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Learning to Ensure the Success of Students of Color: A Systemic Approach to Effecting Change

Learning to Ensure the Success of Students of Color: A Systemic Approach to Effecting Change

Adriana Kezar and Peter Eckel, Change Magazine

December 02, 2009

Organizational learning is the process of intentionally acquiring and reflecting upon information and changing organizational practices based on that information. This entails creating a “culture of evidence” and, in the case of the diversity agenda, establishing mechanisms that help administrators, faculty, and staff continuously learn about the experiences of their students of color and the impact of the institutions’ intentional (and unintentional) efforts to help those students succeed.

Our findings suggest that institutions should do five things to create the systems for learning that are essential to helping underrepresented students succeed. They need to:

• Develop systems to collect and analyze data.
• Learn by listening directly to their students.
• Put their learning to constructive use.
• Turn controversies into learning opportunities.
• Time and pace their efforts in ways that are appropriate to the campus climate.

Learning from Data
Leaders told us repeatedly about the importance of collecting data to better understand the challenges facing the institution and to determine whether its diversity efforts are making progress. Good data can help move people away from basing decisions on assumptions, anecdotal evidence, and stereotypes. One president noted that “politics are much more likely to thrive in a culture of stereotypes and misinformation than one based on data.”

Many described how their campuses operated on false assumptions or outdated notions about the institution. For example, on some campuses, there were those who believed that a diversity agenda was not needed because they felt that the campus was already diverse. On other campuses, faculty were unaware of the ways in which the student population had already become more heterogeneous. Once data were presented about the actual demographics of students, they were much more open to programs and interventions aimed at supporting those students.

The following strategies to base organizational learning on solid information emerged from the institutions we studied:

Build a data infrastructure. Accurate and comprehensive information is essential, we were repeatedly told. Many of those with whom we spoke noted that early in their tenure they devoted their time to building an institutional research infrastructure—often an office of institutional research with appropriate staffing—to collect, digest, and disseminate information.

Furthermore, they often had to help their campuses learn to use existing data effectively. One president said:

“I literally had to stop making decisions. People kept coming to me saying, “We really need to make a decision quickly on this issue.” I would ask them for data to support their position. And each time they did not provide evidence, I said, “Well, I guess we can’t make a decision then.” Eventually, they realized I really was not going to make decisions and that they had to conduct research and provide evidence. But that is how you get people to start challenging their own assumptions and changing their beliefs.”