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If the last few months have shown us anything, it is that traditional top-down, authority-based approaches to leadership do not address equity, as many leaders are too removed from the struggles and realities of others in their community, particularly the most vulnerable. For instance, nationally, the higher education sector has cut 650,000 jobs in the last year, with layoffs disproportionately affecting food service workers, custodians and adjunct faculty members.

The public health crisis caused by COVID-19 has only exacerbated many unaddressed issues in higher education, offering a stark view of how these traditional leadership approaches are continuing to lead to uninformed, and sometimes wholly negligent, decisions that decenter and dismiss the needs of marginalized groups -- as well as fail to offer transparency to the broader campus community. Whether at Ithaca College, where recommendations to cut about 21 percent of faculty positions are leading to layoffs only among non-tenure-track faculty, or in Kansas, where regents approved a policy allowing for emergency terminations of faculty, including those with tenure, many faculty members have noted a lack of opportunities for input, reflecting what the American Association of University Professors has called a “crisis in academic governance.” To address the complex challenges we are facing in higher education, then, we need new approaches to decision making and change -- approaches that foster collaboration and innovation rather than inequity and distrust.

One approach that has gained some momentum in higher education is design thinking and its accompanying design mind-sets. In Higher Education’s Road to Relevance: Navigating Complexity, Susan A. Ambrose and Laura A. Wankel, two higher education leaders, have profiled design thinking, a process-based methodology for creative problem solving, as crucial for addressing the increasingly volatile and uncertain landscape of higher education. These conditions require higher education leaders to engage in new ways of doing things. For the past couple of decades, we have seen a concerted effort to infuse more systems thinking into higher education. Systems thinking, also championed by Ambrose and Wankel, helps higher education leaders use an aerial perspective to identify overall structures, patterns and cycles that help to either advance equity or perpetuate inequity.

Unfortunately, we have lacked methodologies for developing solutions that parallel the complexity of problems we have identified through systems thinking. More closely aligned is liberatory design thinking, which reimagines the design thinking approach with an equity lens and a heightened awareness around the complexity of change.

In a recent report, we introduced a model titled Design for Equity in Higher Education (DEHE), providing a significant step forward by testing out liberatory design thinking within the higher education context and developing a methodology that is suited to creating more equitable policies, practices and, ultimately, outcomes in higher education. We contributed to the conceptualization of liberatory design thinking by considering the organizational and policy-making context of higher education. In our model, we identified how members of committees, task forces and leadership teams can engage their colleagues and key stakeholders to design new programs, policies and practices.

Central to the DEHE process is designers’ equity-minded practice, including their ability to notice biases and power differentials, reflect on insights and impact, and collaborate with others who have different perspectives, mind-sets and expertise. Designers in higher education must also be cognizant of the political and bureaucratic landscapes of their environments, deeply considering constraints and opportunities and finding ways to navigate potential roadblocks. These navigational processes are absent from original design thinking and liberatory design thinking models and are especially important for the higher education context.

Design thinking is composed of phases that make up the process of finding solutions to thorny problems. Thus, while we adapt original phases from the liberatory design thinking process, like empathize and prototype, we introduce new phases: organize, choose and get buy-in. These new phases reflect the importance of awareness of the organizational context in order to encourage designers to think about the nature of the decision-making and implementation processes in higher education. (If you are interested in implementing the Design for Equity in Higher Education model on your own campus, you can review the center’s guide for practice here.)

College and university leaders who subscribe to the long-established way of “doing” leadership often make decisions for groups on campus, not with them. The two campuses we highlight in the report, Harper College and California State University Dominguez Hills, enacted changes to better support non-tenure-track faculty members on their campuses and intentionally included adjuncts on their respective design teams to counter the traditional way of creating new policies and practices. The presence of adjuncts afforded teams the ability to empathize throughout both the design and implementation processes and to receive real-time feedback on policy and practice ideas. By centering, empathizing with, listening to and offering responsibility to colleagues that the new policy or practice will affect, higher education leaders are less likely to focus only on their own interests, and, as a result, community members can hold leaders accountable for their (in)actions.

The DEHE model also highlights the importance and benefits of rapid prototyping: creating mockups and outlines of policy and practice options to think through assumptions, potential pitfalls and unintended consequences. While our data signal that prototyping is challenging in the risk-averse environment of higher education, the design team at Dominguez Hills gave thought to a number of recommendations for better supporting faculty off the tenure track, one of which was to significantly expand non-tenure-track faculty representation in the Academic Senate. However, this idea created challenges to representation of tenured and tenure-track voices and may have unintentionally created norms around service for adjuncts.

In the end, the team added two seats in the senate and established a permanent seat on the senate executive committee for adjunct faculty members, with compensation for serving in these roles. It took some time for the team to reach this solution, but the DEHE process is grounded in an understanding that equity issues may require many prototypes and even more time. Prototyping recognizes that ideas will change once teams start presenting ideas to key stakeholders to get buy-in and when new challenges and opportunities emerge.

In these times, leadership in the traditional sense is less than adequate. Our present crises have accentuated that the long-established way of conducting leadership perpetuates inequalities. Decisions and leadership approaches have long been guided by bureaucracy, efficiency and institutional interests, to the exclusion of other values and interests. If we are to be serious about advancing equity in higher education, we must also be serious about changing the ways we engage in leadership and design new policies and practices -- by asking new questions, accounting for new considerations, engaging in new processes and activating new mind-sets. The DEHE model disrupts traditional leadership approaches through, among other key efforts, a collaborative, inclusive process founded on empathy, relational trust and prototyping, providing a path toward reimagining equitable and just institutions.

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