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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

Presidents noted a variety of structures and strategies to ensure that students are heard: student advisory panels, student focus groups, and campus-wide town-hall meetings and retreats. They also intentionally included students, individually or as part of panels, at administrative and faculty retreats and as part of campus working groups and ad-hoc committees. In some instances, these events were specifically about diversity; in others, leaders worked to ensure that diverse student voices were heard on a wide range of campus issues. One president said:

“I learned so much talking with students during the presidential student advisory board that I suggested that each school and college establish an advisory board as well. While I think I was understanding some of the broad issues across campus, each college has its own climate, and I felt it was really necessary for leaders across campus to set up their own mechanisms to understand the student experience. While people were resistant at first, the deans came back to me later and talked about how valuable the boards were. "

Regular interaction and discussion with students from diverse backgrounds is critical for the kind of organizational learning that creates inclusive campus environments.

Acting on New Learning
Institutional leaders must find ways to respond to insights that require institution-wide action by working with a network of stakeholders that has been intentionally developed or that has emerged spontaneously. Organizational learning will not help support students of color unless it is spread among key groups that share responsibility for their success.

The presidents identified six important sets of actors who serve as nodes of support and synergy: faculty, administrators, staff (particularly student-affairs staff), students, boards, and external organizations. In the words of one leader:

“We have to see that we are working together on this. Helping students of color is not the work of the student-affairs division or the academic-affairs division or the institutional research office—or the Board of Trustees, for that matter. We each play a different role, and we need to be working together to support students of color.”

Tap key individuals and support them. Identifying individuals who are already committed to the success of students of color and connecting them to one another helps create a stronger network and synergies among individual efforts. One president described this strategy:

“Early on leaders should do their homework and learn which people are committed to making the college community more diverse. Historically, they have a history of supporting that type of agenda, and that’s where you need to start. These will be the people who serve as advisors to clubs, who serve on your diversity committees, who come to you and try to help you understand the importance of diversity and multiculturalism—those individuals who actually step out front and will lead the campus forward if supported. I’m not just talking about people of color but having individuals from all backgrounds. And then you need to provide them with rewards, celebrate their successes, and provide PR for their efforts. From my vantage point, that’s how we’ve been successful and created a network of support.”

As the presidents pointed out, this population includes both the usual suspects and people one might not easily guess would share those commitments. In some instances, these people were in offices charged to support students of color. But although multicultural and chief campus diversity officers are important, presidents did not place the responsibility solely on them. Rather, they purposely sought the help of other people, particularly faculty, to build the web of support. Finally, some leaders recognized that they didn’t have all of the people they needed or didn’t have them in the right positions. As one noted, “Hiring one or two people with enthusiasm and energy can change a whole division, and you make sure to introduce them to others in the network.”