a disadvantage. He now asks job candidates how they would explain their course syllabus on day one of class in order to see if that candidate’s approach is conducive to an equity-focused classroom.
The Community College of Aurora is part of a growing effort to translate high-level policy goals into campus- and faculty-level goals that can be implemented and measured by race and ethnicity to improve retention and graduation results. The improvements achieved at Aurora suggest that structural changes such as course redesign or acceleration are necessary but insufficient. The success of such efforts depends greatly on the motivation of faculty to take action. The Aurora story makes clear that math faculty who engage in a structured race-conscious examination of data that is close to their instructional practices can develop agency for change.
The combination of underprepared students and underprepared faculty members is the perfect storm. When campuses change the way they serve students of color, however, a fundamental shift in thinking and approach occurs that moves us beyond talk and closer to real equity.
Estela Mara Bensimon is a professor of higher education and director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California Rossier School Of Education. Her Twitter handle is @ebensimon.
An alarm is sounding: campuses have become asylums controlled by the inmates, professors are afraid of their students and everyone faces punishment for crimes of thought and speech. Yet other observers rebut such terrifying tales with their own stories, which suggest the landscape of higher education is multifaceted, with an array of institutional contexts and voices. As alluring as it can be to view campus protests merely as confrontations between hypersensitive students and fearful campus employees, that perspective elides crucial historical understandings that can help us to navigate these challenges in the months ahead and forge alliances in the work of justice in higher education.
Yet those examples represent just a fraction of American campuses and thus present a selective -- and perhaps intentionally exaggerated -- picture of what is in actuality a diverse landscape of institutions, people and concerns. Students at San Jose State, for example, recently organized in response to a racial harassment incident involving student roommates and racist remarks about Latinas made by a university philanthropy board member. However, those incidents garnered little attention compared to the ones we cited above.
The protesters at SJSU, like the campus’s larger student population, included a high percentage of commuters, transferees, first-generation college students, members of the working class and immigrants. Many work to pay for school and living expenses, and a startling number struggle with unstable housing and food insecurity. In addition, SJSU students routinely face delaying graduation due to rising fees and limited course offerings -- both outcomes of severe state funding cuts. Thus, far from being coddled youngsters who expect the world to bend to their feelings, these students juggle course work, extracurricular activities, employment and family responsibilities, and yet find the wherewithal to speak up against the injustices around them.
At Oberlin, where the snowflake archetype may resonate more deeply, it still benefits no one to paint an entire student body with so broad a brush or apply such dehumanizing stereotypes to individuals. Students here embody varying levels of wealth and privilege. And while for some acquiring an elite education is a means to maintain a socioeconomic position, for others, arriving on the campus is a disorienting introduction to social and economic mores and ways of interacting with others that they are totally unfamiliar with and did not necessarily seek out. Castigating “fragile snowflakes” may offer psychic relief in stressful times, but it gives outsize visibility to certain students and styles of engagement while rendering myriad others invisible.
By and large, the students we encounter at our respective institutions are resilient and hardworking; as young adults, they can also be self-doubting and anxious. The special snowflake archetype not only flattens the ethnic, racial and socioeconomic diversity of the college student population but also dismisses and silences students’ legitimate concerns, while shifting any blame onto them (albeit sometimes their parents). It is easier to bemoan the shortcomings of a generation of students than it is to critically examine systemic inequities and blind spots in higher education that might be producing the problems those students highlight.
A Disconnection From History
Although higher education’s present challenges seem unprecedented and intractable, it helps to situate them historically. One thread in the “what’s wrong with colleges today” conversation brings attention to the sources deemed responsible for indoctrinating activist students. These include feminist and minority professors, who wield strange concepts like intersectionality and microaggressions and whose presence stirs nostalgia for an ivory tower that was once objective and unburdened by identity politics.
As tenured minority women faculty members in ethnic studies, who are also first-generation college graduates, we are struck by such notions’ disconnection from history. Our paths were paved by developments including affirmative action, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, Pell Grants, the feminist and civil rights movements, and the San Francisco student strike of 1968 -- turning points that expanded the boundaries of belonging and legitimacy in America writ large and the academy writ small. In the latter, the assumed supremacy of Western thought and white male authority also came under intensified contestation, with (we believe) salutary effects. In ethnic studies, for instance, scholars examined “America” through previously unconsidered or explicitly excluded voices, while applying frameworks like racism and empire next to or in place of American exceptionalism. In turn, new opportunities and niches permitted a wider scope of participation in higher education and the life of the mind.
Seeing continuities between past and present, we note that student demands still invoke principles like inclusion and diversity. Their concerns go beyond race and gender, however, and encompass many more identity groups -- all in constant flux. As our understandings of how power works evolve, so do our expectations for reform.
It is not enough, for instance, to simply enroll more students from underrepresented groups. Calls are made to also adopt anti-oppression practices that touch every facet of interaction and axis of inequality. Some of those practices (say, using the nongender binary “Latinx” or introducing oneself with “preferred gender pronouns”) might seem silly in their novelty, impracticability or sense of proportion. But we should also recall some of the outlandish demands of earlier generations: radicalized youths in the 1960s rejecting “Oriental” for “Asian-American” or feminists fighting patriarchy with terms like “herstory.”
Not all of those gestures stuck, and we ought to debate efficacious and collaborative versus misguided and alienating strategies for effecting broad change. But this Pandora’s box was opened long before the current generation of college students. It behooves us then to seek them out in their discontent -- even when wrapped in petulance and youthful arrogance -- if it springs from a yearning for inclusion, dignity and fairness.
Mindful of a generational divide separating us from our students, their protests and expressions of alienation resonate with us. We were once in their shoes, seeking “safe spaces”-- to use today’s parlance -- in academe, uncertain but hopeful that we might eventually find them. Now as tenured faculty, we find ourselves navigating a crossroads, or duality of identity, with embattled colleagues and administrators on the one hand, and concerned students of color on the other.
Indeed, another important although largely overlooked discussion in higher education concerns faculty of color -- women of color, in particular -- shouldering a disproportionate share of emotional labor only to encounter an “ivory ceiling” that demoralizes the spirit and impedes advancement. It can be discouraging when our efforts to bring greater diversity and equity to the academy go unrecognized or are even deemed antagonistic. How we navigate our jobs as professors is guided by our histories, our professional responsibilities and ethics, and an abiding belief in the power of education. Usually that makes for a rewarding and exhilarating mix, and our present challenges call for more, not less, engagement. To opt for the latter will only leave us further adrift.
Wringing our hands over college students’ behavior and the state of higher education might appear unseemly against the backdrop of national tragedies: the nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida, the fatal police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and the Dallas sniper attack. While the ivory tower seems removed from the real world, we see as our mission in it the production and dissemination of ideas to better understand and address the problems of our world today. In our work and teaching, issues of bigotry, inequality, injustice and racism are especially salient. Seen this way, campus tensions and the conversations about them are not a sideshow, but part of the broader social and political landscape and, indeed, efforts to create a better world.
As we prepare to resume classes, we hope that all campus players -- students, faculty, staff members, administrators -- proceed with care and purpose about when to debate versus when to go to war, how to recognize allies, and the various ways that working for justice can manifest. We hope that more voices are considered and invited to the table.
And to our students, we have been long at work on many of the things you seek. Let’s find ways to work together.
Magdalena L. Barrera is an associate professor of Mexican American studies at San Jose State University. Shelley S. Lee is an associate professor of comparative American studies and history at Oberlin College.