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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

Benefit from external partnerships. It is important to understand the complexities of student experiences, including how they are tied into the community, and to leverage valuable off-campus resources. One leader described her campus’s success in using its external network this way:

“We have students from well over 169 different countries, and we realized that if we didn’t make connections with the community, we would never serve them well. So we made liaisons with community-based organizations. So if you’re Armenian and there is an issue of family relations or counseling, we can connect students with community organizations to help.”

Presidents often created formal advisory boards consisting of business, industry, nonprofit, and government leaders. Receiving input from important constituent groups that are also trying to figure out how to create more inclusive environments helped the organization learn. These external partners encouraged colleges and departments to hire more faculty of color, recruit and retain students of color, and establish mentoring and support programs. Often they even provided resources and people to advance these efforts. As one president noted:

“I was having no luck getting the various schools and colleges to meet their goals–hiring faculty of color and changing the curriculum. In fact, I began to hear stories about resistance emerging. So things were going from bad to worse. That’s when I decided I needed to bring in leaders from business and industry. When engineering companies tell the school of engineering that their faculty is too white, that their graduates are not diverse enough, and that their curriculum is outdated, that really makes a difference. After that, things started to change, and the resistance subsided.”

Use the board. Boards of trustees can play an important role in a diversity initiative. They add legitimacy to the effort and provide important support to presidents and others willing to take risks. One president described how he had worked especially hard to garner his board’s involvement:

“I had the Board of Trustees pass a resolution in support of diversity as an institutional imperative. I’ve been fortunate that my board has embraced our emphasis on diversity, and they are very supportive. They have bought into diversity as a value in a significant way, and I know it has helped us in advancing our agenda, as people on campus see what a significant priority it is for the board. They cannot ignore this initiative, and more people get involved.”

Hold people accountable. Essential to putting ideas to use is being held accountable for doing so. Said one president:

“People can give you plan after plan and show you rhetorical piece after rhetorical piece about how the institution’s heart is in the right place, but that doesn’t mean a damn thing. … I made a point of saying—in a big meeting of campus executives, faculty and staff—that I have no interest in the affirmative-action plan. I am interested in affirmative action.”

In some instances, campuses used their strategic-planning or budgeting processes to create accountability mechanisms. Accreditation self-studies were another vehicle for charting progress, particularly regarding student learning. However, informal means of accountability can also prove powerful. One president told us:

“I met with the deans once a week. The very first meeting, I asked the deans individually how their plans for hiring minority faculty were going, and nobody had much going on. … For that entire year, I asked that same question every single cabinet meeting. Every dean knew that when they went to that meeting, they were going to have to explain, in front of their colleagues, what it was that they were doing. "

Controversy as a Learning Opportunity
Making progress on a campus-wide diversity agenda inevitably brings to the surface tensions and controversies. Most presidents recognized that despite the strain involved, some of the greatest learning and progress on their diversity initiatives resulted from addressing the controversies head on. Controversy helps raise diversity issues above the everyday din of campus life and calls attention to them, thereby providing opportunities to engage the campus broadly. Addressing such conflict creates teachable moments that can build respect and understanding among different groups, as well as demonstrate to students and other interested parties that campus statements of commitment are reinforced through action.

Most presidents had examples of controversy that they were able to leverage, from racially motivated graffiti to inappropriate comments in student newspapers or in e-mails to classroom episodes and attacks on campus affirmative-action policies. Although the specifics varied, a common strategy emerged.

First, these leaders readied the campus for potential conflict before it happened by creating task forces or commissions that were responsible for monitoring incidents, offering programming to address the issues, and reassuring the victims that their concerns would be addressed. Second, they informed the campus soon after a racially motivated incident occurred, thereby signaling that racism would not be tolerated in the academic community. Third, they held campus events to address the issue; in these discussions, data suddenly became salient. Fourth, they met personally with key stakeholders, such as student leaders, parents, and community members. Finally, they put a human face on the consequences of racism on campus by sharing stories and testimonials.