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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

Frameworks such as the Equity Scorecard Project at the University of Southern California (at http://www.usc.edu/dept/education/CUE/projects/ equityscorecard.htm) identify data that can be helpful in advancing campus diversity. Beyond traditional enrollment and persistence rates in various programs, useful data include grade-point averages in various majors of students from different racial/ethnic backgrounds, the proportion of students of color in honorary societies or on the dean’s list, and patterns of transfer between majors, broken out by race and ethnicity.

Make collective sense of the data. Data are not useful unless campuses establish vehicles to systematically review and digest them. One common strategy is to develop cross-functional teams of key decision-makers (including faculty and often students) to review findings. In public discussions of this information, the institutions we studied identified previously unrecognized problems and developed new programs or interventions that better met students’ needs. Furthermore, the data often yielded important information about where they were making progress.

Adopt a leadership style that incorporates constructive questioning. Campus leaders can foster a climate of learning by developing a leadership style that constantly questions institutional operations and the status quo. One president said:

“What has been really successful for me is to sit people down around campus, provide them with data, and ask them troubling questions. Why is it that we can’t keep faculty of color? Why is it that there are no students of color in our science classes? This works particularly well with faculty, but I use it just as often with staff, outside groups, and students. "

Learning from Students
However good their formal data-collection processes were, leaders also needed to get a better understanding of their institutions, and the challenges they faced, by informally collecting information. They all mentioned learning directly from students as one of the most important ways to help students of color succeed. In the words of one president, “I learned, and this institution learned, to support students from diverse backgrounds by spending time interacting with and learning from them.”

Another president talked about how he demonstrated to other campus leaders the value of listening directly to students:

“I have to model this commitment to interacting with and learning from students. I was asked to meet with a group of African-American students, and I knew they were upset about something. Other administrators were telling me not to take the meeting, but I told them it was important to do and invited the other administrators to come as well. There was this really tough-looking guy who was wearing a cap and looking down the whole time. I kept trying to bring him out and make him feel comfortable. Finally he said, “I don’t know if I can do this but, I really have something to say. Can’t we be part of registration and orientation so that we can help the other black students feel more comfortable? Because African-American students find this to be a really isolating process.” This was the first time I learned that these two processes were alienating to students.”